“That was it. That was all of it. A grace so ordinary there was no reason at all to remember it. Yet I have never across the forty years since it was spoken forgotten a single word.”
I recently read a novel by William Kent Kreuger called “Ordinary Grace”, and it set me thinking on the message of grace I so dearly love. The book is told from the perspective of Frank, who is an adult telling the story of the summer of his thirteenth year, a summer of tragedy. His younger brother Jake had a severe stutter, and many of the kids in their small town belittled him for it.
Frank’s father was a Methodist minister, but he had not started out with a desire to go into the ministry. He had studied at a prestigious school to become a hotshot lawyer, and Frank’s mother fell in love with him at that time. Then he went off to fight in WWII, and came back a guilt-wracked and broken man. However, Frank’s mother did not have an easy time making peace with having to become a pastor’s wife. In fact there was a thinly veiled resentment there.
One of the summer’s tragic events affected their family directly, and some townspeople gathered at their house for a meal to show support. Everyone waited for the minister to pray, and he contemplated for an uncomfortably long time what to say. Finally in complete exacerbation Frank’s mother said, for once, can you just say ordinary grace?! Frank’s brother Jake stepped up, and stutteringly offered to say grace. So everyone bowed their head, and Jake said a completely ordinary grace – without stuttering once. And he never stuttered again. In the midst of an unspeakable tragedy, through ordinary grace, he was miraculously healed – and it wasn’t certain that anyone even quite noticed at the time!
People are forever trying to complicate grace. It can’t be the ordinary gospel – it has to be the “full” gospel or the “radical” gospel or the “social” gospel. Apparently nothing is more useless than the simple fact that Christ has died for our sins. Yet I think that the ordinary gospel is the one thing that has the power to heal us:
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.” – Romans 1:16-17 NASB
What exactly is “ordinary” grace?
- Ordinary grace is not pressure to be nice to bad people. When a church emphasizes grace, there is always the danger that the display of grace becomes a standard of law. It may or may not be good to be nice to bad people. And we know that everyone is bad anyway (Romans 3:23), so if you’re going to be nice to anyone, your choices are certainly limited. It is a wonderful ideal to say that we ought to extend extraordinary kindness to batshit crazy people who want to take our shirts and slap us around and be our enemies. However, we must remember that this is law – a standard under which we cannot stand. I have been told so many times that “my” grace message was invalid because I am not somehow patient or nice enough. It doesn’t occur to them that by the same token they ought to be patient with me! In the end, we need Christ at the center of our fellowship because the closer we get relationally, the more chance we have to fail and offend each other. If that is what it takes to invalidate grace we are doomed. The message of Christ is not that we should let people slap us. It is that we are greatly loved although we are slappers. We may or may not attain to that standard somehow, but ordinary grace does not extend from us. It extends from God Almighty in the person of Jesus Christ.
- Ordinary grace is not acceptance of your ordinariness. This too can easily become a law. It is true that we are greatly loved even if we are not extraordinary. However, we are also loved if we are ambitious or successful at some enterprise or art. God does not maintain his posture of extraordinary love towards us simply because we are ordinary or extraordinary. He loves us because He loves us.
- Grace is the steadfast stubborn love of God towards us. I used to wonder why, of all things, Christians obsessed so much over forgiveness. It seems a strange point of emphasis. Many indeed have decided to marginalize this simple grace to emphasize victorious living or progressive sanctification. But it seems deeply obvious that Christ and Him crucified for sinners is the core message of the gospel, and that if we neglect so great a salvation we lose the manifest power of God in our lives.
This book is an allegory for something that has become very important and very central for me. The simple ordinary gospel of Christ and Him crucified for sinners is the great power of God for us. It creates tiny little unnoticeable miracles in us, things which may seem inconsequential in the huge stream of struggle and tragedy and sin that courses through our lives. But the miracles are real, and God chooses strange and unexpected times to manifest His power in our lives. It is through ordinary grace that He entrusts us with the treasure of “momentary light affliction” which will result in “an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” It is many times a grace we do not think we want, and that is even more reason why it is ordinary grace. The extraordinary glory of God is hidden in the mundane repetition of eating the bread and drinking the wine of the new covenant, week after week and year after year. In the end, 100,000 years into our experience of heaven, He will still be standing on the throne, a lamb as if slain, and He will still be extraordinary to our souls.
11 Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders; and the number of them was myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands, 12 saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.” 13 And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying, “To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.” 14 And the four living creatures kept saying, “Amen.” And the elders fell down and worshiped. – Revelation 5:11-14 NASB