Grace is simple, yet we still get it wrong. More often than not, we tend to believe that grace is available to everyone with some exceptions. How we qualify those "yes, but" exclusions vary. However, they usually fall into one of two categories.
The first group thinks: "Grace is good enough for me, but not for you." This line of thinking is why we are skeptical when death row inmates claim a religious conversion prior to execution. This is why we have a hard time celebrating ex-cons and parolees who express a new-found faith in God. This is why many Christians think homosexuality is a threat to the sanctity of marriage. It is why they stand on street corners with explicit signs to protest abortion. It is why they hand out tracts trying to scare people into attending church. It is why many Christians are wary of drug addicts, gang members, homeless populations, and people suffering from mental illness. Those with this view of grace want Christianity to be safe. They don't want their sacred walls to be threatened. They want heathens to clean up their act before coming to the foot of the cross.
Luke Skywalker, at the end of Return of the Jedi, spoke against such bias. When referring to Darth Vader, Luke said, "There is still good in him." How could it be? This dark lord could not possibly be good. He slaughtered the younglings in the Jedi temple and participated in the genocide of the Jedi knights. He murdered both allies and enemies in his quest to squash the rebellion. He ordered the destruction of Alderaan. He killed Luke's mentor Obi Wan Kenobi. Every shred of evidence available to Luke Skywalker should have shown that his dad was an evil man beyond the reach of redemption. There is nothing in Vader's resume that made him a worthy recipient of grace. Yet Luke believed in something more than what facts alone could prove. Vader's wrongs didn't matter. Despite his violence and reign of terror, there was something inside Vader that was good enough. Luke showed Vader the undeserved gift of grace.
The second group believes: "Grace is good enough for everyone, but not for me." We hear this rationale when someone jokes about how they would spontaneously combust if they ever stepped inside a church building. This is why people lament 'God could never use someone like me.' We insist we're such a mess but forget that everyone else is too. This failure to accept grace festers inside the church. We will gladly tell anyone "Jesus loves you," then wonder 'does Jesus love me?' We cycle through self-destructive thoughts that we are unlovable and the worst inhabitant of this wretched hive of scum and villainy.
We hear this sentiment permeating pop music. In Beck's breakthrough single, he sang "I'm a loser baby so why don't you kill me." Wheatus was a one-hit-wonder with a song declaring "I'm just a teenage dirtbag." And Radiohead created an anthem for guys like me with their song Creep: "I wish I was special. But I'm a creep. I'm a weirdo. What the hell am I doing here? I don't belong here." It's no wonder that I identify with the latter of these two categories. As Nick Hornby wrote in High Fidelity, "Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?"
I often malign myself as exempt from the grace I believe is available to everyone. It is possibly due to my melancholy disposition or my self-deprecating sense of humor. Or maybe I still have doubts. Even in human interaction, I afford others more grace than I do myself.
In recent years, I discovered (and subsequently embraced) a Latin phrase that has helped me reshape the way I see grace: felix culpa. Literally translated 'happy fault' or 'blessed fall,' the term derived from St Augustine who explained how God thought it was better to bring good from evil than to prevent the existence of evil. In other words, it is of greater benefit for us to experience God's grace when we sin than for us to have never sinned.
Kings Kaleidoscope recorded a song with the same name and it has become one of my favorite records. It is equally primal and vulnerable. Vocalist Chad Gardner admits his flaws, "I'm a torn man ... " then gives it a purpose, "A fortunate fall, my sins are stories of grace to recall." Every time I hear the song, I'm inspired. I see myself in the lyrics as the song continues, "And still I'm a wicked, wretched man, I do everything I hate. I am fighting to be god, I seethe and claw and thrash and shake. I have killed and stacked the dead on a throne from which I reign. In the end I just want blood and with His blood my hands are stained."
Perhaps grace is something most needed when least deserved. Perhaps grace is better in reality than in theory. Perhaps grace is a matter of fortune found in our own faults and flaws. What I know is that I do not fully understand the hows or whys about grace. And I know that I frequently get it wrong. My hope is when telling my story, it speaks just as loud as the closing phrase of Kings Kaleidoscope's Felix Culpa, "Grace upon grace upon grace upon grace."