Grace in Practice #2: Grace and Law Are Right Behind You

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By Jeff Liddle. 

In his book Grace in Practice, Paul Zahl gives us a systematic view of grace and law in our everyday lives, asserting that grace is behind every lasting transformation that takes place in our lives and that law is behind every clash, every hurt, every problem in our relationships with other people. When I first read this I balked a little. People will often exaggerate or tweak the truth a bit to support their main thesis or to make a point. Surely, I thought, things cannot be that simple. But while I still think this is probably an oversimplification, as I reflected on this idea I became more and more convinced that yes, actually, grace and law are indeed everywhere. I began to notice things in my own life, in books I had read, and in other’s lives. I began to notice that the concept of “grace versus law” illuminates many of our experiences, and is, in many ways, the underlying dynamic of our relationships with other people. That dynamic, more specifically, is this: grace enlivens and lifts up; law depresses and incites. 

Just consider how many times you’ve felt judged by someone. Or felt that you didn’t measure up to some standard or other . This is law. Non-acceptance. Judgment. The typical response to this ranges from rebellion and noncompliance to depression and guilt. These are hardly transformative attitudes. Now think about the times that someone else’s actions have truly moved you. These actions were most likely born of grace. One-way love. Grace transforms where the law brings stagnation.

And grace and law are everywhere. Think about a girl who starves herself because society demands she look a certain way to be beautiful. Or a husband who is always trying to “change” his wife either directly or through passive-aggressive behavior. Or a parent demanding This is law, a judgment that you are not good enough as you are. Go back and reread Steve Bell’s blog post from July 20th (and his most recent one too, though that one was intentionally about grace) and you’ll see that his story is about grace and law. Quick judgment versus undeserved respect. Steve, in both of his blog posts, describes how he was moved by grace. Grace transforms and lifts up.

In my own life I have noticed the dynamic of grace versus law in trivial things as well as more substantive things. For a trivial example, one morning at a local coffee shop that asks for cash if the purchase is under $5, I found myself without any cash. The manager simply said to just take the coffee, not to worry about it, and that I could pay for it the next time I stopped in. This was a small act of grace, but guess what? It actually made me want to stop in and pay later. Now, I normally pay for coffee and everything, because the law demands it, but it’s not like I enjoy paying for it. Grace motivates where the law fails to motivate.

A more important place where I noticed the power of grace is my marriage. If not for grace, good marriages would be impossible. We are flawed people in a broken world. How could two people possibly have such an intimate, unique relationship? Only through grace. Emma, my wife, has shown me grace again and again in our marriage. This results in a certain type of freedom: I am free to be myself. It’s a wonderful thing.  I know I am loved. Sometimes people who emphasize grace “too much” are accused of giving people license to sin and do whatever they want (i.e. antinomianism – more on this later). But here’s the thing: the grace that Emma shows me does not result in me thinking, “Ya, Emma will love me no matter what, so I’m gonna go crazy and do whatever I want when I want!” It instead makes me want to be a better husband, to extend grace in return, to learn to love more like God loves. 

Contrast this with a law-based approach, say, Emma handing me a formal list of demands that I must follow in our marriage. Even if the demands were all good things to do (e.g. love me, respect me, communicate better, don’t leave empty cereal boxes on the counter, etc.), the very fact that they are “demands” will cause me to rebel. (You may object that no one actually gives other people a list of demands like that; while it is probably true that no one gives out a physical list, I suspect that much of the time we keep some sort of similar mental list either consciously or subconsciously and that this comes out in our words and actions.) Once again we see that grace transforms while law incites the opposite of what it intends. 

To sum up:

Grace and law are everywhere. Be on the lookout.

Grace enlivens and lifts up, while law depresses and incites. How have you seen this play out in your life?

Up next: Grace is Difficult, Law is Easy 

 

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