Why is it so hard to be gracious towards others?

Keith Mitchell continues Eternity’s new Everyday Theology series with this reflection on grace.

Most of us are aware that grace is an amazing thing and a sweet sound if we are acquainted with that famous hymn Amazing Grace by John Newton. We may also understand that the embodiment of the good news of the gospel is immersed in grace, as we consider Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and what he did for humanity by dying on the cross and taking our place in punishment.

Many biblical narratives highlight that God is a person of grace; of undeserved favour who endows gifts freely upon us. Grace depicts who God is, fully revealed in Jesus Christ. It cannot be purchased through any merit, payment or effort of our own. The Bible shows that God is the giver of grace (Ephesians 2:8-9) and he calls for us to do the same towards others (Ephesians 5:1-2).

It certainly seems easy to receive grace, but it’s much harder to offer it to others as a default position in life. So why is it that we are instructed to be gracious towards others through forgiving (Colossians 3:12-13), loving (Matthew 5:43-48) and doing good (Hebrews 13:16), yet can struggle to practise graciousness in various circumstances?

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I believe that God looks at us and the world through gracious eyes. However, we humans need a correction to be able to do the same. We need to put lenses of grace into our spiritual eyeglasses, so to speak. I think there are three main reasons why people do not utilise these corrective lenses in their lives as their default position:

1. Influence of our society

We live in a secularised society of distraction with distorted philosophies and views that can espouse a warped view of God as only wrathful and vengeful rather than gracious, loving and kind. When we fail to have the lenses of grace over our eyes, we can see God in this way.

Believers of Jesus Christ need to counter the cultural narrative that conflicts with the biblical picture of grace.

However, in various Bible passages God is described as gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Exodus 34:6- 7, Psalm 86:15, Jonah 4:2b). In fact, Jesus even stood against the cultural norm of his day when asked to judge a woman caught in adultery. He offers her grace instead of punishment (John 8:1-11).

Believers of Jesus Christ need to counter the cultural narrative that conflicts with the biblical picture of grace. This means defaulting to a posture that embraces God as good, loving, kind and abounding in grace. For instance, in the Book of Jonah, the city of Nineveh is spared from God’s destruction because of his grace (Jonah 3:1-10), despite the prophet Jonah seeing that the Ninevites did not deserve forgiveness.

2. Lack of understanding

I wonder if we really understand the depths of grace and the cost that lies beneath it. Sometimes, I think that we need to experience it, or identify the experience of it in others, to then recognise what grace looks like. Books such as those by Philip Yancey, Brennan Manning and Max Lucado have brought a focus to me over the years in my understanding and expression of grace, because they provide illustration of what it can look like.

Grace is audacious, ridiculous, unfair and reckless; yet, is the most delightful, sweet, stupendous, marvellous, amazing and spectacular thing we can experience in our lifetime.

As with any gift, we need to accept it so that we can be a vessel for others to experience it. In essence, grace is a practical and embodied experience, rather than just a taught concept. When we encounter and embrace it experientially, our understanding becomes integrated in our own lives. Then we can more effectively offer it to others.

An offer of grace might just allow differences to be accepted and considered, rather than dismissing the other person for their view.

3. Effort and energy required

Emotional and thoughtful energy is required when we consider offering grace, and sometimes the effort to offer it can seem overwhelming. It is so much easier to be black and white, so to speak, rather than allow for any grey. Taking a strict dual position on some issues as right or wrong, good or bad, hope or hopeless, faith or faithless, and so on, can be callous and ungracious.

Instead, some life situations are grey and require deeper biblical contemplation, contextual thinking, pastoral insight and rethinking theological frames that we previously held. For instance, some people hold that God created the world in six 24-hour days, while others see God creating through a longer and more evolutionary approach over millennia. Both are plausible approaches to creation. However, an offer of grace might just allow differences to be accepted and considered, rather than dismissing the other person for their view.

To make it easier to offer grace in more serious situations, practise on small matters, such as accepting the person who pushed in the queue at the supermarket or driving on the road. These small acts can breed a pattern in our lives that, over time, can make it easier to offer grace in the future on bigger matters.

So I want to encourage you to keep wearing those spectacles of grace to correct your spiritual eyesight and make it easier to offer grace to others, just as you embrace it in your own life. I invite you to further consider the words of the hymn Amazing Grace: “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

Rev. Dr Keith Mitchell is a senior lecturer at Morling College and teaches people in pastoral and practical areas.

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