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Philip Yancey on What We Get Wrong About Grace

Philip Yancey on What We Get Wrong About Grace

For all the ways that grace is essential to our faith, it’s also one of the most commonly misunderstood concepts. Perhaps it’s because you grew up in a space where grace was treated as a limited resource, leading you to live a life God never intended for you. Or maybe you’ve always viewed grace as a gift for other people, but not yourself.

There’s myriad ways we can get grace wrong. But we can’t just let those false teachings stay there. Grace is the foundation of our faith. We have to get it right.

That’s a message Philip Yancey has been teaching for 25 years. In 1997, Yancey published the first edition of What’s So Amazing About Grace? In it, he explores all the ways that grace changes our lives, on big and small scales. Now, two and a half decades later, Yancey has updated his book to address specific questions about how grace plays a role in our lives and our world in 2024. Yancey sat down with RELEVANT to discuss why grace has been and will forever be important to the Church.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

You first published What’s So Amazing About Grace? 25 years ago. Why did you want to do an updated version?

I wanted to do an updated version because some things have changed a lot and some things have not changed at all. The things that have changed include the fact that the world is a much more divided and dangerous place now than it was 25 years ago. Reflecting on the time when I wrote this book, the predominant news focused on Bill Clinton’s potential affair with a White House intern.

I mean, that was it. Now we’ve got Russia and Ukraine. We’ve got much deeper divisions between Republicans and Democrats in Congress. We’ve got a confused election scenario with a former president facing numerous criminal charges. You know, it’s a different world now. So, that has changed, but on the other hand, some things have not changed. The inherent hunger that people have for feeling loved and finding solutions beyond shouting and building walls remains unchanged. Grace is enduring. It is God’s expression of total love for us, and many people overlook this message. When I ask them today what a Christian or evangelical Christian is, they often provide harsh answers, with very few mentioning grace or its concept. They perceive us as divisive, maybe hostile, but not necessarily loving. Hence, that message requires updating.

Additionally, some of the stories I tell in the book have evolved over the years. Some reviewers may not be familiar with references like Yugoslavia. “Where did they come from? I’ve never heard of that,” they might say. However, it’s easy to find new illustrations of ungrace in the world. That’s not a problem at all. Our aim is to make it accessible to a whole new generation of readers who may not relate to some of the stories I initially wrote about. I diligently worked to ensure its contemporariness and relevance because the need for grace is enduring. It’s a message we can’t reiterate too often.

How has the idea of grace maybe changed or evolved, if at all, since you first wrote the book?

Yeah, that’s a great question. I’ve been speaking about it for many years, and people always raise this issue: Their guard goes up, and they think, “Well, you know, grace is kind of dangerous. If you let people know in advance that they can be forgiven, well, they might go out and do something wrong just to take advantage of it.” Or they’ll say Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian in Germany, used this phrase, “cheap grace.” Aren’t you in danger of talking about cheap grace? And I say, “Well, I didn’t know grace had a price tag on it, you know. It’s not expensive, it’s not cheap, it’s free.” That’s the point of grace. There’s nothing we can do to earn it. There’s nothing we can do to get God to like us more. Our role, our job is just to accept what we couldn’t come up with on our own. It’s a free gift from God. And I try in this book to point out ways in which it can transform not only our lives but also our relationships with people around us.

What are some common misconceptions people have about grace?

We just have a hard time accepting something free like that. We are kind of independent, pull-ourselves-up-by-our-own-bootstraps people, especially in the United States, and you know, somebody gives you a Christmas gift worth $20 and you only give them one worth $10, then you feel bad and next Christmas you’ll be sure to have one worth $30, you know? That’s the kind of people we are. Grace is not about fairness; it’s not about equality; it’s about unfairness, actually. And I think people don’t understand that. I look at Jesus’ parables and when you read them, they very often make the wrong person the hero of the story. The most obvious example of that is the famous story that he told of the prodigal son. There’s one guy who’s obedient and respectful of his parents and does what he’s supposed to do. And then there’s the one guy who does everything wrong and kind of flaunts his life in front of his parents and takes his portion of their inheritance and spins it in immoral ways. Who’s the hero of that story?

You go all the way through so many of Jesus’ stories. He talked about a Pharisee. These are righteous people. These are good, moral people who work hard to keep all the different laws in the Old Testament. And over there, there’s a tax collector who was kind of a nobody and had nothing to commend himself on his resume. And all he says is, “God, help me, I’m a sinner.” And Jesus says, “Which prayer does God listen to? The prayer of the one who holds out his hands, who admits the need for grace.” And I think just by the nature of who we are, we like to earn our way. We like to get credit for what we do. And grace doesn’t work like that. It works by different rules. So we’re not getting the credit. We’re getting the benefit, but we’re not getting the credit because it’s a gift. It’s a gift that God holds out to us. And just by nature, we want to climb that ladder on our own. We want to show how we’re a little bit higher up the rung than the people just beneath us. And grace doesn’t work that way. It kind of turns that ladder upside down and the people you least expect it are almost the closest to God because they’re aware that they failed and they want to receive God’s forgiveness and grace. They know that there’s nothing good in them. It’s only the gift of grace from God.

