A Manifesto for Grace: How a Radical Embrace Changes Everything

Grace

Photo Credit: Katie Weilbacher (Creative Commons)

Last Monday, I walked in the door at 9pm, weary from a long day in my psychotherapy office. The kids were already in bed, eyelids heavy but holding out for a “goodnight” from Daddy. My wife was tired but smiling and happy to see me.

And I didn’t want any of it.

I stomped around, tearing open mail, griping about food that wasn’t in the fridge, acting like a serious jerk. And somewhere inside—way down in a quiet place that doesn’t even have words—I knew it. Somehow, this only made it worse.

I waited for the reprisal from my wife. The well-deserved indignation and condemnation. But it wasn’t forthcoming. Instead, she kissed me on the cheek, told me she loved me, and went to bed with the same smile on her face.

I stood alone in the kitchen. Well, not completely alone. I had two companions. My bad mood. And my wife’s grace.

Why Psychotherapy Works

A lot happens in psychotherapy. As therapists, we are trained in methods for reshaping behavior, changing patterns of thought, managing acute anxiety, improving marital communication, processing grief, working through trauma, setting better personal boundaries, increasing organization and efficiency. The list is endless.

But there is one thing we cannot be taught, and yet it is the most essential element of healing. We call it by many names: empathy, acceptance, and my favorite bit of clinical-speak—“unconditional positive regard.” But it all boils down to this:

The therapy room is a pocket of grace in a condemning world.

I know what you’re thinking: “That’s a rip-off. We go to you for change, and the best you can give us is acceptance?! How will anything be redeemed, changed, or improved if we are allowed to stay exactly the way we are?!”

I understand the feeling. I’ve felt it.

But I can tell you now, grace isn’t just acceptance of the status quo. Grace contains the status quo—all of our struggle and pain and mess—and embraces us and values us anyway. Grace demands that nothing be changed for love and connection to thrive.

And that kind of love has the power to change everything about us.

How Grace Changes Everything

In the presence of Grace we are given permission to be our true selves—that “complicated amalgam of mess and beauty, shame and glory.” We can allow ourselves to be fully seen, finally. We reveal our sputtering rage, anguished tears, petrified fear, crudest and rudest sentiment, most bizarre interest, or deepest embarrassment.

And then we look up.

And Grace looks back. It isn’t cringing or horrified or judging or saying in a reasonable tone, “Well, once we figure that out and change it, then you and I can get along alright.” Grace looks back with a calm admiration, maybe even a smile in its eyes, and it says, “There you are, I’ve been waiting for you and you’re welcome here. All of you. You are beloved.”

When Grace grants us this kind of permission to be fully known, we experience our beauty in the midst of our mess, and we no longer have to push our darkness back down beneath layers of shame. 

This is the brilliance of the radical embrace that is Grace: it welcomes our darkness, inviting it into the light. And then Grace insists on doing nothing to it, knowing that it doesn’t have to, because if our darkness is not pushed back down into the murky depths, it cannot survive for long in the light.

In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”

A Grace-Embraced Jerk

I stood in the kitchen with my bad mood and my wife’s grace. And the brilliance of her love quickly became clear. If she had attacked, my defense would have only rooted me deeper in my surly mood. Instead, she had given me acceptance in the midst of my anger, the space to feel it and experience the fullness of my true self.

I still felt grumpy, but I discovered there was something else there inside of me: I wanted to apologize.

I went up to the bedroom and told her I was sorry, and her response was quick and her continued grace was like a bright-hot sun, evaporating the remainder of my mood: “You had a long day, you’re allowed to be in a bad mood, and you’re a good man, I knew you’d apologize.” My wife embraced me as good and valuable, even in the midst of my darkness.

My grumpy night was over.

Finding Pockets of Grace

And the healing power of Grace does not stop there.

It doesn’t just end with the embrace of our darkness.

When we find pockets of grace in this world—and we must find them, in our marriages or friendships or families or churches or psychotherapy offices—when our true self is invited to the surface, we discover all sorts of beautiful things entwined with our darkness. Like dragging the ocean floor and coming up with a bunch of seaweed. And some invaluable pearls.

As grace calls the true self forth, we discover magnificent parts of us, passions built into us, a purpose sewn into our DNA. Our identity is washed clean and we begin to see ourselves for what we are: each one of us potential creators of beauty, order, and abundance.

We take the Grace inside of us, and it becomes our guide:

We no longer dismiss our ability to contribute in loving ways to a crumbling world. And we quit lucrative jobs and risk our family’s financial security to earn a teaching degree. We trade in fear for boldness, and we put our ideas and our creativity out into the world. We quit spending all of our time at the office and we invest in our children. We stop drinking and we start coaching and leading.

