Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Perhaps the Greatest Tightrope of Christianity

I see the teaching of grace as probably the greatest tightrope of Christianity.

On one hand, we need badly to recognize our reliance on God - and we encapsulate that in speaking of "the Atonement". On the other hand, we need badly to be motivated to act - since our "natural man" tends to push responsibility off of ourselves and onto others. How do we balance those competing needs?

I think grace vs. works is a fascinating example of the need for opposition in all things. Both of these concepts can be noble and ennobling; both, however, can be destructive and weakening. "Easy grace" (confess his name and don't worry about what you do) is abominable, but so is "all-consuming works" (wear yourself out and eventually God will accept your effort). Paul is correct in that the law doesn't save, but rather condemns - but then even he turns around and speaks of the need to do what Jesus did.

I don't think it's possible to preach grace or works in isolation and not end up with a destructive standard. I absolutely love James' statement that "faith without works is dead, being alone". It points to a properly balanced duality, if you will - a recognition that we have been freed by the grace of God, but that our freedom has been given to us in order to allow us not to believe or understand but to DO and BECOME. "The truth shall make you free" (to me) means that truly understanding the atonement really does free us to act - to do our best - to strive to change ourselves and our own sphere of influence - to become like he was - without constantly being torn apart by worry and guilt and crushing expectations.

Honestly, that's a fine line that will shift for each person, probably each day. Some are more inclined naturally to act; others are more inclined naturally to think and believe. The key, imo, is for each of us to look at ourselves, try to understand our strengths and weaknesses, commit to work on overcoming our weaknesses and building on our stengths - and continue that process until we die.

It's really hard to articulate that tension and that freedom, especially when the underlying doctrine of glory in our theology clearly states that practically everyone will be "saved" in some way. When we draw a distinction between "salvation" and "exaltation" (rightly so, imo), it is very easy to equate "grace" with "salvation" and "works" with "exaltation" - and, honestly, it's hard to argue too much with that essential differentiation. I believe we really do need to try our best, and I really do believe we are blessed and rewarded and "judged" (meaning assigned an outcome) based on what we become. I just believe we have been freed by the atonement/grace to pursue our best without all the angst and guilt and fear ad nauseum that we tend to heap on ourselves.

Even now, I don't know if I've articulated that very well, since it really is a difficult thing to speak of this type of balancing act, but I also have found the foundation for this richly complex balance explained best within Mormonism's core theology. I get frustrated a bit sometimes when we emphasize one extreme or another, but one of my strongest "testimonies", if you will, is that the vision Joseph Smith articulated in this regard is profound and empowering and astounding. The big picture is the biggest reason I have found peace - and the Church has been swinging back steadily over the last decade or so toward the balance I seek.

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