If you asked most Christians about the meaning of grace, they’d probably tell you it’s the “unmerited favor of God”. Not a bad answer, but one that’s just academic enough to keep you from staring straight into the face of grace. Grace is powerful, audacious, and dangerous! If grace ever got free reign in our lives or in our churches, it would begin a rapid and radical transformation.
A great illustration of grace is a scene from Les Miserables, Victor Hugo’s timeless tale about a peasant who is sentenced to hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread. Released from jail, Jean Valjean is offered brief sanctuary in the home of a priest.
Despite being treated with dignity for the first time in years, Valjean steals the priest’s valuable silverware. To make matters worse, the clergyman catches Valjean in the act, but he escapes by beating the priest. The next day, the police brought Valjean back to the priest’s home, and laughingly say, “This man claims you gave him this silver.”
The priest immediately replies, “Why yes! There you are, my friend! You left so quickly that you forgot to take the candelabras that I gave you also.” He then disappears into his house and returns with silver candelabras, but as he hands them to Valjean, he whispers, “Don’t forget what your freedom has cost me. Now live your life accordingly.”
What a Christ-like moment! That scene also demonstrates the tremendous cost of grace, both for the giver and the receiver. Valjean goes on the live a life of grace, supporting the poor and adopting a young orphan who he must ransom out of servitude.
Do you suppose for a minute that a harsher approach by the priest could have gotten a better response from Jean Valjean? Then why do we expect people to behave better when we “Tsk, tsk, tsk” and shame them into behaving properly rather than modeling for them the kind of grace that will change them far more radically and permanently?
Grace allows people to make choices and assumes they’ll make the best choice. Grace is free and flowing and unencumbered by guilt or shame or fear, for true grace says, “I know all about you, and I still love you with a godly acceptance.”
Most of us, if we were completely honest, function as if God were stingy with His grace. We fear His punishment, in the sense that we think God is a school principal walking the halls, taking down names of who did what and who’s to blame? Yet, God already knows who did what and who’s to blame, and he still loves us anyway. His interest is in redeeming us, not in keeping us on the hook for our sins.