We stop waiting for perfection and we start believing we are beloved and we invite everyone else into the embrace. We become gracious losers and merciful friends and grateful servants.

Perhaps it is time to quit seeking change and to begin seeking grace. And when you lean into the embrace, you will discover that your frantic effort to become someone else is replaced by a blessed peace with being you. Finally.

QuestionsHow have you experienced grace? In what ways did it change you? Share your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of this post.  

Dear Reader, If you haven’t had enough of “manifestos,” my new eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down is now available. There are two ways to get a copy. First, new blog subscribers will receive a free PDF copy. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe, and your subscription confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Second, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook. As always, thank you for reading; it’s a gift. Sincerely, Kelly

Preview: This Friday’s post will be entitled, “One Word That Will Transform Your Year”

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • RMM

    I confess an addiction to Untangled, Kelly. It used to be I woke up and made a cup of tea before ANYTHING else. Now I look for and read your blog. Amazing!

    • Jennifer Newell

      I so agree with you. I look so forward to it.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks for this early comment today. When it came through, it was a MUCH needed moment of grace in my morning!

  • Deborah Suess Weaver

    …….. Beautiful things entwined in the darkness…… Pockets of grace ….. You’re welcome here–all of you…. I am SO grateful yo have some people in my life who are grace full. I wonder, do you think the gift giving grace is a gift or can it be cultivated. I want to be a “pocket of grace.”

    • drkellyflanagan

      Deborah, I absolutely think it can be cultivated. Ironically, I think one of the ways we first cultivate it is by extending it to ourselves. I wonder if others have ways they cultivate grace-giving?

      • Carrie Gillett

        I first cultivated it by receiving it when others offered it to me. In receiving it, it has become a part of me. I was then able to extend grace to myself. Now I extend it to others. It is interesting that the more I am open to giving and receiving grace, the more I am challenged. In my most recent time of stretching, I looked at God and said, “Really? Even now you want me to extend grace?” It was confirmed and I offered grace. The response from this person was immediate and profound.

        In this journey of mine, I am seeing that the power of unconditional love and grace is incredible. I’m also realizing that it is time to set aside the last of this hurt from my husband, to extend grace to him and thereby bridge the gap that I have been looking for help from books and couples’ counselors to bridge. Grace heals. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to write my way to this point.

        • drkellyflanagan

          Thanks for sharing it with us, Carrie.

  • Candice Marquette

    I appreciate how you share the stories of your “everyday” life. I had the misconception that any psychologist/counselor/psychotherapist would always have their behavior and responses in control. Like thinking how Rachel Ray must never make a bad dish. It’s refreshing. Grace-my favorite slice of grace is when I sit near the ocean so your story of the seaweed and peals is perfect. Your wife sounds like a keeper!!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks for this, Candice. I think I’m going to write a post to dispel that very myth. I appreciate the little extra encouragement to do so. The ocean really is Grace, isn’t it?

  • Carrie Gillett

    Wow! That is my reaction to grace. You described my experience with psychotherapy. Grace has set me free; It has made me whole. I long to pass it on. I teach piano, but the families I work with have found grace in my studio and they are passing it on. The grace I have found in psychotherapy and the things that happen in my studio have led me back to school to major in psychology. I long to give others the gift of grace that has been given to me.

    I stick my finger down my throat and gag at the term “unconditional positive regard”. It is Love – unconditional Love, real Love, agape Love.

    I want to be okay without my therapist. I’m trying to go longer between sessions, but I promised the little girl inside me that I would be gentle with her. So I am learning to give myself grace as well, the grace to still need therapy.

    Thank God for Grace!

    • Jennifer Newell

      I think therapy is a good thing. I dont have an problem going back any time I need too. Most of the time it is so the garbage and lies in my head do not effect my life. I need someone else to hear it and help me to question it.

    • drkellyflanagan

      I like that, “the grace to still need therapy.” The irony of course is that when you have mastered that, you will no longer need it! : )

  • anne

    Thank you for that. I like the idea of searching for grace vs. searching for change :->

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re welcome, Anne! Let me know how I do in balancing the two in Friday’s post. 🙂

