I was one of the millions who enjoyed Phillip Yancey’s best-selling book, “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” when it came out years ago. I was one of even more millions of people who enjoyed Michael Apted’s well-directed movie, “Amazing Grace,” when it came out years ago portraying the story of William Wilbeforce. And, Lord knows, I’ve enjoyed hearing or singing the classic, great hymn of the Church by that same title over the years.
Over far more years than I’ve been around this planet, those who follow the historical Jesus have touted the word “grace” as if it explains Jesus to a tee, and fits everything we need to know about his Gospel as proclaimed by his life, death, and resurrection.
So it may come as a shocking surprise to you that I now ask with total sincerity this question: what IS so amazing about grace?
Questioning the word “grace” is something of a taboo among those who purport to explain the Christian faith within our world. I can’t recall many who even tried that taboo, let alone got away with it. So today I’ll rise ONLY to say that I think it may be time to shift our Christian vernacular a few notches from where it’s been. Let’s experiment with placing “grace” back on the shelf for awhile, and get out the word “empathy” to substitute in its place.
“Empathy” is probably living somewhere in your vocabulary. You may know that it means, simply, “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” The English word “grace” carries multiple meanings, but within our Christian faith it typically means, “the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.”
Unpack these two words a bit with me today.
Assuming you have known the love of another in your life, really “known” it beyond any doubt, ask yourself if that was mostly because you felt another’s unmerited favor and blessing?…….or was it mostly that you felt your feelings being shared and understood by another? Going a step further, do you find it more amazing when someone else understands and shares your same feeling, or when someone else gives you something you really haven’t deserved?
It seems fair to me to assume you may have answered either way on these questions. But now it’s time to share my own answer.
Going back into my childhood, I’ve never truly understand the word, “grace.” To me it always felt patronizing, like a tall person bending over to pat me on the head just for being a kid. It was candy I received without having to even ask. Yet, it always came with a mystery. Why are you giving me that candy or that pat on my head? If used to describe love, I’d call it a mystical love. Beyond my comprehension. And, now speaking to others as an adult nearing 70 years of age, it’s still mystical. Grace, to me, is a mystery rather hard to understand or explain to others. It suggests a kind of top-down love that is vertical, bending, or stooping over.
For me, “empathy” is what’s most amazing. It’s the most loving feeling in my life that grants me the reassurance that I’m not alone. Somebody else actually “gets” who I am. Understands what I feel. Shares my experience. Back in my childhood, empathy was the adult who didn’t bend and pat….. but the one who instead knelt and hugged. Empathy was eye to eye. It was horizontal and not vertical. It was love shared far more than just love provided. It was mutual. And, unlike grace, it was such a “merited” favor as to seem, at least to this child as well as adult well up in years today, simply……………amazing.
So here’s my statement of faith as a Jesus follower today. “I believe in God not because of God’s grace bending down to pat my head and offer me free candy I didn’t even deserve, but because of God’s empathy kneeling down as Jesus Christ to give me a hug and to understand my joys, sorrows, pleasures, pains and that whole experience of being me from cradle to grave and beyond.” The reason God loves me most is because God knows me best. And the reason God knows me best is Jesus. Jesus is God’s vertical love made horizontal. Eye to eye!! God’s love for me isn’t some mystical experience that transcends my ability to comprehend it. God’s love for me is some visible experience that immanently hugs me with total comprehension. Grace may be surreal, but empathy is totally real all the way through. I feel it in my bones because Jesus actually “gets” me “eye to eye” and we hug each other. And to me that’s far more amazing than anything I can feel in my head because God “gives” me something from above called grace.
The Greek word charis from which we get our English “charisma” is used multiple times in the New Testament to convey God’s unmerited favor and “grace.” But it was never spoken by Jesus. Never. It wasn’t how he went about winning friends, influencing people, making disciples. Ever. But as for the word we call “empathy,” that is simply what Jesus did. From the children on the ground to the thief on the cross, Jesus empathized. Eye to eye. Horizontal love. Not because God “gives” it so much as because God “gets” it. God gets us. From our ground. From our cross. God gets you and me. God, through Jesus, empathizes with us.
And that, to me, seems especially ……….amazing!!!!!