Grace - Long Initial Post

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Grace - Long Initial Post

Post by Curt Sunshine » 25 Feb 2009, 15:11

"I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers me - confused at the grace that so fully he proffers me."

I have been struck recently by how little we discuss grace. We talk about the Atonement and faith and hope and works and love and forgiveness and so many other things, but we rarely talk about grace. I understand why, but it disturbs me, nonetheless.

Our understanding of "grace" is found in the Bible Dictionary. It is obvious from that definition that grace is the heart of the Gospel - that it is the "Good News" that encompasses Jesus' love for us and is the ultimate gift He gives us. It is, in reality, another term for the Atonement, which is why we don't use it much. (We use "atonement" instead.) We believe in grace fully and deeply, but we tend to break it into more easily discussed sub-sections - like those listed in the last paragraph. Again, I understand why we do this, but when we fail to connect the pieces back into the original, complete framework, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of pieces and lose sight of the fact that they really comprise only one full concept - the grace that underlies the Atonement of Jesus.

So, why do we do this?

This will be a simplification, but at the time of the Restoration, the dominant doctrinal argument was over faith vs. works. One camp defined faith by saying, "Confess His name and be saved; works are just what He does through you after that confession," or the other, more extreme denial of works, "God has chosen the saved (applied His grace) and the damned (denied His grace) prior to their birth, and nothing can be done to affect that outcome." The other side hearkened back to the Law of Moses and said, "Grace is a gift that is given to all who earn it."

Since both of these definitions of grace represent the extremes, and since each of them depends on a classic Heaven/Hell split, the Restored Gospel rejected each. In reality, however, the repudiation of works was stronger in Christianity of that day, so the focus within the Church naturally tended to emphasize what was missing "the most" - the need for obedience to commandments, often translated as works. In restoring the concept of multiple, differentiated glories, Joseph Smith correctly focused on those things that are required of God's children in order to reach the highest level of glory- again, often translated as our works. In practical terms, however, this effectively eliminated grace from our active vocabulary. This left us floundering for an answer to the age-old Christian question, "Have you been / When were you saved?"

My answer: We have been saved by the grace of God. That salvation started when Jesus voluntarily offered Himself as our Savior prior to the creation of the world, continued when He was born of Mary, deepened in the Garden of Gethsemane and on Golgatha when He hung on the cross, declared "It is finished," and "gave up the ghost" - and culminated on that Sunday morning when He rose from the tomb, appeared to Mary, ascended to His Father, and became the first fruits of the resurrection. The implications of that grace are enormous and too often misunderstood.

Let me say it again, more plainly. **We have been saved by the grace of God.** It has happened already, completely independent of what we do - except in the case of Sons of Perdition. For all of the rest of us, we have, through His grace, been freed from the bonds of physical and spiritual death and inherited a degree of glory in the presence of God. Even those who inherit the Telestial Kingdom have "inherited" a kingdom of glory and can enjoy the presence of the Holy Ghost - a member of the Godhead. Even they will be resurrected and have been saved from endless torment in the presence of Lucifer. That gift, promised to all but a few who accepted The Father's Plan of Salvation and Jesus as their Savior in the pre-existence, has been purchased already - and all of them have, in a very real sense, "confessed His name and been saved by His grace" prior to being born.

So why do we not discuss this? I believe it is because all the other Christian religions of the day already taught a limited version of this, and the Restoration was about adding more to what they taught - restoring a knowledge of the potential that had been lost. It was all about going beyond the Telestial Kingdom (with the Holy Ghost) and the Terrestrial Kingdom (with Jesus, the Christ) and working toward the Celestial Kingdom (with God, the Father). We stopped talking about grace simply because of how that term was misunderstood by the rest of Christianity - as a way to focus on the ultimate purpose of the gift of grace (becoming like The Father) rather than the prevailing interpretation (praising The Son). [It's like reading the New Testament without any understanding of temples. Temple theology is obvious throughout (e.g., 1 Corin. 15:29 - baptism for the dead), but it is not mentioned explicitly due both to its sacred nature and because those to whom the epistles were addressed understood it without it having to be explicit. It simply was assumed and, therefore, lost when the foundation understanding was lost.]

Why is this important to us - and why did it take me so long to get here?

