defining grace

If you’ve ever read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, you know how painful it is. It’s hard on the one hand because it’s big and uses big words; a thousand and seventy-nine pages of dense, small print and even smaller footnotes takes some serious work to get through. But much harder than its sheer size is the content. Every character has an addiction. They are all stuck in a cycle of death, becoming something repulsive, something less than human every time they give into the drug. If you’re like me, you see these characters in yourself. You start staring at all the sin and hatred and vileness in your own heart, and come away feeling sick because you are helpless and hopeless.

I read this book last semester. It took my Existentialism class nine weeks to make it through, reading for five-hour chunks every Thursday. The book cast a pale over my whole life; Thursdays became the day I dreaded. I cried more during that semester than I ever had before, feeling a weight of shame on my back, feeling disgusted at my own humanity. Rationally, I knew the only way out was the grace of God. The only way we’ll ever know good is to worship Him rather than our drugs, self-image, and work. But more than ever I began to ask, what is grace? How on earth do we learn to accept it and live into it, as flesh-and-blood humans in a flesh-in-blood world?

I found I didn’t really know.

It took months for me to begin to understand. It took finishing Infinite Jest, reading and listening to Marilynne Robinson, working through Romans in my Bible study group, and living with some of my favorite people in the world. It took a month in Spain seeing the incredible beauty of even the smallest, quietest places, it took talking to people wiser and kinder and deeper than I. The definition of grace never came to me concisely or simply; pieces of it have been falling into place one at a time, slowly filling out this gift—this hope—that God has given us. I’m still learning. But I have pieces now.

I’ve learned that

grace is seeing people with the knowledge that God made us in His image. It’s the knowledge that we are beautiful and unique and that He made us good. It’s the knowledge that nothing we’ve done to ourselves is unfixable.

Grace is looking back to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and forward in hope of the future.

Grace is acknowledging the sin you’ve done in the past but knowing that it is forgiven, and acknowledging that you will sin in the future but that will be forgiven, too. Grace is living right here, in the present, and choosing to love the people right next to you, right now, without fear of what comes before or after.

Grace is remembering that no instant of time is unbearable, that in every instant God is with us and will see us through to the other side.

Grace is freedom.

Yes, I sin and sin and sin, and yes, my addictions too often control me, to my shame. But God is so much bigger than my sin. If He is good—and everything in the Bible screams He is the greatest good—then He can fix all the harm I’ve done and work it into His plan. He has paid the price for it already. All we can do is live in this one instant of time that is the present, and it’s enough. If we fall, there’s another instant later; He can pick us back up.