Oh, to Grace How Great a Debtor

Disclaimer/reminder/hello-I’m-insecure: My blog is meant to show purpose in process – that there is purpose in the seemingly eternal uncomfortable middle part of life journeys in which you and I often find ourselves. Though this post may seem to end very definitively, this is very much a “process” post. I have held a shallow concept of grace for the majority of my life, and I’m just now peeling back more layers of what grace is and what that means for me. I’m struggling with grace. I’m perplexed by it. Even angry with it. I’m not even sure what I wrote in this post is true. But there’s purpose here. There’s purpose in the process. “Process” is God’s favorite way to work.

I confess, I’ve always been a bit mystified by a line in one of the Church’s most popular and beloved hymns, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” I’m not referring to “here I raise my Ebenezer,” which by default is reminiscent of a certain “humbug-ish” character. No, it is perhaps a line less questioned and more readily accepted:

Oh, to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be

Immediately, questions come to my mind. Doesn’t the very concept of living by grace through faith in Jesus indicate that there is no longer any debt to be paid? How can one be indebted to grace, which by nature is freely given? Is this phrase not enslaving us to the moralistic Christianity I so hate yet I’ve bought into time and time again? Why such strong language? “Debtor” and “constrained” do not conjure up images of grace as the glorious freedom I’ve thought it should be. Would it not be more theologically accurate to sing, “oh, to grace how great a beneficiary daily I’m privileged to be”?

And yet . . . perhaps the old song is right, after all (bah, humbug).

If nothing else, the past year and a half of emotional turmoil has given me, perhaps for the first time, a personal experience of the grace of God. Grace has moved me to tears and has caused me to look in awe at the God who chooses to save and love me at my worst. The ever-present barrier from head to heart knowledge has been transcended more times over the past 500 days than the combined 8,000-something previous.

In his book The Prodigal God, Tim Keller delves into the topic with sheer accuracy. To the truth that God accepts us by grace through Jesus’ work regardless of our own actions, a member of Keller’s congregation replies in a way with which I deeply resonate:

      She said, “That is a scary idea! Oh, it’s good scary, but still scary.”

I was intrigued. I asked her what was so scary about unmerited free grace? She replied something like this: “If I was saved by my good works- then there would be a limit to what God could ask of me or put me through. I would be like a taxpayer with rights. I would have done my duty and now I would deserve a certain quality of life. But if it is really true that I am a sinner saved by sheer grace — at God’s infinite cost –then there’s nothing he cannot ask of me.” She could see immediately that the wonderful-beyond-belief teaching of salvation by sheer grace had two edges to it. On the one hand it cut away slavish fear. God loves us freely, despite our flaws and failures. Yet she also knew that if Jesus really had done this for her — she was not her own. She was bought with a price.

As someone who has (or rather, chooses anew every day to varying degrees of success) to sacrifice the pursuit of something I most want, I have noticed a certain spirit of entitlement encroaching on my every thought and action. “I’ve given you this, God . . . so give me a reasonable, satisfactory substitute in this particular way – now – or else!” Though I haven’t actually said these words to God, my attitude has essentially been communicating to the Creator of the universe that I deserve something more than what He is currently giving me.

This is not living in grace.

At my counseling appointment a couple days ago after talking about this very issue, I was tasked to define what it is like to live in relationship with God with an attitude of entitlement vs. what it is like to live in relationship with God based on grace.

This is what I came up with . . .

Entitlement = I sacrificed, You owe me
Grace = You sacrificed, ________________

Pathetic, right? Born and raised in the church, and I couldn’t even come up with a definition of grace, the bedrock of my salvation.

I stammered through some half-answers —

“Uhhh – You sacrificed, I owe nothing . . . no, no,no. You sacrificed, no one owes anything anymore . . . wait that’s not right . . . dang it . . . ummm,”

So our work in therapy became an assignment. Frustrated at my theological ineptitude, I started to stress. What did this mean? Was I even a Christian if I didn’t know what grace was? On the way back to work, I thought of two snatches of hymn lyrics: “Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe” and “oh to grace how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be.”

I don’t find this to be a coincidence. The Holy Spirit was and is ever attune with my present need. Historically, He has stirred my conscience towards songs and stories and His Word to remind me of truth. Faithfully, He did so again.

Grace = You sacrificed, I owe You

What? How can this be? This goes against everything I thought I knew about grace. I thought grace meant “it is finished.” How could there be anything to owe a paid debt?

But grace calls for an active response, not a passive one. Grace is realizing the freedom Christ bought for us includes the ability to sacrifice whatever is necessary to our Good Father, trusting He knows what is best for us and will make all things new in the mystery of His will. As one friend put it, here is our one chance to freely choose to bow before our Savior, before “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Grace gives us the opportunity to choose to love God because He loved us first.

The sacrifice of God was necessary and it was brutal and it was costly. He paid a heavy price so that I could eternally rest in His love. I owe Jesus my life. Somehow the gravity of the situation has not fully hit me.

Western culture is no help. Entitlement is the legacy of the United States of America: “I deserve the American Dream, I deserve the new i-Phone, I deserve to have a choice between crunchy and smooth peanut butter, I deserve marriage, I deserve a job, I deserve a good life.”

How do I, how do we, move from a spirit of entitlement to one of grace?

I can think of only one thing : to have a staring contest with Jesus – to dare to not drop my gaze from His untamable, unshakeable love. For if I’m honest with myself, I am not afraid that my affections towards fighting for what I want will not change.

I am afraid that they will change.

Because when that happens, I will no longer have anything with which to bargain with God to try to get what I want. I will have no more illusion of control.

Like the old hymn affirms, I will truly be constrained by grace.

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