2 Nephi 25:23 is the most quoted verse about grace in Mormondom. It says, “It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” Many people believe that this means we are only saved if we do all that we can do - if we obey every commandment to the best of our ability. That simply isn't in line with the rest of our scriptures and, more importantly, it leads to unnecessary stress and anxiety about whether or not "I am doing enough." I see this all the time in my discussions with others and as I listen to and read the blogs of many women, especially. Rather than seeing the grace of God as a freeing, enabling gift that already has been given, they often internalize it as a reward dangling enticingly in front of them, ready to be withdrawn if they screw up too badly and fail to repent immediately. That leads to guilt and pain and lack of self-confidence, instead of the rest that is promised so beautifully in Matthew 11:28-30.

When I read 2 Nephi 25:23, I explain it by employing a common linguistic technique - switching the phrases to reflect the proper emphasis. In this case, the sentence becomes, "(Even) after all we can do, it is (still) by grace that we are saved." Of course, we are to try to do all that we can do, but exactly what we can do pales in comparison to what He has done - saved us by His grace regardless of what we can do. It takes the pressure off of us and puts the focus where it should be - on His incomprehensible grace that so fully he proffers us.

A very insightful friend recently described the process of "taking my yoke upon you" as feeling the purity and power of His sinlessness. I love that construct, but I would add the following: Understanding and truly accepting God's grace occurs when you realize that all of your inherited weaknesses (your temper, your judgmental nature, your fatigue, your lack of self-worth, your never-ending battles with whatever drives you crazy) - everything that keeps you from becoming who you desperately want to become - has been bought and paid for already. He fought that fight for you, and He won. Yes, you were born with things that keep you from being perfect, but He paid for those things - meaning that you truly can take His yoke upon you and walk confidently at His side as a brother or sister with the same eternal potential. It occurs when you realize that, because of the grace that so fully He proffers you, you aren't required to pay for those things; rather, you are freed to pursue those qualities and characteristics you want to acquire to become perfect (whole and complete) - regardless of the tangible outcome of that effort. Repentance becomes an exciting, forward looking progression toward wholeness, rather than a depressing, backward-looking, guilt-inducing attempt to beat the bad out of you and never again make any mistakes. Bad habits and painful characteristics will disappear as they are replaced by good ones, not as they are "subdued and repressed by sheer force of will."

I believe an understanding of grace is fully realized when one stops fighting God's grace - when he realizes that all God wants is his willing mind and heart - when he quits worrying about his individual worthiness and starts focusing on his contribution to communal unity - when he simply lays it all at His feet and says, in essence, "I know you understand my weakness; I know you know my struggles and pains; I know you know how I feel about myself; I know you love me and have bought me, anyway. From now on, I will trust your promise and, despite my continuing frustration and my continuing weakness and my continuing failures, I will bounce back each time and continue to grow. I will not despair; I will accept my weakness and imperfection and failure, knowing you don't care, because you love me, anyway. I will get back up each time I am knocked down and continue to walk toward you, until you embrace me and say, 'Well done, thou good and faithful servant' - knowing I don't deserve it and being eternally grateful for the grace that so fully you proffered me."

Thoughts?
I see through my glass, darkly - as I play my saxophone in harmony with the other instruments in God's orchestra. (h/t Elder Joseph Wirthlin)

Even if people view many things differently, the core Gospel principles (LOVE; belief in the unseen but hoped; self-reflective change; symbolic cleansing; striving to recognize the will of the divine; never giving up) are universal.

"For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong." H. L. Mencken

happymom
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Re: Grace - Long Initial Post

Post by happymom » 25 Feb 2009, 15:34

This made the idea of grace more clear to me. I've had a lot of discussions about grace and works with friends and family members. I've not ever felt like I understood the concepts of grace and works. Thanks for you thoughts.

katielangston
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Re: Grace - Long Initial Post

Post by katielangston » 26 Feb 2009, 10:39

Ray, this is a wonderful post, thank you. I love just about everything you've said, especially the last two paragraphs. I think you've hit the nail on the head.

Just to add to (or reiterate) your thoughts, my understanding is that when we accept the Savior through baptism, we enter into a covenant with Christ and are made whole (perfect) IN HIM. Therefore, despite my faults, my struggles, my sins, my setbacks, because I am in His covenant, I am "saved," to use the traditional word for it. As a result, I believe that if I were to die today, I would go to the Celestial Kingdom (assuming Mormonism is true). This has nothing to do with my level of righteousness, because on my own, I am wicked and fall short of the glory of God. Instead, it has everything to do with Christ's righteousness, because He has graciously extended Himself as an offering for my sins.

