Right, so one of the cornerstones of the Christian faith is the idea that grace is free, in that you don’t earn it and you can’t make yourself more grace-filled by cashing in extra chips or something. Grace isn’t about what we give at all, ergo, free.
That part is true: we can’t earn grace. We can’t earn God’s love, or forgiveness, or presence. In that we can’t pay for grace, it’s free. But what I’ve been ruminating on for a bit now is that grace isn’t free in the sense of having no cost. I don’t know why this has never occurred to me before, given the idea that we’re supposed to carry crosses and that ain’t cheap labor, but grace is actually the most costly thing in existence. Grace is not something for nothing, and I’m not in the least the first person to figure that out. There are plenty of sermons and blogs and all sorts of things that talk about the price of grace. No less than Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about the idea of “cheap grace” as a disgraceful thing. Grace is something for the entirety of who you are and who you wanted to be and how you understand your own life. Grace costs everything.
I head back to the Wicket Gate on Sunday for my last year of this degree and Reader, I could not be more thrilled to have the end in sight. This experience has cost me dear: I’ve spent money, I’ve lost innocence, I’ve had property and physical safety and emotional integrity taken from me. I have paid a high price for this experience, one that isn’t done collecting yet, and I will be very glad to move toward closing this particular chapter of my life. Looking at how much this has cost me over the past couple of years has led me, again and again, to the awful realization that I didn’t get it wrong. I feel quite strongly that this is where I needed to go to do this, even with all the shit it’s brought.
I don’t say that to say that God in any way wanted me to suffer, because I don’t go in for the manipulative and sadistic god concept. It is to say that there are amazing things that have come out of this experience. I have friends I never would have met otherwise who are teaching me all sorts of things and learning from me things I didn’t know I had to offer. I’ve grown deeply, anchoring myself in a whole new kind of faith that I still don’t fully understand and that still needs a lot of work. And I’ve been plunged headfirst into the recognition that grace is what sustains me through all the shit and all the sunshine; that it is grace that binds me together and attaches me to the God Who continues to call me.
But it isn’t free.
In both the Midwest and the South I often see bumper stickers proclaiming “freedom isn’t free,” which is a sentiment with which I agree in principle if not in application. The concept of freedom, of being able to choose one’s own path, requires payment—whether that payment comes in terms of labor and time on the part of those who came before to guide a system into freedom, or in terms of lives laid down to protect human rights, or in terms of actual money and services paid to unhinge the injustices that perpetuate various kinds of slavery depends on the context in which we discuss freedom. But there is always a cost of some format, and grace is like that. Grace comes at cost, not in a substitutionary atonement kind of way where a vindictive god had to kill his son because we’re all evil but in a kind of way that acknowledges we killed a Man because He rocked our world too far and God took that death and made it redemptive, made it holy, makes us holy a little piece at a time when we realize that God extends grace and then asks for everything that we have ever been and ever will be in return.
The thing about grace is that, once you receive it, you’re totally fine paying that highest of costs. It is worth everything; it is that pearl of great price, that marvelous wonder, that gift that keeps on giving. I’m willing to pay everything because I am given everything, not in return but alongside, in, through, despite, around, on top of. This grace thing is astounding and fair knocks me over when I consider what a lifeline it truly is. But it isn’t free. Nothing is.
And I won’t lie, I’m a bit grumpy about that bait-and-switch there. But then, I’m grumpy about most things. It’s a character trait.
Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:8-9, ESV)