When people learn that I’m not a theist, I’m sometimes told in a very knowing way that only theists have a theory of grace. The reason lies in the definition of grace that many use: “God’s unmerited favor, love, or help.”
When it’s put it that way, I suppose there’s no theory of grace for the rest of us. But leaving deity out of it for a moment, I for one receive “unmerited favor, love, and help” every day. Sure, I’m a lucky guy. But not unique. The people, the animals, and the planet around me offer this unmerited favor, love, and help. Right here, in this world.
Grace. Were I to have a heart attack today, there would be people to help. EMTs. Nurses. Doctors. Hospital personnel, from intake specialists to custodians. Many people would even pull over on the highway to let an ambulance go by. Grace. Merited only because I’m be a human being in need. That’s grace for the rest of us.
The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer issued a reality check to Sunday Christians with a concept he called cheap grace: “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”
Repentance. Discipline. Confession. Bonhoeffer had very specific ideas and procedures in mind with these words. Yet, out of their Christian context, they are still a call to authenticity—sorrow for falling short of our aspirations; a commitment to being committed. And admitting that sometimes we’re dead wrong.
Doing the right thing has a cost.
This is one of those unavoidable rules of reality.
In this world, grace costs. It costs those who give it and those who get it—at least the responsible ones, because we ought to pay it back, as well as we can. That’s what keeps the human project from going off the rails.
Cheap grace is unearned grace. An assumed, entitled grace without the sweat and tears required to achieve authentic meaning and purpose in this life, an authenticity and purpose that pays back.
Repentance. Discipline. Confession.
Confession: Oh, how it hurts to admit you were wrong. Discipline: A commitment to staying committed, even in the face of failure. Repentance: Enough regret at falling short of our aspirations to get off the floor and try again.
May we, wherever we are on the theism-atheism spectrum, embrace the grace that the world and its living things sends our way. And earn it by giving it away.