Why Grace is Free and We Still Don’t Buy It

Grace seems too good to be true. Complete acceptance and love and belonging? A sense of worth and beauty in all of our mess? It seems way too easy. The truth is, grace is that easy. But we aren’t. Grace is not in short supply. But people who know how to receive it are

Stubborn little girl

Photo Credit: Andres Rodriguez (Creative Commons)

The temper tantrum began with a simple request to clean his room. My five-year-old inherited his strong will from his parents, and the situation was quickly moving from disorder to chaos.

Objects were pelting the inside of his bedroom door as he went into full meltdown.

As the din ceased, I cautiously opened the door. The look on his face told me he was already punishing himself more than I ever could. So, instead of consequence, I decided to embody my image of grace: I opened up my arms and offered him my love.

He picked up a Lego and hurled it at me.

And it occurred to me: I was wrong about grace.

Grace Makes Our Skin Crawl

I’ve written about Grace as a radical embrace, but it may not be that simple. If Grace were simply an embrace, then receiving it would be as easy as standing still while it wraps us in its love. But receiving Grace is much more complicated. Because most of us are deeply resistant to the presence of Grace in our lives.

Grace can make our skin crawl.

Because we believe the lies we have swallowed about ourselves.

We have been lured into a deception: we focus on the disappointing places within us and we completely miss the beautiful landscapes of our heart. We are fully indoctrinated into a belief in our own filth and worthlessness, and stories of our infinite value sound like a fairytale. We think we are standing on dry land, and all the while we are swimming in our shame. 

We swallow the shame-full lies, and we come to the obvious conclusion: Grace is a fiction

We think we should be groveling for every crumb from the table, and the abundance of Grace simply cannot be trusted. We believe Grace is a hoax: it’s trying to dupe us, it’s angling for something, and we will be forever indebted and controlled. If we buy in and it’s not real, we will feel violated to our core. 

Daddy Throws Legos

Last month, my wife was out of the country for ten days. I faced ten days of being a single, working dad. I felt lonely and overwhelmed.

I mentioned my predicament to a group of friends, and before I knew what was happening, I had offers from four different families to help with my kids in ten different ways.

And I wanted to throw up.

Grace was before me. Smiling, offering, present in my dark time. And every impulse in me said to keep my arms folded in front of me. It is so difficult to trust Grace is real, it’s eagerness to be with us is genuine, and it doesn’t come with a big price tag or a heavy debt. It’s so hard to believe in.

I felt like a five-year-old, throwing Legos into the face of Love.

Why I Was Wrong About Grace

The truth is, Grace doesn’t insist on an embrace. It’s too gentle for that. It won’t smother us with a big hug we don’t want and can’t receive. It doesn’t force or coerce. It’s not simply an embrace.

Grace is a radical Presence.

Grace is the Love that remains with us when we can’t imagine remaining with ourselves. Grace is the commitment to being there, regardless of who we are, or how we act, or the way we react to it. Grace is the Daddy waiting outside the bedroom door always, ready to give love when it can be received. Grace is the group of friends saying, “We are here, we won’t leave you when you feel weak.”

Grace is a radical Presence, which means we must embrace it. We must open the blinds of our hearts and let the light in. And sometimes that can feel almost impossible to do. It may be the hardest work of our lives.

Grace on the Horizon

But I believe it is the work of our lives.

It is the single most important thing we will do while we inhabit this big-spinning rock. We must learn to open our arms to Grace. Even when it feels like the Jaws of Life will be required to pry our arms wide.

My heart quickens as I think about a world of people fighting to embrace Grace, fighting to embrace the Light that will annihilate our darkness.

I picture a land of people, trembling cold in the chilly-dark hours before dawn. I picture us standing like an army of the beloved, facing the eastern horizon. I picture us courageous and gutsy, as the sun begins to peak above the edge of the earth, sweaty-browed and fighting like mad to open our rusty-stuck arms. I picture a world full of people, arms flying open in unison as the sun crests the horizon, ready to receive the Grace of another day and to embrace a world saturated by the light of Love.

I picture a world like this.

And I hope.

A Grace Received

So I stand outside the bedroom door and I wait. A slow creak signals the door swinging wide and my son stands there in silhouette. He steps forward and the light hits his face just so, and his chin quivers and his eyes are tender and his arms are open. 

And the embrace is mutual

And this Daddy realizes, “You learn to receive Grace by being it.” You embrace Love only after becoming It. 

And my hope turns into belief.

Questions: What makes it hard for you to trust Grace? What untruth have you inherited? Share your experience, or any other thoughts, in the comments section at the bottom of this post.     

Dear Reader, Grace is an indispensable ingredient in forming rebellious marriages. Read about it in my new eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down. There are two ways to get a copy. 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

PreviewThere will be no mid-week post next week. The next post will be on Friday, February 8, and the working title is, “Why Deep Down We All Want to be a Loser.”

