Last week, a friend in an email wrote, "Thank you for giving me grace." I've heard that phrase a thousand and one times, but for some reason it continued ringing in my mind for several days after. My friend was referring to something itty bitty, something that hadn't required much from me other than a small favor. Had I really given her grace? Perhaps. But perhaps not.
The phrase stuck with me because I've actually been thinking about this for a while now: What do we mean when we say "give grace"? What do we mean when we say that we need to learn to "give grace to ourselves" or "give grace to our children"? Grace is a word we often throw around but struggle to define. We celebrate and extol it, but I think we also misunderstand it, especially when it comes to giving grace to others.
This is what I think we often mean when we say we should give grace: that we give free passes. Oftentimes we're not even talking about spiritual matters. We're equating letting someone see our messy house with them "giving us grace". But when it is actually applied to spiritual matters, I think we tend to lean toward the belief that "giving grace" means never pressing, never holding a line of truth or calling someone away from the cliff of self-destruction. We have a difficult time reconciling grace and truth, even though these are the exact adjectives used to describe our Christ in John 1:14.
This inability to reconcile grace and truth is primarily our culture talking. Our culture scoffs at the idea of calling someone to account or of love being anything other than a no-matter-what acceptance. Culture is infiltrating our understanding of grace, and is thereby stealing away its profound meaning and explosive power.
Grace isn't a free pass that allows us to throw off all restraint under the guise of Christ. Grace, the unmerited favor of God poured out on us by our faith in Christ, is a compelling change agent that, when received, teaches us how to live. Tim Keller says, "The gospel devours the very motivation you have for sin. It completely saps your very need and reason to live any way you want. Anyone who insists the gospel encourages us to sin has simply not understood it yet, nor begun to feel it's power."
There is a difference between a free pass and grace. A free pass says, "I see your sin, friend, and will not call it what it is but will ignore it." We often call this love, when really it is a love of self. A free pass is easier than the temporary, self-inflicted pain of bringing up a difficult subject with a friend.
God says, in his grace toward us, "I see your sin. I name your sin specifically to you through conviction of the Holy Spirit, because I have made a way for your specific sin to be dealt with at the cross of Christ. You don't have to cover it or ignore it or try to deal with it on your own. You have an avenue to be free of your sin: confess and repent and you will be forgiven and cleansed. Not only that, but I will help you change."
Grace looks directly at sin and points it out specifically because of love. God loves us enough to pull us out of the pit of sin, to discipline us, to prune us, to give us joy instead of bondage and despair. This love He has for us is what makes grace so powerful: the favor of the Almighty is given to us so richly that it compels us to present ourselves to Him as instruments of righteousness. Grace changes us.
So what does it mean to "give grace to one another"? It primarily means that we see one another as new creations in Christ, and we recognize the grace we received at salvation is continuing its work as a change agent in our lives (Phil. 1:6). In other words, we're all in process. That is, however, not another way of saying "free pass". It is a call for us as individuals and as the church to engage the process God Himself has given us: looking at sin rather than ignoring it (like God), calling it what it is with gentleness and truth (like God), reminding our friends of the path of confession and repentance available to them (like God), cheerleading alongside as our friends change (unlike God, because He actually leads the changing), and doing it all out of intimate relationships and deep love for one another (like God).
Galatians 6:1-2 gives us a picture of a Spirit-led grace-giver: "Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ."
This is what it means to give grace to one another.
This kind of grace-giving doesn't delight in calling out sin and isn't prideful about being a truth-teller. This is a person deeply committed to the spiritual vitality of others and deeply attuned to their own spiritual poverty without Christ. There is humility, a willingness to go the extra mile for others, a devotion to the family of God. And, perhaps most importantly, a grace-giver has positioned herself to receive from friends the very same truth and grace that she is committed to giving.
How often are we cheating our friends of spiritual growth because we are giving a free pass instead of actually giving grace?
How often, I dare ask, are we cheating ourselves when we want the free pass from friends rather than the truth and grace that asks us to change?
Let us, dear friends, truly give (and receive) grace.