Across the spectrum of global spirituality, is there anything unique to the Christian faith?
Those attending a British conference on comparative religions in the middle of the last century debated that very question. When all is said and done, is there anything associated with following Jesus that has no parallel?
How about the Incarnation? That didn’t fly, since other religions include stories of various gods taking on human form. The resurrection, perhaps? That’s not unique to Christianity, either, since others make claims of people rising from the dead.
Miracles? Angels and demons? Guidance provided through dreams and visions? None of those are unique to the faith associated with Jesus of Nazareth.
The debate continued until author and theologian C.S. Lewis wandered into the room. “What’s the rumpus about?” he asked. When told that the delegates were trying to identify what, if anything, makes Christianity stand apart from other religious options, he said, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”
That was the end of the discussion.
There is in fact nothing else in the world that holds a candle to Jesus’ teaching that God’s love and acceptance are absolutely free and unconditional.
That idea, however, goes so strongly against the grain of human instinct that virtually all the religions on earth (not to mention a number of churches that have lost their way) end up promoting a set of spiritual self-improvement strategies. God will favor us if we are good, or if we perform, or if we love God first.
Jesus turns all that on its head. And right now he’s making the offer of a lifetime. Deal or No Deal: You can be in a transforming relationship with God in which he provides all the power, all the meaning, and all the resources – if you will abandon all your efforts to win God over according to some kind of performance plan.
Grace means that God’s presence, God’s love, and God’s forgiveness cannot be earned. They cannot be deserved. They can only be received. No wonder the apostle Paul begins and ends all 13 of his New Testament letters with a reference to grace.
In his book What the Mystics Know, Father Richard Rohr describes the alternatives:
“There are two utterly different forms of religion. One believes that God will love me if I change. The other believes that God loves me so that I can change! The first is the most common. The second follows upon an experience of personal indwelling and personal love.”
I John 4:10 reminds us: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us.” One of my friends calls his mother every Sunday evening. Their conversations always end the same way. He says, “Love you, Mom.” And she always answers, “I loved you first.”
God loved us first.
This truth is so incredible that if we choose to believe it, our lives will never be the same.
Now maybe at some point you learned all about grace. It was a transforming discovery and it profoundly affected your life. But you’ve done a lot of sinning since then, and have succumbed to the old human reflex to go back to some version of a personal performance plan – to somehow win your way back into God’s favor.
What options do you have? Only one makes sense: Give up your earnest efforts to keep treading water (which you can never do anyways) and surrender yourself to the God who is reaching out for you even now.
C.S. Lewis memorably wrote:
Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, the death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day and the death of your whole body in the end: Submit with every fiber of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will really be yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find him, and with him everything else thrown in.
Perhaps that sounds like a spiritual pipe dream. But God himself is utterly committed to see such a transformation in our lives.
Is there anything he can possibly give us that will help make it happen?
That’s easy: It’s grace.