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.

  • Jennifer Newell

    You have a God given gift. This was so amazing. Truly touched my heart.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Jenn. And I have to add, I have incredibly wise people around me: comments from a friend and my wife yesterday completely changed the post.

  • Sue O’Donnell

    In both giving and receiving grace, we are required to let go of our power. Your little guy threw one more Lego – it was hard to admit his powerlessness and humble himself to your grace. You also had to let go of your power over him, humble yourself and offer grace.
    During your time alone with the children, you wanted to be powerful enough to not need help. Admitting your powerlessness and accepting grace from your friends asked you to be humble.
    True grace is both humbly offered and humbly received.

    • drkellyflanagan

      This is a great observation, Sue. “True grace is both humbly offered and humbly received.” This will shape my thinking about Grace. Thank you!

  • Mike Mondejar

    What makes it hard for me to accept grace is that I feel I need to pay it back to that person. Even though I know they don’t expect me too. thank you for making me realize that.

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re welcome, Mike! I think much of life is about surrounding ourselves with the kinds of people we can trust aren’t expecting “payback.” May you have much success in that regard!

  • Lisa Bartelt

    I was just thinking about grace this week, remembering a time I slept through my alarm and was late getting into work. I was a deadline editor for a newspaper, so in my mind, every minute I was late was another minute lost and a better chance that we wouldn’t make deadline. I was beating myself up the whole 25 minutes it took me to drive to work. I expected to be yelled at and shamed. I flew in the door and hurriedly put together my portion of the morning meeting. My boss came over to my desk and gently said, “Take your time. Get settled. We’ll be ready when you are.” I apologized over and over again to my other boss, and he said, “Why are you sorry? You think none of us has ever overslept before.” I learned something about grace that day. When you’ve been given grace, you’re more likely to give grace. I don’t think I’d given much grace before that day. And I was holding myself to this perfection standard that no one else was holding me to. Grace doesn’t demand or expect perfection. Thanks for these words. Great illustrations.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you for this poignant example, Lisa! Dang, there are a lot of people out there wishing they had a boss like that. : )

  • Catharine Phillips

    In our family we have the principle of allowing someone to bounce the ball one more time (after they have been told not to bounce the ball). I think I will add allowing someone to throw one more Lego (at me), and then to wait in the hall for what comes next. Thank you for the image. I remember throwing wire coat hangers on my linoleum bedroom floor when I was growing up. No legos then.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Grace as “one more bounce” is a good image, too, Catharine. Thanks!

  • Dennis Baker

    whew

  • Carrie Gillett

    I didn’t get “You learn Grace by being it. You embrace Love only after becoming it.” In a sense, we cannot know those things without them having been given to us and our receiving them. Yesterday, after two weeks of struggle from having been hurtfully confronted by my therapist, I let go of all the hurt. I saw the whole relationship and I gave her the grace to be imperfect. It’s been so much easier to do for my children. This is giving me a whole new light on being grace. I am embracing it in a whole new way.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Carrie, This is an important comment, one that points the way to another blog post. Thank you! The last section was definitely under-articulated. I was thinking of this scenario: someone who has never received much grace nevertheless is fiercely determined to give grace to someone in their life, whether its a spouse or a child or a pet, etc. They are then confronted with their double standard: I don’t believe I am worthy of grace or that grace even exists, and yet here I am giving it to someone I love. Therefore, I’m living something I profess not to believe in. If I can now admit grace does exist because I give it to others, what I must now confront is my double standard, that I don’t think I’m worthy of it myself. Once I confront that, and begin to courageously open myself to it, I will begin to receive more grace. And then the growth of grace in our lives becomes exponential. Or maybe this is all a chicken and egg argument and not terribly important. What do you think?

      • Carrie Gillett

        Before getting to the end of this comment I thought, “Wow! You are giving me a lot to chew on!” So, I do believe it’s important. Chicken and the egg? In a way. Is it important which came first. I don’t believe so. Is what happens, whether it be first or second, important? Absolutely! Is the conversation important? Yes.
        I thought I gave grace in the past. But I didn’t really know it since I had not received it. (Not that it hadn’t been offered. Or perhaps I hadn’t felt the depth of my depravity yet.) After receiving it, I know it more intimately and thus can give it on a deeper level. Having given it on a deeper level…

        • drkellyflanagan

          I do enjoy this conversation, Carrie, thanks! And I love the idea of giving and receiving grace as a process by which we come to know it more intimately. Great food for thought!

  • Fooledbyu

    Grace is a free gift, but it wasn’t free to the giver. This giver gave His life that you and I and to whosoever would believe and receive can receive and share.
    You can’t be grace by giving it because it’s not yours to give. You didn’t pay the price for it and nor could you or I or anyone else, but the Giver. Dare I say the name of Jesus Christ? I do. We can only share it!