  • Jennifer Newell

    Well, all I can say is Wow! I am certain when my husband reads this he will not necessarily know that he has been the pocket of Grace in my life. I would not have been able to put it into words like you did but the feeling you describe is the same. Three years ago I started a project at work that required travel. In the beginning it was only a week every 2 months. During that time I would cook ahead and put meals in the freezer to make it easier for him to keep up with his job and the kids’ activities. But then the travel changed and I had to be gone more often and the hours I was working were long even when I was at home. As you can imagine my prep before I left town to help my husband became less and eventually stopped all together. Looking back I can see little by little I was checking out of my life and was fully plugged into my job. My husband in the 2 years of this project never once complained about me being gone or that I was not helping around the house. It was amazing the amount of grace he showed me as well as love and support. I grew so tired of it all and was struggling to keep up the pace. The entire time he was there to support me and to help me to get the rest I needed to then be able to start the next leg of the trip. He took care of the kids, the house and even made sure I had a ride to and from the airport. Even with all he had on his plate he was still true to himself, by nature he can be over protective. Then right in most critical time of the project I got very sick and after a CT scan I was told I needed surgery. So here I was less than 2 weeks away from surgery and my concern was to make sure that my surgery and recovery time would not impact to the project that was just months away from delivery. The week prior to surgery, I traveled and to spend face time with a member of our team to transition my work just in case I did not get back after the 3 week expected recovery. The entire time my husband understood and was supportive of everything I needed to do. Several people asked me if I was sure I wanted to travel. They thought I might want to spend the week with my family. I just wanted to be sure the project would not be impacted and that I had done all I could not to be the cause of it failing. I am not certain if I would never have the ability to show that much grace and compassion in the same manner my husband did. He understood me so well that he knew I needed to get my work covered for me to be able to then take care of me.
    My AH HA moment like yours in the kitchen did not occur until after I woke up from surgery to discover there were complications and the recovery time would be much longer than the expected 3 weeks. It was during that recovery time that I slowed down enough to start to deal with myself. It was hard to realize all I have missed. My husband continued to take care of me. I was humbled to know I could be loved like that. Here after 2 long years of being checked out of my home life due to being a workaholic, I was again on the side lines watching as my husband continued to step up and step in and care for our kids and keeping our household going. I had plenty of time to think about my choices and to see how I had not been there for him or my kids, the way I really wanted to be there. I remember asking him why he did not yell or get mad about me being gone all the time. His response was usually something along the lines of, “How would that have made things any different? You would still be gone and on top of the stress for work you would feel worse about not being at home.” I am blessed to be loved by a man who is very gracious to me and as a result I can be at peace and know I am accepted flaws and all. I strive to show him the same but I am still a work in progress.
    I would say that the most moving part was how he helped me to navigate back into our family. He was willing to relinquish the responsibility of things and to let me take back some of the things he had been doing quite well for some time. But it was a slow and gradual change, as usual he wanted to be sure I was healthy enough and not push myself too much.
    After reading this today, I feel like I need to go apologize again. So you touched a nerve for me. How humbling it is to know you are loved for being you, warts and all. I think it does change you and there is a peace that you feel knowing you are good enough just the way you are.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Your husband is Grace personified, Jennifer. Thank you for sharing this with us!

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  • Marine

    I loved this article, dr. Kelly but I have to ask how do I apply this to a spouse who continues in an affair and has let go of our marriage? It seems like everytime I offer grace, and want to accept him as he is he rejects and blames me for the failure of our marriage.

    • drkellyflanagan

      This is a very difficult question and one of the first that often arises in relation to Grace, because Grace is often viewed as intricately intertwined with Justice. I can say three things here I think. First, I am very sorry for your situation. Second, I don’t know enough about it specifically to offer customized advice and I would strongly encourage you to meet with a counselor. Finally, we have to remember that grace is not something we only extend to others. We must extend it to ourselves, as well. In fact, we should extend it equally to ourselves and others. When you are doing that, you might discover you already know the answer to your question.

  • Vicky Everitt

    I wish more people realised the power grace has in bringing about change and therefore applied it more, as opposed to casting judgement and ‘prescribing’ strategies/solutions.

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  • Mary Spiegel

    I knew I was not acting the way I wanted to act and asked for help, but didn’t get grace. I have been grateful, but have not received grace, and I continued to make mistakes. I hope I can still get it. I am sad.

  • Ginny

    I have come to this article almost 2 years after it was written. Thank you. It has given me some clarity on what empathy is and how to give it, something I have been trying to learn for several years now. I struggle with that, but I like your term: “unconditional positive regard.” Yes, it is really unconditional love as Carrie posted, but that term helps me to understand how to unconditionally love someone even if I don’t agree with the person. I can communicate acceptance of him and his feelings without agreeing with him. This, hopefully, will help me empathize with people with whom I do not agree. (My key hindrance in empathizing- I don’t agree with the person-from another post of yours-5 Hindrances in Empathy…)
    I now have a little better understanding and want to thank you for taking the time to write these articles.