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Just Thinking

I Was Just Thinking … about Grace and Reconciliation, Part 1

When I was becoming an Army Ranger in late 1969, the cadre emphasized, in many ways, that we were members of a team, and that we would not succeed in our combat missions unless we were in tune with and in sync with one another. “Cooperate and graduate” became our mantra. Fast forward twenty nine years to the spring of 1998, when I served as chaplain for the 6th Ranger Training Battalion, which is responsible for operating the final phase of Ranger training. The training culminates in a nine-day combat exercise. During the run-up to this exercise and the first two days of it, I’d spend time with each of the five platoons getting to know the candidates. Through this process, I became aware of a serious conflict between two young men in one of the platoons, and that both of them were believers.

On the morning of the third day of the exercise, we had thirty minutes for a worship service. We divided the battalion into three groups: the non-religious, the Roman Catholics, and the Protestants. Tradition for this worship service was to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. I introduced the event by reading Paul’s summary of its significance from 1 Corinthians 11. At this point, the Spirit led me in an odd direction: I quoted the passages about reconciliation from Matthew 5 and Mark 11. Then I offered the men the opportunity to go to anyone in the group to seek reconciliation if they were in conflict. In my heart, I hoped the two men would seek each other out. To my great surprise and amazement, everyone on the hillside moved. Ten minutes later, when we finally broke the bread and drank the cup, there was real communion, a joyous unity that changed the battalion’s dynamic for the rest of the training evolution.

In our communities—whether they be church communities, geopolitical communities, work communities, organizational communities, recreational communities, or family communities—the process of reconciliation is crucial to creating and maintaining a climate of peace; and grace is crucial to the process of reconciliation that reestablishes this environment.

Grace: What is it? Over the years, when I ask people what “grace” is, the most common response is, “Grace is unmerited favor.” And most people perceive this favor in terms of forgiveness, because, after all, we are “saved by grace.” This definition and this emphasis are not helpful or satisfying because they emphasize only the unworthiness of the recipient while saying nothing about the motive that prompts the initiator; and they emphasize, almost to the exclusion of anything else, only one kind of gracious action. So we need a better definition.

“Joy” and “grace” share the same etymological root in Greek (χαρά and χαρίς), but “unmerited favor” fails to provide a satisfactory way to connect them. As a definition “unmerited favor” is unhelpful because a proper definition describes the limits of thing, both by specifying the category that includes it and its unique differences or distinguishing properties. “Unmerited favor” fails to fulfill the requirements of a definition in that “favor” does not indicate a category, but a specific thing. “Favor” is a synonym of “grace,” not a definition of it, because it is impossible to think of favor as anything other than the activity of doing something beneficial for someone.

A better, less restrictive definition of grace is “the action that originates in the joy of one person in order to create a corresponding joy in another.” In this definition the overarching category is “activity,” and the distinguishing characteristics are “arising from joy” and “creating joy.” This definition satisfyingly explains how the Greeks extended their vocabulary from joy (χαρά) to grace (χαρίς). And, in this definition, we see that the origin and power of grace reside in the person who is gracious, regardless of any characteristics of the recipient. So, for example, the term “grace” applies when I am so happy with my new car that I invite someone else to experience the joy of driving it. This seems to be what Paul means when he concludes in Ephesians 2:7 that in the coming age—after sin is out of the picture and God’s resurrected people exist in a glorified state just like Jesus’—the infinitely happy God will demonstrate the richness of his inclination for us to enjoy what he enjoys about himself by extending useful kindnesses to us. He is rich in grace because he is rich in joy.

But we don’t need to wait … (actually we will wait until Part 2 to see how we apply this to peacemaking and reconciliation)


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