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Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Heart is an Involuntary Muscle~my struggle to understand grace

Living a life infused with grace is a challenge I cannot live up to. Grace has become such a buzzword in Christian churches. Grace, grace, grace. It is like a mantra that we repeat thinking that if we just talk about grace enough, one day we will finally understand its reality. I have struggled so much with understanding grace. How do I know this? Because I can observe from my life that I have difficulty extending grace to others, hence I know that I haven’t really understood it enough for it to make a real practical difference. Grace that is effective is grace that transforms my life to the point of not just being a grace-taker or grace-receiver but a grace-giver. I am great at receiving grace. The parable of the ungrateful servant who has been forgiven a huge sum and then cannot forgive a co-worker a minor amount is a good example of this kind of grace-receiving. It is a selfish attitude. It is a heartless attitude. I deserve to receive grace, but my neighbor doesn’t, which at its core is obviously a complete misunderstanding of grace because grace is not earned or deserved. I “deserve” to receive grace is an oxymoron. But that is what I so often do when we have a judgmental spirit or react to others with a superior attitude. “How could she be that way?” “I can’t believe he said that” “What possessed her to react that way?” I make myself the moral judge of behavior and add to that offense the offense of believing that God couldn’t possibly love them for that or use them because of these flaws. This graceless, heartless attitude is, at its core, far worse that the sin I pick apart in others. It has taken me years to understand this and I am still not there yet. I still get so frustrated with people whom I think should have their act together, from whom I expect more.

The question for most Christians is not primarily “How can I understand grace?” but “How can I live grace?” The problem most of us face is that the teaching we receive on grace is intellectual, but its practical application remains completely elusive. A purely intellectual explanation of grace will never fully satisfy us because the concept is incomprehensible to our finite minds. Our minds function logically, at least for most of us! Most of us would expect the mathematical equation of sin+God=punishment. Rationally, we cannot understand that God’s equation is sin+God (Jesus)=grace. And though we might ascertain to the truth of the equation intellectually, it is a completely different matter to stand behind it existentially. Often it is because we leave Jesus out of the equation that we end up with a wrong result: legalism, self-righteousness or judgmentalism.  I wish we would quit saying that grace is the solution to all our problems. It is like saying that what our physical bodies need is blood as the source of our physical life. No, what we need is a well functioning heart. One can be infused with blood but without a pumping heart, all the blood in the world won’t do us any good. It is the same with grace. Grace is our spiritual life substance, yes, but without the heart, Jesus himself, that grace cannot be infused successfully. We cannot produce grace in ourselves. It is counter-intuitive. Our sinful hearts don’t produce grace. That’s the whole nature of grace and that’s why so many of us get bogged down in our sin because sometimes, even though we recognize we need grace for ourselves and for those around us, we are incapable of producing it. Why? Because we cannot make our heart beat! The heart is an involuntary muscle. Have you ever tried to make your heart beat? I did as a child, and realized it was an impossible task and all I could do was thank God that he gave me a well-functioning heart and pray that he would keep it beating on and on and on. But you know, it is a good thing that we don’t have to remember to make our hearts beat! Why? Because we can’t. We would forget. We would all be dead within minutes! 

I still grapple with the concept of grace. I still misunderstand it constantly. But the reality is: “It is no longer I but Christ who lives in me” (the apostle Paul). This means, he has surgically removed my heart of stone and given me a heart of flesh, the heart of Jesus himself. I don’t understand this truth because when I look at my life and the struggles within my heart, I most often cannot see Jesus’ heart. Here is where I am challenged to lay aside the desire to understand everything and to simply believe the truth of the great exchange. Because God looked on me with favor, not because I merited it, he has taken my sin upon himself and given me a new heart, his heart, and it is growing in me daily. And here is where genuine Christians can relax. We don’t have to remember to make our hearts beat. Our heart, the heart of Jesus himself beats automatically in us in spite of our own failings. We have the heart of Jesus and the lifeblood he pumps through us is grace. The heart transplant has already taken place. I don’t have to be my own surgeon constantly tinkering around trying to improve on the great physician’s work. So let’s quit trying to produce our own life blood and let him do it for us.  Let’s see grace not as the goal in and of itself but focus on the heart of the matter: Jesus himself. Jesus was able to extend grace to the point of offering up his life blood for us because his heart was completely healthy and large enough to infuse his love through the entire universe. I need to see grace as a by-product of a healthy heart. I need to work on getting to know his heart and letting it infuse my being. And though grace may still be elusive to me because God’s plans and logic far surpass mine, I cling to the promise that the old is gone and the new has come.  My old heart is shriveling up and my new heart is gorged and pumping grace to every extremity of my being. Thank God! The heart is an involuntary muscle.