A few weeks ago I had a brief conversation with my friend Abbie about the nature of God’s grace, whether it is violent or gentle. To be honest, we didn’t really get into it–we were really talking more about Christian writers and who each of us tended to gravitate towards–but I have been thinking about violence ever since.
I have been thinking about what Marilynne Robinson calls Flannery O’ Connor’s “appalling imagination” and about how that imagination is pretty nearly reflective of the contents of the human heart. I have been thinking about Jacob wrestling with God all night, how he demands a blessing, and how, as the sun rises, he walks away with a limp. And I have been thinking of a Man dying naked and alone of asphyxiation on a wooden cross and knowing it was love.
Throughout human history, many of our truest examples of promise and mercy are red with blood. I believe that violence is usually ugly, and very often wicked and repugnant. The school shooting this week? I do not believe that it was grace. I believe that it was evil. I also believe that God can bring grace out of that situation, but even that is not what I’m talking about.
What I am talking about is our hearts, those hearts meeting God in a dark alley. Coming around a corner and finding the light of light, very God of very God standing there, right where we least expected him. He stands and he offers goodness and grace, but those meetings are so often violent because sinful people like you and me will naturally rebel against goodness. He is gargantuan and clear and bright. We are dusty and crumbling. The light is too brilliant, and it burns us clean and refines us, strips the rot out of our souls. The flames rise higher and higher around us, and we are not consumed.
But isn’t God gentle? Doesn’t he care for the orphan and the widow and the sparrow? Can’t his changes in our hearts be soft and his love be sweet? Perhaps Jacob did walk away with a limp, but didn’t the lepers leap for joy, and run? Christ bid the little children to come to him. I know he meant it.
I am going back to the basics here (I’ve been doing that a lot lately, for my own benefit), but God made us and God loves us. He knows the caverns of our hearts. He knows whether they need soft light or a sharp blaze. He knows how to mold with strong, sure hands. He both pays the fee and does the labor to make us whole, so he knows every part of the job.
I am making a muddy-eyed conclusion, as I usually do, but I think that for most of us children of God, our relationship with the Lord’s grace will be like that of Paul. He goes towards Damascus with murder in his heart, and is knocked down and blinded by the light. Then as he lies in the darkness, God sends Ananias as a bearer of grace to pray for him and baptize him. He gains new sight and a new name. When he leaves that place, everything is different. This is most of our stories, told again and again and again. It is the story of our daily lives. We learn love slow.
“Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.”