Before I begin, I need to make sure that you’ve read Part One of this series. If you haven’t, please do so, and as you read Part Two, please keep those big ideas in mind moving forward.
In my previous post in this series of discussions, I stated that the resulting implication for a Christian who has taken on this altruistic, other-oriented, attitudinal love that I talked about before, and the call from Christ to fulfill his law of love, is the move from perceiving life in terms of rights and entitlements to perceiving life in terms of gifts and graces. This is an ancient idea that was first articulated by the writers of the New Testament, re-articulated by the great church fathers and mothers, and finally, repeated by historic Christian teaching ever since. When we take seriously the sort of love known and practiced by Christians in response to Christ’s love for us, we have no other option but to see everything we experience—the bad as well as the good—as gifts. We thus receive everything we experience with thankfulness and acceptance. Because he had learned this truth of the Christian life of loving relationship, Paul was able to express his profound experience: “…I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”
Christ strengthens us to receive the joy of our salvation in spite of our situation. Thus, we can take what is meant for evil and put it to good use. Take Christian forgiveness as an example. Christian forgiveness is a uniquely Christian idea and is, by definition, completely foreign to the systems of this world. Think about how you have experienced forgiving someone. Our culture mandates that the person to be forgiven is first repentant of whatever wrong he or she has inflicted upon you. It is taken for granted that the offender must apologize in order for forgiveness to be offered. Even the “official” (read cultural) definition of forgiveness involves the giving up of one’s claim to reprisal. But Christian forgiveness (genuine forgiveness) actually precedes repentance entirely—and it must do so if we are to conceive of a forgiveness that is not logically self-contradictory! We treat forgiveness as though it was some sort of contract in our culture: If I apologize, you’re obligated to forgive me; if I don’t apologize, you can forgive me if you choose, but you’re not under any obligation to do so. But forgiveness is not some sort of contract. Forgiveness demands no conditions, even the offensive act that gives rise to the whole notion of forgiveness in the first place. Why? Forgiveness is a manifestation of the love I talked about in my previous post—that altruistic, other-oriented, attitudinal love of Christ. As such, the possibility of forgiveness is inherent in the relational dynamic that exists in any system in which persons are able to wrong one another. The very act of repentance implies, logically, that the possibility of forgiveness exists in the context of that relationship prior to both the repentance and the offense! As a manifestation of love, forgiveness provides no acknowledgement of the existence of its withholding. In other words, the idea of withholding forgiveness is an oxymoron! Forgiveness is therefore given. It is, by definition, a gift, and it is offered regardless of either the offending person’s recalcitrance or the offended person’s pretention. It is for this reason that Scripture intimates, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
I say all this about forgiveness in order to illustrate the metanarrative of gift. In other words, the Christian worldview sees the individual person as having no rights at all, let alone entitlements! We have forfeited our rights in pledging our fidelity to our Master, Jesus Christ. We can no longer claim any rights—even human rights—whatsoever! Everything is now a gift for those who are in Christ Jesus! Both the good and the bad. It can be horrendously difficult to see the grace God imparts to us through the instrumental means of extraordinarily difficult times. Even when I was in Iraq, every bullet that passed inches from my body, every mortar round that left my ears ringing, was an instrument of grace in my life, a gift of grace from God in which I experienced His love offered to me. It was difficult to see it at the time, but looking back on those experiences now, I see what good it has wrought in my life to soften my heart, to deepen my empathy and compassion, so that I can love others, even those enemies of mine who shot those bullets and mortar rounds at me.
Everything is a gift. I shared the following quote in a recent sermon which I think bears repeating at this point. In his book, Grace upon Grace, Gregory Neal writes, “In short, there are many different means of grace. While some of the them are certainly more familiar than others, one of the fundamental claims of Sacramental Theology is that anything which serves to convey the love and favor, the real divine presence of our Lord Jesus Christ to the believer can be understood as a means of grace. This is true for the traditional instruments – the sacraments and the other sacramental acts which have been institutionalized by the Church over the past two thousand years – as well as for what would appear to be the simple, mundane elements of our everyday living. A cup of water or a hot meal can be a means of grace to a person who has neither. A jacket, a hug, and a kind word, or even just a pleasant smile, can all serve as instruments through which someone in need, loneliness, or despair might receive the grace which God so earnestly desires to give. Anything can be a means of grace.
Indeed, I am convinced that everything is a means of grace. This goes for both good things and bad things, good experiences and bad experiences, good feelings and bad feelings, joys and pains in and through all things, God’s grace can be found if only we have the eyes of faith to look and see. As St. Paul said:
‘We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.’
This doesn’t mean that everyone, in every circumstance, will see, know, and receive God’s grace. Quite the contrary, particularly in the midst of painful experiences it can be difficult to comprehend the presence of God in all things. The pain can be so great that even a well-honed discernment cannot apprehend God’s presence in such difficult times… And, yet, even amidst the evils of this life, even through the tears and the pain that can come with living, God can still be discerned and grace can still be received even when it is not known or felt to be present at the time.”
If this ancient Christian idea that everything is a gift is to be accepted—and it should be by any serious Christian on the basis of the testimony of Scripture, if not on the basis of the historic teaching of the Christian church—then we must accept as gifts everything we receive and everything we experience. We must be a truly thankful people, a people of genuine and elemental gratitude.
Now, let’s discern some of the implications of this gratitude. If we are grateful to God for every breath we breathe, moment by moment, why should we demand anything of God? We should instead find ourselves humbled and profoundly thankful that God should take us into consideration at all! We may be able to begin to draw out some of the implications by reading the book of Job in light of this idea of gratitude. Especially consider Job’s challenge to God at the end of the book, and consider God’s response. I ask that you do this, because the implications of the gratitude I’m talking about here are not easy to swallow. It has taken me about two years to come around to the idea, so I can only imagine that others might need some time for their hearts to be softened to the truth that everything is a gift. Give it some time. For some of you, I anticipate that you’ll readily assent to this claim. For others of you, I anticipate that you’ll resist it like oil mixed in water. Either way, it can’t hurt to take the time to imbibe this idea and to start learning to respond to everything in life out of gratitude.