What is Grace? Part 1 – The Spiritual

Grace is one of those beautiful words that no one seems to be able to define.

I don’t think you have to be a Christian to begin to understand grace; I don’t think you can be a Christian without some understanding of this. Here is a summary of how I see the grace of God as an aspect of divine love, so that you can understand why I believe we need more grace in our lives with ourselves and one another.

In religious circles, folks talk about the Grace of God — some can even quote a verse or two — but often their actions reveal that they don’t understand it. In general society, we might talk about someone being a gracious host or that they have a graceful manner.

The online Oxford English Dictionary has the most comprehensive definitions, which I’ll abbreviate below:

1 – Smoothness and elegance of movement.
2 – Courteous good will. An attractively polite manner of behaving.
3 – (in Christian belief) the free and unmerited favour of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. A divinely given talent or blessing. The condition or fact of being favoured by someone.
4 – A period officially allowed for payment of a sum due or for compliance with a law or condition, especially an extended period granted as a special favour. As in ‘a two-month grace period’
5 – A short prayer of thanks said before or after a meal.

Clear as mud?

I’m going to tackle this in two parts, as I hope you will take the time to ponder each one.

Woman smiling in the rain with arms stretched out
Photo by Robb Leahy on Unsplash

The Spiritual sense of Grace as God’s Love

Books have been written, and theologians have wrestled with the meaning of God’s grace for centuries. I have no intention of duplicating their efforts, although I may refer to some of them.

As a teen, I learned the appropriate verses in my Lutheran confirmation classes:

“This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:22-24).

“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace” (Ephesians 1:7).

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:8-10).

“For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

As is so often the case, the Word (Bible) said one thing, but the message heard and received was another. For example:

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:8-10).

Note that whereas Paul was emphasizing that salvation was a gift, free and unearned, the message received was that believers must do good works. And if good works (by any particular church’s definition) aren’t there, you must not be a Christian.

This is not a minor point.

From the beginnings of the Christian movement, there was tension between the free gift versus following the rules – the Law.

The whole book of Romans is a thesis against living by the Law instead of by Grace. For those not so familiar with his story, Paul was a top scholar and a champion of his faith as a Jew. He wore the right clothes, said the right words, did the right things that a man of his background, education and religion should. And is wasn’t enough.

And then he found grace.

For me it was three years of Confirmation, two more years of Bible School, getting all the right theological training, but too much of the wrong message: you’re not good enough. God wants more. There was the right way to dress; which concerts should you go to – or not. Who to marry. What kind of ministry or career? The proper way to worship. The more I thought I was doing the right thing (I was going to be a missionary), the more unhappy I became. Maybe I wasn’t spiritual enough.

I continued to struggle for another decade or so until I hit bottom. Finally, borrowing an analogy from an old friend from years before, I said, “OK, God, I can’t take it anymore. I give up. I can’t hang on with my pliers. You’re going to have to hold on to me with your vice grips.”

He did. In some very unexpected ways.

little girl reaching up
Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash

I’ll go into more detail when I talk about grace with others, but the two points I want to emphasize here are:

First: God (or the Spiritual, if you prefer) reveals himself* to us every day — in our surroundings, in people, in our experiences — there for anyone to see with open eyes. A tiny flower. A child’s smile. A glorious sunset. A sky full of stars. A friend’s touch. A beautiful artwork.

Second: It’s done. Finished. Consider Philip Yancy’s definition of grace in his book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? In the chapter titled, “The New Math of Grace” he says:

“Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more—no spiritual calisthenics and renunciations, no amount of knowledge gained from seminaries and divinity schools, no amount of crusading on behalf of righteous causes. And grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less—no amount of racism or pride or pornography or adultery or even murder. Grace means that God already loves us as much as an infinite God can possibly love.” (italics his)

I paraphrase this as: There is nothing I can do to make God love me more. There is nothing I can do to make God love me less. Grace.

I tell myself this every day. When I mess up, when I feel down, when I’m full of myself, when things are good.

Grace is God’s love, wrapped around me like a blanket swaddled around a rescued flood victim. No scolding, no “I told you so,” no judgement, no name calling or snide remarks. Just warm, solid, unshakeable, immovable love.