As I've mentioned elsewhere on this board, my biggest concern is the lack of emphasis on grace in LDS teaching. So while I absolutely love what you've written here, I wonder if the church in general sees it the way you do?

Here are my major concerns with how grace is (or isn't) taught in Mormonism...

1)--"Worthiness." I think this is a terribly misleading concept, and I would actually go so far as to say that I hate the way this word used in the Church. Here's why: NO ONE is worthy! That's why Christ atoned for us. He is the only worthy one to ever live.

I think the "worthiness" culture is damaging on two levels. First, it lulls people into a false sense of security and pride, a la, "well, I can get a temple recommend, so I'm okay." Or: "My sins are lesser than other people's sins, so I'm okay and/or better than them." Secondly, it literally drives people into depression and anxiety when they realize how perfect God's standard is and how they will never be able to attain it on their own--yet because of the "worthiness" culture there is this underlying expectation that they should be able to.

2)--The Fall. As a church, I don't think we do a very good job of remembering that we are naturally enemies to God and desperate for His grace. We pat ourselves on the back for being His children, for being His chosen people, for being "gods in embryo" (heard that one on my mission a lot)...but the truth is, none of that matters without Christ. I am concerned that the lack of emphasis on our plight as fallen mortals prevents us from realizing how much we need Christ. I also think this leads to the sin of pride, because we fail to admit how lost we are.

3)--Meeting God Halfway. Growing up, this is what I was taught: "You do everything you can. Maybe it's just a 2 on a scale to 100. And maybe your neighbor is a 20. Either way, as long as you're doing your best, Jesus makes up for what you can't do on your own, and that is grace." As an intense perfectionist, that gave me serious heartburn, because I was pretty sure I was never doing my best; as a result, I never felt right with God. I am also concerned that this minimizes Christ's atonement. I believe Jesus did it ALL for us. He doesn't just cover what we can't get to on our own; He changes our very nature to make us whole.

4)--Keep ALL the commandments. We are told we are supposed to keep ALL the commandments, deny ourselves of ALL ungodliness. This is simply not humanly possible. I don't know why we even say things like this.

A few months back, I decided to try to listen, really listen, for messages of grace in my church experience (i.e. in Ensign articles, conference talks, and Sunday meetings). I thought maybe these messages had been there all along, but that I had developed a way of listening critically that prevented me from hearing it. It has been quite discouraging to realize that, except for a few gems here and there (like this beautiful post), I never heard it because, for the most part, IT ISN'T THERE. It just isn't. We talk about commandments. We talk about our duties. We talk about how we can be better, more "worthy." We even talk about "applying" the atonement in our lives, as though it is just a special "tool" God has given us to improve faster, instead of the very essence of the gospel. It's so rare to hear someone say, "We are lost without Christ and need Him desperately. We cannot do this alone." I'm not saying it's never said, I'm just saying it's rare--in my experience, anyway. And it should be, imho, the most prevalent message of all.

And so then I've had to ask myself: "Is this teaching so glaringly absent because people in the church are imperfect in their understanding, and just don't think to emphasize it, or is it because, as a church in general, we really DON'T believe in grace?"

I don't know the answer to that question. It's what I'm grappling with above all else right now. It's he main reason I have doubts about the truthfulness of the Church in general. Because I don't know about other people, but I am definitely not righteous enough or strong enough to live without grace. Just absolutely, positively, CANNOT do it alone.

Anyway, this is already too long. But I wanted to throw some of these thoughts out there...

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Tom Haws
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Re: Grace - Long Initial Post

Post by Tom Haws » 26 Feb 2009, 12:39

This is all a little too Christian for me, but in good StayLDS style, I will see this as half full, but before I do, let me say that I see everything we are discussing under the umbrella of Grace/Atonement as a native characteristic of the Father that only WE need to impute to Christ to perhaps help us accept it.

