Earlier today I was watching a video by Tim Keller, a man I highly respect despite certain disagreements, and about 37 minutes in he gives this beautiful and rather spot-on working definition of grace that I absolutely had to transcribe here.
Dear reader, particularly those of you that know me in person; please read this. I cannot stress how important this is. It is the axis upon which my entire life is based. If you think you know me and only know my personality, taste in music, homeland, family, circle of friends, politics, sexuality, sense of humour, school grades, fashion sense, what church I go to or even all of the above, but do not know the following, you do NOT know me. This is the hill on which I die. It is the narrative that has done and continues to transform my attitudes, words and deeds in humility and love. It implicates me in an ongoing process of stripping away my pride and judgementalness, and replacing them with selflessness. And if you read it and think “But Aideen’s a decent human being, she’s not a bad person or a sinner”, then you certainly do not know me.
There are two basic ways of thinking about your self-image. One is what I’m going to call a moral-performance narrative. A moral performance narrative is one which says “I’m okay, I’m a good person, I feel significant and I have worth because I’m achieving something.” So if you are a liberal person and you feel like “I’m a good person because I’m working for the poor and I’m working for human rights and I’m open-minded”, you can’t help – in a moral-performance narrative – you can’t help but look down your nose at bigots. You can’t help but feel superior.
On the other hand, what if you’re a traditional religious person and you go to church and read your Bible or you go to synagogue and read your Bible or you go to Mosque and read the Koran. And you’re working really hard to serve and love God etc. Now in that case you HAVE to look down your nose at people who don’t believe your religion and are not being as good as you are.
And maybe you’re just a secular person and you’re a hard-working, decent chap. You can’t help – if your self-image is based on the idea that you’re a hard-working, decent chap – but look down your nose at people you consider lazy.
But the Gospel is something different. The Gospel says: Jesus Christ comes and saves you. The Gospel says you’re a sinner. The Gospel says you don’t live up to your own standards. There’s no way you’re going to be able to live up to your own standards. The Gospel says that you have failed, that you are a moral failure and that salvation only belongs to those who admit their moral failings. And Jesus came in weakness and died on the cross and says “my salvation is only for weak people. It’s only for people who admit that they’re NOT better than anyone else and they just need mercy.”
If you have a grace narrative – if you say the reason I can look myself in the mirror, the reason I know I have significance is Jesus died for me – you can’t feel superior to anybody. I’ve got a Hindu neighbour in my apartment building, and I think he’s wrong about the trinity, I think he’s wrong about a lot of things…but he’s probably a better father than me. He could be a much better man, why? “But aren’t you a Christian, he’s a Hindu, don’t you think he has the truth?” Yes but here’s the TRUTH! The truth is I’m a sinner, I’m saved by grace, so why in the world…? I’m not saved because I’m a better man, I’m saved because I’m a worse man, really!
And so what happens is the grace narrative takes away the superiority and removes that slippery slope that leads from superiority to separation to caricature to passive and then active oppression. It just takes it away.