A Question Of Grace
Richard Mulholland is without a doubt one of the smartest people I know. Not only that, but I consider him a close personal friend and confidante. We’ve been through similar challenges, both in terms of running businesses and running lives, and I know for myself that I am deeply grateful for the role he’s played in my life. In my book he’s a proper legend.
The interesting thing is that we’ve built our friendship, and I dare say common respect for each other, despite the fact that there is a glaring difference between us; I am a Christian – a follower of Jesus – and he’s a “militant atheist” (to quote Rich himself). Rich is not shy to express his opinion(s) either – and he always makes a compelling argument. This post is a response to a recent debate that started on Twitter after I retweeted the following Phillip Yancey (I have no explanation for his hairstyle) quote: “I left the church because I found so little grace there. I came back because I found grace nowhere else.”
I retweeted it specifically because I identified with Yancey’s experience of the church, and also because having read some of his literature, I understand the definition of grace in the context that Yancey uses it. Rich took exception to the quote, saying “how sad for you (and Yancey). I find grace all over the place. Open your eyes/mind”. And so a debate ensued.
In the interest of not clouding Twitter with our argument, I decided to explain what I meant here. Rich felt that I was making a sweeping statement about the “un-churched” (by which I presume he means people that don’t go to a church), implying that if you don’t go to church you’re unable to display grace. This was certainly not my intention at all.
There are three things about the quote I want to pick up on that will hopefully paint a clearer picture of what I was saying. Firstly, the quote does not state that “people find grace nowhere else”, it spoke specifically of Yancey’s personal experience. I shared his sentiments, having worked in the church and belonged to churches for many years and being surprised at just how ungracious a place the ‘body of Christ’ can be in reality. This was not an attempt at educating anyone, pointing fingers at anyone or even making a general statement about anyone – it was simply a quote that stood out to me as representative of my journey. That’s my first point, Rich – this was not at all meant to be a statement in general, and I apologise if it was taken as so.
Secondly I want to talk about the definitions of ‘grace’ and ‘church’. How you react to this particular quote revolves primarily around how you understand these terms. Rich was unimpressed when I said that our definitions may be different, as he believes that “Grace is grace… good will, caring, compassion. All those things exist everywhere.” I couldn’t agree more on that point Rich – I’ve experienced goodwill, caring and compassion everywhere and on a daily basis. But I said GRACE for a reason – because although grace incorporates things like goodwill, caring and compassion on one layer, for me it has a far deeper meaning and implication. Without wanting to get too theological, my very simple explanation for my definition of grace is something like unconditional love. Or, to use one of the definitions in the list that Rich provided, “the freely given, unmerited favor and love of god.” That’s my definition of grace, and I don’t expect it to be Rich’s, I simply expect him to understand that that is the context I used the word in.
On a personal note my entire Christian journey has been characterised by a struggle (and now I’m really sharing) to understand the concept of grace. For some reason it is very difficult to understand why God would love me without me earning that love. This struggle plays out in my relationship with God and with others – I always feel that I need to do something, or be someone, to be loved outright. In my relationship with God and in community with people who share my beliefs I have at times tasted just a small sample of that grace, and it is the reason I still believe what I do. It has been asked of me more than once, “why does someone as smart as you believe in God?”… My response is, because I have experienced his gracious love in an undeniably tangible way. That is my reality, and I cannot escape it.
Then, I mentioned that I wanted to explain my understanding of the word ‘church’ too. Church, as I understand it, is not a building. It’s not a set of rules, dogma and legalism arranged into various denominations either. I could care less for religion – its laws, its institutions, its rules. I believe that ‘church’ is a community of people who believe what you believe and want to share, learn, grow and worship with you in that belief. And ideally in a state of grace. So church can be me and two mates at Tashas over a cup of coffee, if need be. It can also be Rhema. And everything in between. But I make a big distinction between Church and Religion. Religion is fraught with powerful individuals trying to prove they are right and everyone else is wrong. I don’t subscribe to that, not one bit. I’d like to believe that my friends have never experienced me as the kind of Christian who forces his beliefs on others, but at the same time as someone that is not afraid to call himself Christian.
I simply meant to say, by retweeting Yancey’s quote, that the church still has relevance in my faith journey because I experience some of God’s unconditional love through the community of believers I worship with. I haven’t experienced that unconditional love outside of that environment. Maybe I have been blind or naive, and I apologise if I come across short-sighted, but I have not. I have no doubt Rich and I will agree to disagree on this one, and I’m ok with that, what I am not ok with is him thinking that I am implying there is nothing good outside of the church. Rich, dude, that is just not true, and that is just not me.
Let the flaming commence… ;)