I think there is real and practical power in the underlying thoughts in this thread, and I love kl's contributions. I'd like to throw out some possible practical effects:

1) Parenting
  • Do we aspire as parents to make similar grace/atonement a reality in our homes?
  • Does Onement in our families come from our parental nature as a finished fact, or from the unfinished anticipated obedience of our children?
  • If we really believe we are unacceptable before the Father unless we merit acceptance, how does that affect our parenting?
2) Social issues
  • Do we end up believing we really are worthy of whatever comforts we enjoy?
  • Do we end up believing the poor (or heathen) really deserve less comfort? I have heard this expressed explicitly.
3) Leadership and Relationships
  • Do we believe we can't forgive our peers at work or in the business place because if we do they won't have any incentive to repent? I have heard this expressed explicitly
Good stuff.
Last edited by Tom Haws on 26 Feb 2009, 15:24, edited 1 time in total.
Tom (aka Justin Martyr/Justin Morning/Jacob Marley/Kupord Maizzed)
Higley and Guadalupe
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Sure, any religion would do. But I'm LDS.
"There are no academic issues. Everything is emotional to somebody." Ray Degraw at www.StayLDS.com

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Re: Grace - Long Initial Post

Post by Curt Sunshine » 26 Feb 2009, 12:44

Katie and Tom, I see this as probably the great tightrope of Christianity.

On one hand, we need badly to recognize our reliance on God (as Katie stated so well) - and we encapsulate that in speaking of "the Atonement". On the other hand, we need badly to be motivated to act - since our "natural man" tends to push responsibility off of ourselves and onto others (as Tom's questions highlight). How do we balance those competing needs?

I think grace vs. works is a fascinating example of the need for opposition in ALL things. BOTH of these concepts can be noble and ennobling; both, however, can be destructive and weakening. "Easy grace" (confess his name and don't worry about what you do) is abominable, but so is "all-consuming works" (wear yourself out and eventually God will accept your effort). Paul is correct in that the law doesn't save, but rather condemns - but then even he turns around and speaks of the need to do what Jesus did.

I don't think it's possible to preach grace OR works in isolation and not end up with a destructive standard. I absolutely LOVE James' statement that "faith without works is dead, being alone". It points to a properly balanced duality, if you will - a recognition that we have been freed by the grace of God, but that our freedom has been given to us in order to allow us NOT to believe or understand but to DO and BECOME. "The truth shall make you free" (to me) means that really understanding the atonement really does free us to act - to do our best - to strive to change ourselves and our own sphere of influence - to become like he was - without constantly being torn apart by worry and guilt and crushing expectations.

Honestly, that's a fine line that will shift for each person, probably each day. Some are more inclined naturally to act; others are more inclined naturally to think and believe. The key, imo, is for each of us to look at ourselves, try to understand our strengths and weaknesses, commit to work on overcoming our weaknesses - and continue that process until we die.

It's really hard to articulate that tension and that freedom, especially when the underlying doctrine of glory in our theology clearly states that practically everyone will be "saved" in some way. When we draw a distinction between "salvation" and "exaltation" (rightly so, imo), it is very easy to equate "grace" with "salvation" and "works" with "exaltation" - and, honestly, it's hard to argue too much with that essential differentiation. I believe we really do need to try our best, and I really do believe we are blessed and rewarded and "judged" (meaning assigned an outcome) based on what we become. I just believe we have been freed by the atonement/grace to pursue our best without all the angst and guilt and fear ad nauseum that we tend to heap on ourselves.

Even now, I don't know if I've articulated that very well, since it really is a difficult thing to speak of this type of balancing act, but I also have found the foundation for this rich complexity of this balance explained best within Mormonism's core theology. I get frustrated a bit sometimes when we emphasize one extreme or another, but one of my strongest "testimonies", if you will, is that the vision Joseph Smith articulated in this regard is profound and empowering and astounding. The big picture is the biggest reason I have found peace - and the Church has been swinging back toward the balance I seek steadily over the last decade or so.
I see through my glass, darkly - as I play my saxophone in harmony with the other instruments in God's orchestra. (h/t Elder Joseph Wirthlin)

Even if people view many things differently, the core Gospel principles (LOVE; belief in the unseen but hoped; self-reflective change; symbolic cleansing; striving to recognize the will of the divine; never giving up) are universal.

"For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong." H. L. Mencken

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Re: Grace - Long Initial Post

Post by Tom Haws » 26 Feb 2009, 13:58

Ray,

One man's balancing act is another man's pretzel. I'm afraid I see this problem as inherent in Pauline Christianity. I don't know how the Buddhists and the Jews and the Atheists handle the underlying issues of morality and meaning, but I believe strongly that Christianity has preserved a Father who has some undesirable characteristics that are resolved only by the Son.

