In his foundational self-description, the first thing God tells us about himself is that he’s compassionate. By nature, he feels deeply for the hurts and trials of his creatures—even the animals (Jon 4.11), but most especially those in his image.
The second thing he tells us is that he’s “gracious” (Ex 34.6). We tell one another that he is, too; one of our most common names, John (and Jean or Joan or Johanna for women), comes from the Hebrew Johanan, short for Jehohanan, which means simply “Yahweh / Jehovah is gracious.” It’s same word used in all those OT refrains.
This isn’t the first time God has told us this about himself. The word occurs earlier in the Law, in Exodus 22.27, where God tells Moses that if a man’s clothing is illegitimately taken from him, and the man cries to God for help, “I will hear; for I am gracious.” The word occurs 12 more times in the Old Testament, and in every occurrence it’s describing the character of God. No other being is said to have this specific quality.
So what is it? What does the word mean?
In Exodus 22.27 it sounds a lot like compassion; a poor man is in desperate need, and God hears his cry. But I think it’s a step beyond compassion. Compassion is feeling strongly about a situation; it’s caring. Grace, on the other hand, is getting up and doing something about it. It’s intervening on behalf of those in need.
And since we’re all in need, being gracious is a commitment to actions of infinite scope and complexity. It’s a really big deal.
But there’s more. Since we’re all sinners, rebels against God, we really don’t deserve his intervention on our behalf. After all, we’ve declared ourselves to be his enemies.
And that means, in turn, that God gives us things, and does things for us, that we don’t deserve.
Now that’s grace.
I’ve posted before on the immensity and breadth and depth of God’s grace. These things ought to be at the forefront of our thinking; and I’ve noticed that people who reflexively think that way—gratefully—tend to approach the exigencies of life with considerably more confidence and even joy. The truth will do that for a person.
I suspect that some of you are thinking about my observation that in the Scripture only God is said to be gracious. Maybe that means we aren’t expected to be? Maybe we don’t have to give people things they don’t deserve?
Not so fast. For starters, we’re in the image of God (Gen 1.27), and we’re undergoing a process—sanctification—that’s designed to refine that image in us as we become more like Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit (2Co 3.18). So if God is fundamentally gracious, then we ought to seek to be as well.
Further, the Scripture gives us things to do that are gracious at the root. Jesus told us that the second great commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mt 22.39)—and Jesus surely knows that our neighbors aren’t deserving of that. And he told us to love our enemies, even those who abuse and mistreat us. Walking the second mile, giving our coat, and all that (Mt 5.38-48).
We’re supposed to give people around us—our neighbors—what they don’t deserve. That’s what grace is all about.
I’ve grown up in political conservatism—my parents were both employees, for a time, of the John Birch Society—and I’ve noticed that in conservatism there is a certain amount of social Darwinism. Individual responsibility. Your own bootstraps. Get a job, ya lazy bum.
And there’s a lot of truth to that. He who doesn’t work shouldn’t eat. The Bible says that (2Th 3.10). Personal responsibility is a thing.
But there’s also grace. We’re called to help people who don’t deserve or even want help. We’re called to lessen people’s pain, even when they brought it on themselves. We’re called to help the unloving, the hostile, the rebellious—the sponge, the lawbreaker, the entitled.
God has done that for us.
So what about those bums on the other side of the political divide?
Extend a hand. Recognize the image of God in them. Refuse to hate. Give them what they don’t have coming.