When I began to realize this as truth, to own it and make it a part of me, there was a tectonic shift in my soul. No, life didn’t turn around immediately. I still struggle with old thinking. I still find myself jumping on the never-ending squirrel cage as one professor described it. I have to jump off and go back to the foundation stone. God loves me. Jesus paid the price for me. There is nothing I can do to change that love.

In reply to a post on Medium, where the author felt he was having to deconstruct his spiritual life from an old set of rules and norms, and start again, I wrote:

‘You will continue to deconstruct, build and deconstruct to build again. That’s OK. Jesus is the only one who can and did say, “It is finished.” And that, my friend, is enough.’

*I am a product of my generation, and am most comfortable with the male pronoun for God. This is not meant to dismiss the many times God is revealed via feminine imagery. Had English a valid pronoun that wasn’t gender-based, I’d happily use it. But I despise s/he and he/she, and in this case ‘they’ carries a totally different connotation.

12 thoughts on “What is Grace? Part 1 – The Spiritual”

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you for your gentle words. I have recently begun the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. The Grace for this week: to ask for what I desire — a deep awareness of God’s eagerness to forgive.

    • Pam, I’m glad you found some comfort and encouragement here. I pray your journey through the Spiritual Exercises is a fruitful one, building on the bedrock of grace. His forgiveness is lavish; we are the ones who can’t seem to let go.

      And thank you for your support via Patreon. It is great encouragement and comfort to me, on a bit of a rough day.

      I’d love to hear of your progress (learning is NEVER a failure, no matter how difficult or easy). Or if you just need a cheerleader now and then. Feel free to email me via the Contact page if you wish to discuss anything privately.

      Many Blessings! – Marty

      • I know I came by this article for a purpose, thank you. Although no one may understand, my spiritual grace took many years to develop and did not do so until some years after I left my abuser, and a few years after recovering from addiction. I didn’t know what happened to me spiritually, but I knew I was aware of certain things in life involving the human condition that I wasn’t aware of before. I now retain such peace and love that I never knew existed. My life has never been better spiritually. Love is the Master Plan♥️

        • I’m glad you found this helpful. It’s hard to understand the “whys” sometimes, but we can always rejoice when we begin to understand and experience grace and love. Hugs to you.

  2. “No scolding, no, “I told you so,” no judgment, no name-calling, or snide remarks. Just warm, solid, unshakeable, immovable love.”

    WOW; I love this! I have written it down and copied it multiple times to let it sink in. I needed to see this; at this moment and in this season.

    Keep on sharing what God has placed on your heart!!

  3. Thank you so much for this blog. I have suffered over the years with condemnation and I am very hard on myself. I decided to do a scripture journal and start with, “Grace.” In my studies, I have learned that God’s love for me is abounding and so is his grace.

    • I’m glad this has been a help to you in your journey. I love your idea of a scripture journal! God’s grace and love is so evident if you can get past the overlay of judgement that many would hold over us. You might consider memorizing the whole chapter of Romans 8. (Take it in bite-sized chunks.) The act of memorization — especially repeating it aloud to yourself — becomes both a meditation and affirmation of the truth found there.

      You are also welcome to sign up (or not) for email notifications of new posts. The form is at the right or at the bottom of each post, depending on your device. I generally post weekly. (If you do sign up, you should receive a Welcome within 48 hours. If not, check your spam folder.)

      Regardless, you are welcome to contact me anytime via Comments or the Contact Me in the menu. I’d love to celebrate and encourage you in your walk.

  4. Paul referred to the law – he meant the law of the Old Testament. The New Testament gave us over a thousand commands we should follow, most from Paul himself. Half the red letter verses in the Gospels were moral commandments. Yes God loves those more who obey those commands, and love less those who disregard or outright blaspheme them.

    • Thank you for your thoughts. I suggest a re-reading of Romans 8 and the whole book of Ephesians. Paul is not just addressing the Jewish Law, but the desire of many to impose any law that supersedes what was done on the cross.

      For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:8-10

      The whole book of Romans explains how we can not earn God’s love by adhering to any law. And John reminds us: “For God so loved the world.” Not just one group; the whole world. “That whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Belief is the key. Faith. Not what we do. Of course we please him when we reflect his love in our lives, but he loves us no less when we mess up. That’s why grace is so difficult for us. We are used to being weighed in the balance scales, but the cross removed the scales entirely.


Leave a Comment