My LDS religion makes me view the matter with very simple faith (that it will work miracles) in very simple terms. Namely, "I must act to glorify the Father, and I must extend to you unending grace as you walk your own path."

That's really how simple and demanding my LDS religion is.

Tom
Tom (aka Justin Martyr/Justin Morning/Jacob Marley/Kupord Maizzed)
Higley and Guadalupe
Gilbert, Arizona
----
Sure, any religion would do. But I'm LDS.
"There are no academic issues. Everything is emotional to somebody." Ray Degraw at www.StayLDS.com

Curt Sunshine
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Re: Grace - Long Initial Post

Post by Curt Sunshine » 26 Feb 2009, 14:58

I absolutely LOVE that, Tom. Do you mind if I quote it almost in its entirety on my personal blog - not linking here, of course, but simply as "my friend, Tom, said the following"?
I see through my glass, darkly - as I play my saxophone in harmony with the other instruments in God's orchestra. (h/t Elder Joseph Wirthlin)

Even if people view many things differently, the core Gospel principles (LOVE; belief in the unseen but hoped; self-reflective change; symbolic cleansing; striving to recognize the will of the divine; never giving up) are universal.

"For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong." H. L. Mencken

katielangston
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Re: Grace - Long Initial Post

Post by katielangston » 26 Feb 2009, 15:05

Tom,

Very interesting thoughts.

Could you explain to me what you mean by "Christianity has preserved a Father who has some undesirable characteristics that are resolved only by the Son"?

I'm not an intellectual giant, so I'm having a hard time understanding precisely what it means. :) In other words, the Father is deficient in some way without the Son? And the Son was constructed to resolve it? Or something else? If it's what I said, in what way(s) is he deficient?

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Brian Johnston
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Re: Grace - Long Initial Post

Post by Brian Johnston » 26 Feb 2009, 16:28

This thread delivers!
"It's strange to be here. The mystery never leaves you alone." -John O'Donohue, Anam Cara, speaking of experiencing life.

katielangston
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Re: Grace - Long Initial Post

Post by katielangston » 26 Feb 2009, 18:06

I've had a few more thoughts after pondering this thread today.

I agree that grace vs. works is the great tightrope/pretzel (love the pretzel image) of Christianity. An emphasis of one over the other is damaging indeed. Is one more important than the other? I don't think so. But is there a better place to start? I think there might be.

I have come to embrace what I suppose might be termed a more "protestant" view; that is, the kind of works that God will use to sanctify us are the works that spring forth from a converted heart.

Just as faith without works is dead, works without faith are dead.

There are any number of reasons to do good works. Fear. Habit. Compulsion. Duty. And yes, even pride.

But do the works of the gospel profit anyone who doesn't do them for love?

There was a time I'd have said yes, because all my works were wrought from fear, and I knew it. And it would have destroyed me to say that I was doing it all for nothing.

But looking back on it now, I can honestly say I was doing it all for nothing. It didn't bring me closer to God; it drove me further from Him. It didn't create compassion for my fellow man; instead, it inspired suspicion, judgment, and pride. In my desire to be "righteous or else, dammit," I was turning further and further from the humble, submissive, charitable, open, and caring person God really wants me to become.

My "good works" were turning me into a Pharisee.

And this touches on your comment, Ray, regarding the distinction between exaltation and salvation, where salvation is grace and exaltation is works. I've thought a lot about this recently. I think it's still important to remember that the sanctifying process, which might otherwise be called the path to exaltation, is inextricably tied to God's grace.

Because our BECOMING doesn't happen on its own; it doesn't happen through sheer willpower, grit, and determination; it happens through our surrendering to God. It's an act of opening up, of turning to Him, of allowing Him to work THROUGH us (receiving His image in our countenances, as Alma so beautifully puts it). This, like the gift of salvation itself, is not something we earn; it's something God has already given us, if we will only allow Him to work in our lives.

Does that mean we don't have a say in it? Of course not. We use our freedom to choose God each and every day. But I think it's important to remember that it is God who is changing us.

The "easy grace" we've talked about is a cheap substitute. Because grace changes you, fundamentally. Grace *is* the mechanism through which we DO and BECOME. It is the enabling power that makes it happen.

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