One of the hardest concepts of Christian theology to wrap my mind around is God’s grace. Every time I try to explain it, I end up caught in a loop of work’s righteousness. Take for example, the classic, God’s grace is a gift argument.
Logically, if grace is a gift, then all we have to do is open it in order to receive it, but isn’t the act of opening a gift work? And if it is, then does it mean that those who aren’t able to receive the gift are excluded? Does God’s grace require some level of cognitive ability in order to understand what it is and intellectually assent to it? I have my doubts about that. How then do we explain grace without getting caught in this quagmire? I think I might have found my answer in the Collect for Ash Wednesday, which seems to put the action in the proper order:
God acts, we respond, und weiderholen
(and repeat, all good theology needs to have some German in it)
After an introductory clause naming God’s desire to restore all things to right relationship, we ask God to “Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness…” God acts by placing within us “new and contrite hearts.” Contrite is one of those fifty-cent church words that means feeling sorry for the sins we have committed and desiring forgiveness through confession. It is because of the contrite heart that God places within us, and nothing we can do in and of ourselves, that we then respond with contrition. That is to say, our new hearts naturally feel what they were made to feel: lamentation of our sin and acknowledgement of our wretchedness. Because of the actions of the heart that God has placed within us, God forgives. In this equation, there is nothing that we do of our own power. God’s action causes us to respond, and God acts again. This cycle continues, daily (sometimes hourly or even by the minute) for the rest of our lives as we seek to grow into the likeness of Christ.
Is this a perfect definition of God’s grace? Of course not. It raises questions about free will: can we override the contrite heart within us? It raises questions of forgiveness: does God forgive even if we refuse to be penitent? It raises questions of time: when exactly does God install that new, contrite heart? Like I said, God’s grace is a difficult concept to explain, but on this Ash Wednesday, as I prepare to receive a cross of ashes on my brow and be reminded of my mortality, my sinfulness, and my need for a savior, I’m grateful for the Collect that reminds me that God is constantly at work, rebuilding my heart and forgiving me of the sins and offenses that I, from time to time, most grievously have committed.