My Lenten promise this year is to write more about the things that I have personally and/or seen a lot of people wresting with. Each week I will be writing a post on one of these topics.
Today I wanted to share something that has been stirring inside me for a while now.
GRACE and MERCY.
Now in the Christian circles, these two words are used a lot, and in most cases I have observed are used almost interchangeably. The reason I am wrestling with is that I think that they have one big difference that changes everything.
To start, I am going to define my terms so you know where I am coming from.
MERCY is an unearned and undeserved forgiveness that comes from God.
GRACE is an unearned and undeserved gift that comes from God.
Did you catch the difference? It is subtle but matters.
Mercy is forgiveness, grace is a gift.
Now, let me stop here and say that I believe that God offers both to everyone, but I think one or the other must be the foundational to a Christian belief system.
If Mercy is foundational, it starts with the understanding that we have done something that we need forgiveness from. We have messed up, but God stepped in through Christ and showed us mercy.
Now, while I believe that mercy is important, if it is our foundation it has its problems.
When Mercy is foundational we start with the premise that we are all bad people, we have to. When we do this the focus of our theology and practices are based on the idea that we must point out to everyone how bad they are in order to point them to how good God is.
It is very possible that this is the tradition you were raised in or have experienced. While none of this is bad in and of itself, what it does more often than not is create a sort of guilt Christianity where, even when we experience God’s mercy we always feel that we are bad and in need of saving and often never move beyond it on towards perfection.
So, what happens if Grace is our foundation?
First, Grace starts with the assumption that we are all created in the image of God, the Imago Dei. We get this from the creation story: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.’ God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.” – Genesis 1:26-27 (CEB)
Being created in the image of God is foundational to not only Christianity, but also Judaism and Islam. Whereas Mercy almost states that we are created in the image of sin and brokenness; grace says that we are first given the gift of grace through life and we are created “very good.”
If we start with this foundation of Grace then we can better understand that sin enters the story and blurs this image; but never erases it. God’s fingerprints are always and will always be on our lives, as Methodists we understand this at prevenient grace or the grace that is before we make any faith choices.
God makes the first step, always.
A foundation of Mercy is based on the idea that we are broken
A foundation of Grace is based on the idea that we are all created in God’s image.
A foundation of Mercy leaves us feeling like we will never be good enough
A foundation of Grace tells us from the beginning that God made us good enough.
One final thought about a foundation of Grace and Mercy. I believe that both are important and needed in a faithful life, but when we are founded in grace we are able move beyond our sin and into a life to the fullest. I believe that God wants us to do this, and Jesus says it over and over that he is the way to life and that he came to bring life to the fullest.
If we start with a foundation of grace and understanding that we are created in God’s image, we will be freed from being stuck to the hold of the guilt of sin and more open to turn our hearts to God.
Ash Wednesday is tomorrow, and many are thinking about the start of season of Lent. Honestly, sometimes it seems as if there is just a lot of confusion on the whole season.
I just wanted to take a second and share a little as to why I think the season of Lent matters for us today.
The Season of Lent is the preparatory season leading up to the celebration of Easter, much like Advent is the preparatory season leading to Christmas. But, where Advent might be likened to cleaning your house for a special house guest; Lent is more like a life yard sale where we dig through the mess and make space for God in our lives.
Lent is the 40 days, 46 with Sundays, in which we are called to work through the boxes of stuff in our lives that normally we might just shove in the attic. In these 40 days, we remember the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness fasting and praying in preparation for the start of his ministry. Likewise, we are called to upon to fast or take up something in our lives that will help us remember this time. This giving up or taking up should be something that impacts us every day, even several times a day, in order for us to turn our lives more towards God.
My friend Tyler has started a great hashtag for this season #makelenthurtagain I think this is both hilarious and makes a great point. The season of Lent is supposed to hurt a little. It calls us to a place where we have to deal with our stuff in the attic, lay these things before God and take up our cross.
Lent matters today because is it gives us an annual time to deal with the mess of life. I don't know about you but it seems like I am always so busy that I just don't have time to process and work through the messy parts of life.
Much like a yard sale, if we truly engage in the season of Lent, we will bring down the proverbial boxes collecting dust in our soul's attic and work through the stuff in them. While this is hard work, and will bring up good and bad stories, Christ will be present in the wilderness; walking with us.
If we can work through the mess, we will find we can have a yard sale of the soul and get rid of the stuff we have been holding onto for so long. We can be released from the bondage of our own mess and find freedom and life in Christ through the season of Lent.
And, if we can do that, then Easter will truly be a celebration of resurrection, which is why Lent matters. Because without the wilderness and cross; the empty tomb loses it's luster.
Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your hearts,
with fasting, with weeping, and with sorrow;
Tear your hearts
and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is merciful and compassionate,
very patient, full of faithful love,
and ready to forgive.
Who knows whether he will have a change of heart
and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain offering and a drink offering
for the Lord your God?
So, what boxes do you need to work through this season?