From Grace in Practice: “Grace in Everyday Life”

The following is an excerpt from pages 73-76 of Grace in Practice: A Theology of […]

Mockingbird / 6.15.16

The following is an excerpt from pages 73-76 of Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life by Paul F. M. Zahl. Soak it up!

Grace has the power of the mallet. Every other prong and heavy-lifting device that seeks to change people is an expression of law and accomplishes the opposite of what it intends. People fear that grace will give permission to be bad. This is the classic fear: that grace will issue in a license–“007”–to do whatever you want, without consequences.

Yet that never happens! In fact, the opposite happens. When you treat people gracefully, they always end up doing the right thing. It comes naturally. Their righteousness grows like fruit, as Jesus predicted (Mark 4:20; Luke 6:43-45; 8:15; John 15:5).


What does grace look like? Let’s say I am talking on the phone to somebody who is a real talker. I know this phone call is going to take at least a half hour. Inside, I am resisting it on every front. Somehow I give way, however, and fifteen minutes into the conversation the person says, “Look, I know you’re busy and I’ll let you go. But thanks for listening.” Had I tried to get off the phone, had I tried to impose the law (in this case my own law) and forced the conversation to end, I would never have gotten off. Even if I had gotten off, I would have felt guilty about it for the rest of the day. Grace lets be.

Maybe you write a lot of e-mails. Take this Dilbert exercise: do you ever find yourself fretting over the wording of an e-mail? You over-correct it; you make mistakes at the keyboard; you keep going back to make sure it’s right. When this happens, you can be sure that the person to whom you are writing is a figure of the law in your life. The person to whom you are writing has some kind of judging power, and it is this power that puts your e-mail under threat. I recently did an inventory of the e-mails I wrote on a particular day, and I noticed that three of them had caused me discomfort and vacillation. Each of the three was written to someone who in my mind was potentially accusatory. On the other hand, the messages that came naturally and were even on the fun side of my work, these flowed like water. In those, I was responding to grace–in the others, to law.


Consider your wardrobe. Whether you are a woman or a man, how you look is probably at least a little important. Most of the time appearance seems to matter very little to me. I wear the same old corduroys and polo shirt and loafers. In the winter I wear a blazer, and in the summer I wear a seersucker jacket. Every so often, however, I take more pains. But it is rarely love that causes this checking up. When I take pains with my clothing, it is almost always out of law. I know this because it is so uncharacteristic. I watch my lapel pins, afraid that they may signal a controversial cause. I may look too “preppy,” or maybe my tie is not acceptable–no outrageous “Jesus” ties allowed, and also none that stem from questionable organizations like a college eating club or a Protestant fraternal organization. In my case, grace is there when I am not worried about the way others will size up my appearance. Law is present when I begin to second-guess myself.

Take your workplace. You know that grace is operating there when you are not worried about running into the wrong person on your way to the restroom. The corridor at work is a lightning rod for law, and also for grace. More typically, you worry about running into the wrong person or maybe passing their cubicle when they are actually there. You might actually have to talk to that person, that painful person who raises every hackle you have. When people quit their job, they usually quit because of somebody in the workplace who is judging them or “making their life miserable.” Most people who like their work do so because they feel free to be creative and are not being managed or controlled. This feeling has everything to do with grace and nothing to do with law….


Take your own child. You live in Trenton, and he moved to Portland. The fact is, he could not get far enough away from you. He would not put it this way himself, but you represented the law for him. He understood you as a judge over his life: lex semper accusat (the law always accuses). This broke your heart because you never meant to come across as accusatory. But you did. So now he lives in Oregon, land of “physician-assisted suicide.”

But there is still hope. Reconciliation is possible. You fly out there; you do not grovel but you apologize instead. You apologize especially when he and the woman with whom he lives have a child. You roll up your sleeves (staying at a motel nearby, not their house) and help them. You do not throw stones and you do not open old wounds. But you really help him; you help them, right when your son really needs you. This is grace. Three years after that weekend, you receive a call: “Mom and Dad, Cheryl and I want to move back to New Jersey. We want our little boy to know his grandparents.” This is grace. Tacked on to that surprising, thrilling conversation is a little postscript: “By the way, we didn’t tell anybody, but we got married last month. We even found a nice minister to do the service.” …

Because of what Christianity calls “original sin,” which is only another expression for a realistic portrait of the human being an the human situation, almost every relationship in the world is assailed by the law. Every relationship is fragile because it exists under the law. There are a few non-neurotic, non-law-based relationships in life, but they are few and far between. Just count on your fingers and toes the number of non-judgmental people you know. Grace comes from outside of us. It is one-way love. Grace is the intervention that draws people away from the law. It has worked in your life. You had a teacher once, and uncle once, even a mother once, who drew you away from the law. When this happened, everything changed. As a character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) said, “The stars came out last night and sang.” Colors returned to nature and feeling returned to the anesthetized parts of your life.