I’ve heard a disconcerting phrase quipped more recently by a couple of well-known pastors and Christian speakers. The idea is that if you are asked how you are doing, because of God’s grace in your life, you should respond, “Better than I deserve.”
I was irked the first time I heard it and every time after, I became more and more reactive. I began to question the phrase and realized my own life with God could not incorporate this quip. I think I understand that those who say it are trying to conceptualize God’s great gift to us, Grace, in a simple and succinct phrase, a sort of liturgical reminder to oneself throughout the day of God’s grace and what it means to you.
While I can resonate with liturgical reminders of God’s goodness interspersed throughout the day, I at the same time couldn’t reconcile this phrase with my understanding of God’s goodness. It is one way of accessing the topic of grace, but places grace in an opposing dynamic to sin, rather than over sin in a position that overwhelms. Grace both enters the world of retributive ethics – where humans are very comfortable – and transcends the world of retributive ethics. As God entered the world through Christ as a human, just like us, Christ resurrected and became a human that both belonged to but also transcended the world we still belong to. 1 Corinthians 15 instructs us that our post-resurrection bodies will be of a completely different sort or kind than that which we currently experience. Yet, though the resurrected Christ had a similar body from before the resurrection, his post-resurrection body was his real body and that which exists up to this day. Though similar, our resurrected body will be better and more real than our current body. As one famous author quipped, “we are playing the piano with oven mitts on.”
In the same way, you and I are stuck in a retributive world view, but that world is meant to be transcended rather than ratified. Grace is the dynamic by which God enters our world of deserving and not deserving, but then at the same time gives us the ability to transcend the limits of a retributive worldview.
Grace breaks us free from a retributive view of life.
Retribution is not the opposite of grace as if retribution could be cancelled by grace as a base is to an acid. Rather Grace overwhelms and subsumes a retributive view of life utterly disintegrating the need (and normal human desire) to exist based on the limits of a “cause and effect” universe.
The actions of the Father in the story of the Lost Son of Luke 15 did not transform the son because he received something he didn’t deserve. Rather, the Father’s actions obliterated his need to deserve anything at all, and replaced that retributive perspective with an assurance that he belonged and had always belonged to the Father. As long as the son thought he did or didn’t deserve anything – he was trapped in a world that God only visited in order to rescue people from it.
Notice what happens to the son’s dialogue before and after the Father’s embrace in Luke 15!
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
Notice what he gets rid of – he gets rid his self-appointed mechanism (working to pay back his debt), a feature of retributive ethics by which something has to be paid in order for reconciliation of any sort to take place. Some have suggested that the killing of the fatted calf is the place in which a sacrificial lamb had to die for the sins of the son. This represents quite a reach and actually is idolatrous as the fatted calf is being offered to the son, not to God. This a celebratory act that was very common in the ancient Near East as form of great honor for the one for whom the feast is being held.
To suggest that the fatted calf represents a atoning sacrifice in the story only serves to reinforce that humans cannot imagine forgiveness and reconciliation taking place without some sort of violent atoning transaction – somebody needs to pay. This impulse is exactly what the story is attempting to unravel and do away with. In this story, there is no sacrifice, no transaction, or any external means by which the son is forgiven. Instead, the father absorbs into his being the shame of the son in full view of the whole village and his household. The father atones for the sin of his son by annihilating (causing it to no longer exist) the shame through the practice of absorption.
Atonement as Absorption, not Transaction
The Father atones for his shame by absorbing his sin into himself because he knows that what the son needs is to transcend the world in which being deserving and undeserving only perpetuate a retributive view of God. Job’s friends wanted Job to perpetuate a God like this, but Job couldn’t. He was a just man, but he came to understand that God doesn’t fit only in a retributive world. Rather God accommodates at times our retributive view of him and allows us to project those dynamics upon him. While God allows himself to be understood retributively, he by no means is limited to that world and many times we find him breaking out of it. In essence, he enters the retributive world that we are comfortable with, accommodates our limits but then adds stories like the Lost Son in order to break us out of the closed myth of retribution into the a whole new ethical realm, where forgiveness doesn’t require a lamb, a judge or a transaction of punishment. Instead, the shame and destruction we’ve caused is absorbed by our Father never to be seen again.
By re-entrusting the son with the Father’s estate (ring), publicly re-endowing him with celebratory honor (cloak and feast), reassuring him of sonship not servanthood (sandals) and running to embrace him and kiss him in full public view, the sons rhetoric of receiving forgiveness no longer included his desired role of a workman, intended to pacify monetary loss of his vaporized inheritance and the related shame. The actions of the Father caused the son to now know that instead of receiving what he didn’t deserve, instead he had received a new heart that finally understood that to deserve anything was never part of the Father’s equation. There actually never was an equation.
Grace doesn’t tell you, “you are doing better than you deserve.” Grace tells you that you are a daughter or a son and that you’ve always belonged and there will never come a day when you don’t. It entrusts to you when you yourself don’t feel trustworthy, it embraces you when you have rejected those who needed embrace, it kisses you when you have taken advantage of intimacy offered you, it lifts up your head when you have knocked others to the ground, it serves you when you have demanded to only be served, it celebrates you when you have jealously condescended those who needed affirmation, it runs to you when you stood by while the crowd derided those on the margins. It rescues you when you would rather not be helped and it teaches you how to truly receive rather than demand to be the one who gives so that others can receive. While I believe the words of Jesus, “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” it is also true, that in the midst of shame, it is more difficult to truly receive than it is to cover up your shame by being the one who insists on giving.
You are not “better than you deserve” so the next time you are asked how you’re doing, maybe you could just try saying, “fine.” People who feel fine don’t worry about whether or not they belong. They also don’t worry about whether or not they deserve to feel fine – they just do.