Surprised by Grace

Jul 08, 2011 |David Barshinger

A free computer hints at a too-often-overlooked grace greater than we can imagine.  

I walked into my first journalism class. Run of the mill stuff, I figured — an introduction to the course, an explanation of the syllabus, and a "tell me something unique about yourself?" question. I breathed a sigh of relief when the professor asked us to answer get-to-know-you questions on a blank sheet of paper. I didn't have a story like the girl who spoke seven languages fluently or the guy who visited every continent by age 10.

As she asked the questions, I scratched each of my responses — born in York, PA; married; second semester; hope to use writing for ministry. Then she asked if we had a laptop computer.

Oh great, I thought. I didn't know a laptop was required for this course. I can't afford that on top of books, tuition, and course fees.

I scribbled "No."

We handed her our papers and took a short break. When we returned, the professor talked to us about studying magazines and sent us to the library to peruse periodicals. As students left for the library, she called me and another student over.

The prof wants to see me already? I wondered.

She explained that she read our information sheets and saw neither of us had laptops.

Here we go. Off to the Registrar's Office to find another class.

But instead of sending us away, she said something I never expected. "I'm giving you both a free laptop."

Fifteen minutes later in the library, she handed me a laptop, no charge. I was stunned.

I sat in the study carrel and held my head in my hands. Certainly someone else deserved it more. Why me?

Only one word could explain it: Grace.

Grace That Is Greater

I didn't deserve the laptop, but in the gift I saw a picture of God, who longs to give blessings to people who deserve a curse.

We see these people on the news. An executive commits fraud, leaving hundreds of employees without jobs or retirement. A mother drowns her children. Do such people deserve anything good?

We hear their testimonies in church. Addicted to drugs. A prostitute for 15 years. An abusive father. These people did nothing to earn favor, but still received grace.

And we see them in the mirror. Not one of us deserves good gifts. Not you. Not me.

Even as a Christian, I wrestle with sin, struggling each day to follow Christ. I fume at a reckless motorcyclist. I gaze with one eye at a billboard. I avoid my neighbor next door. What do I deserve for my behavior? What have I earned?

Nothing but death. Even our best deeds fall short; God compares them to a "polluted garment" (Isaiah 64:6, ESV). Actually, the Hebrew words in Isaiah 64:6 for "polluted garment" mean "menstrual rags." In other words, when we try our best, when we think we're creating a beautifully ornamented wedding dress, we're actually drenching a dirty rag in our own bloody discharge. No wonder our English Bibles translate the terms as "polluted garment"; this language paints a picture with gruesome strokes. But this language also leaves no doubt about our hopeless condition apart from God.

Yet the Father's grace overcomes all our sin and failure — and only at great cost to Himself, the life of His Son, Jesus Christ. He who deserves all glory "made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant," humbling Himself to the point of death (Phil 2:7–8, ESV). God "made him who had no sin to be sin for us" — people whose wills consistently pursue courses contrary to God — "so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor 5:21, NIV).

Do we deserve it? Not for a millisecond. Yet God's love propels His grace toward us, grace which, as Philip Yancey explains, means there is "nothing I can do to make God love me more, and nothing I can do to make God love me less. It means that I, even I who deserve the opposite, am invited to take my place at the table in God's family."Philip Yancey, What's So Amazing About Grace? Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997, 71.

God, seeing my sin before I trusted Christ and knowing fully the sins I would commit after, lavished grace on me. He offered me the very thing I didn't deserve: Eternal forgiveness. And He gave it to me at the cost of His Son's life. As Julia Johnston put it, He gave us "grace that is greater than all our sin."

What the World Misses

The grace of God pervades our world, even amidst the pain humanity inflicts on itself, a grace that reveals remarkable evidence of God the Spirit's presence and activity in our world. It distinguishes Christians from a graceless humanity.

God's grace operates oppositely of the world's expectations. In the world's institutions, we expect to get what we deserve. If I plagiarize a paper, I deserve to get kicked out of school. If I lie to my boss, I deserve to lose my job.

We also expect life to give us awards when we do well. If I get straight A's, I deserve a college scholarship. If I sell more cars than my coworkers, I deserve a raise. In a capitalistic society, we value hard work and achievement by giving attractive rewards.

But God's grace says that even though we, perpetual sinners, deserve to rot in a fiery prison forever, we can receive eternal bliss because of Jesus Christ. We can be given the exact opposite of what we deserve through Christ's redemptive work. The murderer enters paradise.

It is only through Christ, though, that we can obtain grace. We can't earn it like a college football player earns the Heisman Trophy. We can't work for it like we work for a job promotion. Everything we do falls short of earning God's grace; we can only receive it by faith in Christ.

Some country stations play a popular country song sung by Billy Currington called, "Must Be Doin' Somethin' Right." Currington sings of the extraordinary love he shares with a woman. He is amazed at such a wonderful love and concludes that he must be doing something right to "earn" such a love like that.

In God's economy, we aren't doing something right — we're doing everything wrong. And there's no way we could ever "earn" true love. Any love we receive isn't our rightful payback; it's the grace of God. The world operates on karma. God operates on grace.To more fully describe the way God deals with humanity, we cannot embrace this statement alone, for God also promises rightful punishment to those who refuse to place their faith in His Son. As the author of Hebrews says, "Without faith it is impossible to please [God], for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him" (Heb 11:4), and for the writer of Hebrews, the ultimate object of our faith is none other than "Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith" (Heb 12:2). So yes, God operates on grace, but grace is only available to those who place their trust in Jesus Christ.

Discovering Grace

When my professor handed me that laptop, without any expectation of compensation, she not only illustrated God's grace, she was an instrument of His grace. As Christians, people who have most concretely experienced grace, we must develop eyes for discovering grace, both by seeing it and giving it.

Watch for Grace. God's grace surrounds us, and by training our eyes to see it, we can discover its power to transform lives. When some friends introduced me and my wife to a man who rented us a small cottage for basically nothing while we were in seminary, some people might have called us lucky. We called it God's immeasurable grace. The opportunity to attend seminary at all, when so many want to but cannot, was itself a manifestation of God's grace. We can deepen our love for God when we observe traces of His grace in our lives and others'.

Give grace. I have a tendency to evaluate situations and respond to people as they deserve. If I receive lousy service at a restaurant, I want to give a small tip to make sure the server gets what she earned. But perhaps the inattentive server is the one I should give a 30 percent tip. As someone who has experienced tremendous grace, I imitate Christ when I give grace to others.

In her hymn, "Grace That Is Greater," Julia Johnston talks of this "marvelous, infinite, matchless grace, freely bestowed on all who believe."Julia Johnson, "Grace That Is Greater," public domain. We who believe in Christ have received amazing grace. We now have the opportunity, as we ponder the grace God displays in corners of our world, to mirror that grace to those we meet, and when we show grace to those who don't deserve it, they will never forget what we've done. I certainly won't forget receiving a free laptop.

Copyright 2006 David Barshinger. All rights reserved.

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