The key to entering into the Divine Exchange is never our worthiness but always God’s graciousness. Any attempt to measure or increase our worthiness will always fall short, or it will force us into the position of denial and pretend, which produces the constant perception of hypocrisy in religious people.
To switch to an “economy of grace” is a switch that is very hard for humans to make. We base almost everything in human culture on achievement, performance, accomplishment, an equal exchange value, or some kind of worthiness gauge. I call it meritocracy. Unless one personally experiences a dramatic and personal breaking of the rules of merit (forgiveness or undeserved goodness), it is almost impossible to disbelieve or operate outside of its rigid logic. This cannot happen theoretically or abstractly. It cannot happen “out there” but must be known personally “in here.” (Richard Rohr, adapted from “A Lever and a Place to Stand: The Contemplative Stance, the Active Prayer”-CD).
God comes to us in countless ways throughout our days “breaking the rules of merit.” He shows us undeserved favor, unmerited grace every moment of every day! Our chief problem is that we can’t see this; and if we do see it, we re-interpret it according to our merit system, our “this is what I did to earn this” system of thinking. Rarely are we actually aware of what is going on around and within us.
I know of only two ways that God breaks through to us so that we can see and receive grace as God intends it – free and undeserved. Both ways return us to the stance of a dependent child, asking and trusting Another for it’s needs. Simone Weil wisely said, “There are only two things that pierce the human heart. One is beauty. The other is affliction.” The heart that is pierced is the only heart open to grace. Let us look at these two realities in turn, as ways or paths that God takes to break our categories and meet with us in new ways.
The first way is suffering. When pain comes in all its various and torturous forms, all our “systems” for making life work that we have learned up to that point are thrown out the window. What we have come to believe and trust in doesn’t work anymore to bring clarity, order and peace. We cry, we languish and our hearts convulse. We either cling to our illusions and die a slow death or open our hands and look for something new to be brought in, some new perspective, some new category of understanding and interpreting the world. This is where grace breaks in. In the presence of suffering we discover that life is not something to be manipulated, worked out or managed, but lived, received and experienced. Often, the disciplines of confession and repentance help us here.
The second way is beauty. When we behold with our full senses the goodness and glory of God on display in the world around us, we are humbled and made open. We remember our creatureliness, our smallness and earthiness. Our lives are put into perspective against the backdrop of beauty, the masterful work of God as artist. This perspective allows us to see ourselves as we are, small and extraordinary. In the presence of beauty we discover that all of life is a gift. All is grace. The helpful discipline here is worship and community.
As I type these words, I am aware of being pierced several times this week in both these ways. It helps me stay open to the possibility of being pierced again today. It is inevitable, but beyond my control. God decides the time and place. Who I become will be determined by how I respond when it happens.