I used to have a problem with grace.
Not the southern genteel type grace… Although, I’m sure I know a few people who think I have a problem with that now.
The grace I had a problem with was specifically with that of forgiveness in God through Jesus; however, the issue revealed itself elsewhere as well, such as being given to generously in some form or another.
My problem was, and at times still is now, that I’d much rather have reciprocity.
The problem was that of wrong perception.
Perhaps it stems from that southern genteel ideology, so when you are given something you give back because you should. Don’t ask me from where the notion comes; all I know is that it is considered polite and if anything gives off the impression that you aren’t a leech. Either that, or it could stem from a notion of equality. You give back when given to so you don’t owe anyone anything, keeping you on equal ground with the other. That could just as easily have a root in indebtedness. Of course no one likes to be in debt and the desire spills over into relationships, so you return gifts as quickly as possible to keep yourself out of debt. This ensures never having to have the debt called forcing your to give when you can ill afford to. Or, perhaps it could stem from pride, you return a gift so that you feel equally capable of being generous and that you will be seen as equally generous by the other.
This has seeped into every aspect of gift giving, we either return a favor or we say a “thank you” and then go home and write a thank you note and send it to them in the mail. We are invited to an event, that we could not otherwise attend, no strings attached and we successfully attach strings by needing to reciprocate in someway.
All of these scenarios ultimately feed a sense of shame or guilt, be it major or minor, so that when you do not return a favor/gift these feelings creep up, because you’re indebted, or you feel like you look like a leech, or because you think that they think they now have something over you, or you’re impolite. It’s not even as if these feelings are legitimate most of the time (although sometimes I’m sure they are because you are perceived as such), but, even if they are true, they are driven primarily by social norms, not some objective law. This hollow perception, then, drives us to do things not because it is our true desire to do them, but because we should.
Granted there are times in our lives when we should do things regardless of whether not we have pure desire in doing them. However, I would think this should hold true not in reciprocity but in initiative. That is, it should occur when we are called to step beyond ourselves to give something without having first been given to and don’t expect to receive anything in return.
All said, this reciprocity can be said to be enslaving. You are driven to do things because you should. It is not out of the goodness of one’s heart, nor is it out of any sense of love. It’s motive lie in the expectations of someone else, more than likely its probably perceived expectations. Thus, we are enslaved to reciprocity and it becomes a burden, both physically and mentally.
Worse, we take this purely human, social construct, transfer it and set it up in our relation to God. It’s driven in one part by a misunderstanding of God… that for us to obligatory return God’s favor is ultimately what God is looking for. It’s driven, secondly, by a misunderstanding of ourselves… that the obligatory favors we are returning are desirable or that or gifts would ever truly be reciprocal.
These two things then drive an utterly misunderstood notion of grace. Grace isn’t something done by God because he’s polite, nice, or just generous. Our conception of reciprocity between humans doesn’t translate to God and us, and grace. God doesn’t bestow grace on us to enable us to return favors back to him, nor would those returned favors even be worthy anything.
First of all, why would we want that? It only leads to the same enslaving shame and guilt as before. Trapping us forever into a life of obligatory servitude, preventing us from frustration, preventing us from doubt, preventing us from questioning, anger, grief, etc. It denies us our own humanity. Why would we want that?
Second of all why would we want a God who wants that? This God isn’t liberating. This God is like a schoolmaster who disseminates useless knowledge then enslaves you with tests, readings, essays, and homework that you must do well on lest you fail the class. Ultimately this gracious God isn’t really gracious at all.
To truly get grace we need to correct our misunderstandings: God doesn’t want reciprocity. Our reciprocity is utterly inadequate. God doesn’t bestow grace to enables us to be better worshipers, God does so to enable us to be more human. That is God wants to turn us back into what we were made to be in the beginning, he wants to restore us. Our reciprocity could never do that. Reciprocity can never restore us or make us more human, only God can do that. What we should then do is not be more reciprocal, but be more human, live out who we are made to be and we were made to be the image of God. Thus, we should love and in that love we give God exactly what he wants and human that is living out their God-ness.