POSTED ON JUNE 6, 2012:
Receiving grace without conditions
In 1862, French poet, playwright and novelist Victor Hugo released his magnum opus Les Miserables, considered one of the greatest novels of the 19th century. In 1998, Hugo's masterpiece found its cinematic zenith in the Bille August-directed film of the same name.
In both adaptions, one scene stands out above the rest. A scene filled with something that is radically counter-intuitive to our sensibilities as human beings. A scene that is an echo of something much greater that we desperately need.
At the beginning of the movie, we meet ex-convict Jean Valjean who has just been released from a 19-year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. Trying to get on his feet, Valjean attempts to find a place to live, but no one will take him in -- except for one: Bishop Myriel.
It doesn't take long for Valjean's old temptation to rear its ugly head. When everyone is asleep one night, Valjean goes to the cupboard and pilfers some of the bishop's silver. He makes a run for it but is eventually caught red-handed. The police bring him before the bishop.
Here is Valjean, standing before the bishop, being held by the police. Intense is an understatement. The bishop looks at the police and proclaims something extraordinary. He says that he gave the silver to Valjean as a gift.
If that isn't enough, the bishop goes over to the mantelpiece, takes two silver candlesticks and says that actually more silver had been forgotten by Valjean. He places the candlesticks in Valjean's hands. The police have no choice but to let Valjean go free. The story doesn't end there.
After the authorities leave, the bishop looks at Valjean and says this to him: "Now, go in peace. By the way, my friend, when you come again, you needn't come through the garden. You can always come and go by the front door. It is only closed with a latch, day or night."
Did you catch that? The bishop not only gave him mercy by forgetting the original crime and letting him keep the silver he stole, he also gave him more mercy by giving him more silver. And then, he gave him even more mercy by giving him the best gift of all: his trust.
I know the first time I saw this scene, I thought, "Valjean doesn't deserve this -- he deserves to be punished!" But that isn't what the bishop gave Valjean, did he? He lavished his mercy upon an underserving criminal who was out to take something very precious from him.
The bishop does something so radically counter-intuitive to us. Something that feels so unnatural to us. He gave him unconditional grace.
So why does this feel strange to us? Why does the bishop's move leave such a bad taste in our mouths? Well, I have a theory. I think the reason we resist no-strings-attached mercy is because we live in a society based on conditions.
When you look at the world around us, isn't that the message we perceive? Everything in our culture demands a trade of some kind. You do this for me, I'll do this for you. You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.
Or, we may go this route. If I achieve this, then and only then will I receive meaning. If I accomplish this, then and only then will I receive security. If I can pull this off, then and only then will I receive respect.
And that's why we like conditions -- it keeps us in control. I know that is why I like them. If I know that if I perform this formula and it will result in that result, I'll pursue it because I get to grip the steering wheel. Conditions make sense to us. Do this and that happens.
But unconditionality -- we just can't seem to wrap our minds around that. It doesn't' make any sense to us. We are so acclimated to conditionality because we are told in this world in a myriad of ways that there is always a catch.
We impose this upon God as well. We think that in order for God to truly extend his mercy to us, we have to give him back something in return. We feel like we owe him something, right?
So we resort to spiritual checklists because they feel much safer. If we can complete our spiritual "to do" list, it gives us the illusion that things are good between God and us because we have played a part in it.
But God's grace isn't conditional and that is why it messes with us. It's unreserved. It's not a back-and-forth, two-way love. God's grace is always one-way love.
There is a great quote from an old, stodgy Lutheran theologian I love -- Gerhard Forde -- who describes it this way: "The gospel ... is such a shocker ... because it is an absolutely unconditional promise. It is not an 'if-then' kind of statement, but a 'because-therefore' pronouncement: because Jesus died and rose, your sins are forgiven and you are righteous in the sight of god! It bursts in upon our little world all shut up and barricaded behind our accustomed conditional thinking as some strange comet from goodness-knows-where."
Forde continues: "How can it be entirely unconditional? Isn't it terribly dangerous? How can anyone say flat out, "you are righteous for Jesus' sake?" Is there not some price to be paid, something (however minuscule) to be done? After all, there can't be such thing as a free lunch, can there?
Forde's right. That's exactly what we do with God's grace. We put conditions on it. We take a "yes grace but" position. We think there is something that has to be done on our end. There can't just be free grace for the taking, can there?
The last words that Jesus spoke before he gave us his spirit on the cross were three words we need to massage into our hearts. "It is finished." There is no more work for us to do. In Christ, we are completely accepted. We are completely loved. In full. The work is done.
Grace announces that Jesus met all of God's conditions on our behalf so that God's mercy towards us could be unreserved.
That's the beauty of grace. It requires no work on our part. In Jesus, we can be forgiven. We can be made clean. We don't earn it -- we simply receive it because it's free.
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