You know, I remember a conversation. Well, it came out of a book. You know the rock star Bono of the band U2? He recently did his own memoir, but some years ago, he did a series of interviews with a French agnostic journalist who knew him well and had followed him around for years. And this agnostic can’t figure out why Bono calls himself a Christian.

And he keeps bringing up the topic and finally Bono says, “Well, you got two choices, karma or grace. And with karma, you get exactly what you deserve. And most of us aren’t gonna do very well on that measure. But with grace, you get the opposite of what you deserve. You get God’s love when you deserve God’s wrath.” And he said, “I’m gonna place my bets on grace, not karma.” And I think that’s a pretty good way to do it. And one of the misconceptions people have about…

Our faith, the Christian faith, is about doing good, being good. How do you get to where you’d be good? That is not the message of grace. The message of grace is just depending on what God is offering free of charge to us, not depending on our behavior. And we miss that. Once again, we fall back into the, “I’m on that ladder, but I’m a little better than the people below me.” And as soon as you do that, you forfeit grace.

Beyond grace, we also have to move toward reconciliation and forgiveness. Do you have any tips or steps for that?

One of the first things I learned about grace is that it doesn’t take much to be around people who are just like you. Someone who looks like you, smells like you, votes like you, thinks like you, shares your religion doesn’t take a lot of grace because you think, “Oh well, I’m right and they’re like me so they must be right too so we don’t have anything to work out.” Of course, when you get to know people you realize we all have some things to work out. But to really learn grace, to exercise it, it’s best to be with people who are a challenge to you, who are diverse communities, a different race, different cultural background. I learned being tested by grace when I started traveling to different countries because people do things in a very different way and see the world differently than I do. And then as a journalist, I also learned that it’s easy to start with the things that make you different and to kind of want to explore the hostility between people. We are in a divided society right now. A lot of people, even in their own families, I read the other day that one in six people has stopped a relationship with someone either close to them or someone they’re related to, like a cousin, because of political beliefs.

“Well, That’s not what we’re called to do as Christians. We’re called to actually love our enemies, not just love people who slightly disagree with us, but love people who are on the other side of whatever issue. And I learned as a journalist that it doesn’t help to go into an interview and say, ‘Well, I’ve been studying your comments on this issue and you’re completely wrong’ because instantly their guard goes off. I’m not gonna get anything worthwhile for my article is say this, you know, I don’t know where you are on some issues, I don’t even know where I am on some issues, but my job is to present you to an audience in the best way possible. So here’s an issue that I think we probably see differently, but I’d like to hear you express it in a way that makes sense to me. So, you know, I’m not arguing with you.

I’m interviewing you. So tell me on an issue like gender or abortion, a really hot-button issue, especially with a politician or pastor or theologian, explain that to me. Explain what your position is and why you think that is reasonable and convincing.” And they start talking and again if I interrupt and say, “Well, that couldn’t be true,” because then I’m not going to get what I need.

And I think first to start with people who are different than you are and then be a compassionate listener where your goal is not to win, your goal is not to argue, the goal is to give another person a chance to speak about something important in a way that can make sense to you. And if we start there so that our goal is to understand and communicate back and forth, that’s so much better than saying, “Well, this person is offensive to me, so I won’t have anything to do with them. If you go through the Gospels, frankly, everybody was offensive to Jesus, you know. Jesus was perfect, and he came representing God, he was God’s son, showing us what God is like, and showing us what we should be like. And how weird it was Jesus were the people who were least like Him. They were the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the sinners, you know, people gossiped about Him. Can you believe that guy he’s out there with partying with sinners right now instead of going to the synagogue? And it just struck me that the church doesn’t usually communicate that kind of welcoming spirit to people who aren’t like them. That’s one thing we really need to work on.

We’re okay with people that agree with us. That’s why there are so many different denominations. We search for one that reflects what we already believe. But grace is challenged when we’re around people who don’t believe at all. And we weren’t commissioned by Jesus to go out into the world and convince everybody to think like us.

We were commissioned to go out into the world and serve the needy and love the least likely, least desirable people to love. That’s our mission. And somewhere along the way we’ve lost that message. That’s not fair.

There are many churches who are doing that, with prison ministries, supporting missionaries, organizations like IJM, sexual trafficking and slavery around the world. There are many people doing that work.

But the reputation of the church tends to be, “Oh, those are people who have this kind of secret and they wouldn’t like me, they wouldn’t welcome my kind. I don’t belong, I don’t fit there.” And that’s different than Jesus because people didn’t say, “Oh, Jesus is a holy man, so I don’t want to be around him. He made me feel bad.” They said, “No, there’s something about that guy I want. He’s got what I want. I got what he wants.”

The church doesn’t always communicate that kind of Jesus spirit toward the unlovable.

© 2023 RELEVANT Media Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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