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The Grace “But”

I rarely heard about, or witnessed, grace in my younger years. When I attended Bible college much of my doctrine was reinforced through classes that also rarely stressed grace. I was taught to play biblical hop-scotch with verses pulled from contexts to win debates.

I learned to speak the word “grace” with the word “but.” In fact the word “but” became a rather important theological word in my life. More important than the word “grace” in fact.

Now in fact no one verbalized exactly like that. Yet, as they say, communication is 90% body language and 10% what is verbally stated. So typically, if I heard or read something about grace the word “but” was invariably mentioned.

Grace, BUT not grace only
Faith, BUT not faith only
Spirit works, BUT not apart from the written word

As I sat with the family today at God’s Table, and the Spirit preached the mighty acts of God he said, “Bobby BUT for grace, you could not be here.”

There is no “grace, but” at the Lord’s Table.

The word “but” does, in fact, occur in scripture. We use the word “but” as a limiting agent. Yet in Scripture it is a means to MAGNIFY the audaciousness of the stunning gift of grace. Look at these “but’s” in Scripture.

“we were by nature children of wrath. BUT GOD, who is rich in mercy, out of his great love made us alive …” (Ephesains 2.4)

“sinners of whom I am the worst. BUT FOR THAT VERY REASON I was shown mercy …” (1 Timothy 1.16)

“We lived in malice and envy being hated and hating one another. BUT WHEN THE KINDNESS AND LOVE OF GOD our Savior appeared …” (Titus 3.4)

The Bible does not use “but” in reference to grace in the way I learned to speak grace. Instead of saying

Grace, BUT …

The biblical pattern is

But GRACE
But MERCY
BUT GOD …

“If you, O Yahweh, kept a record of sins,
O Yahweh, who could stand?
BUT WITH YOU there is forgiveness”
(Psalm 130.3-4)

So rather than tarnishing the glory of God by saying “grace, BUT …”

Embrace the biblical pattern and give glory to the Lord by saying,

“But GOD …”

God loves you and in his grace God has decided to NOT be God … without you and me!

It is difficult to stress the magnitude of difference in the theology reflected in these divergent statements.

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Showing God Some Not-So-Common Courtesy

Requests and gratitude. They form a big part of our prayers and relationship with God. But we can learn a lot by exploring the origin of “please” and “thank you.”

Though we assume these mainstays of modern manners have always been around, they’re relatively new. And even today, “please” and “thank you” are not found in every culture. As anthropologist David Graeber points out, they’re actually rooted in democracy.

Our English word “please” is short for “if you please” or “if it pleases you” to do such and such. We see the same in French (si il vous plait) and Spanish (por favor). The purely literal meaning of “please” is, “you are under no obligation to do this.” Though there’s usually a social expectation that a request will be honored, as in “Please pass the salt,” adding the word “please” turns an order into a request.

Surprisingly, the term was used almost exclusively when asking powerful lords and nobles for a favor. “If it pleases you, my lord,” someone might say, “allow me to pay my tax late this month.” The understanding was the lord had no obligation to say yes and everything depended on his favor.

Similarly, the English “thank you” comes from “think.” It first meant, “I will remember and think about what you did for me.” In other languages, “thank you” conveys a greater sense of gratitude. In Portuguese, “obrigado,” means “I am much obliged” or “I am in your debt.” The French word goes even further: “merci” is from the word “mercy” and refers to putting yourself at the mercy of the one who granted the request.

Though “please” and “thank you” were once used only with the aristocracy, the words began to take hold in ordinary language when commerce created a middle class in the 1600’s. Then, people began to use them with everyone as the idea of equality began to spread.

But equality goes too far when we extend it to God. Contrary to the bumper sticker, He’s not our co-pilot. He’s the sovereign Lord of all, in whom all power and authority reside. The minute we forget that and treat him as an equal, a partner or a buddy, our concepts of prayer and gratitude become badly distorted.

Instead of approaching God with a sense of entitlement based on familiarity, we must make our requests with a recognition of His infinite glory and wisdom, limitless might, and bountiful love. Then, when He gives us what we want, we can be sure it’s because He knows and wants what’s best for us and, when He says no, it’s because there’s a good reason, whether we see it or not.

“If it pleases You, please grant my request,” we must pray, “but I recognize You’re under no obligation to give me what I want.” That humble awareness of God’s affectionate but unassailable authority will stop us from taking him for granted, or assuming we know our needs better than He does, or feeling jaded when He doesn’t do what we want. As Jesus said, “If you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.” (Luke 11:13) In other words, our Father knows best, and the most important thing He wants us to have is his Spirit.

And when our Lord does bless us, we must actively think about and remember what He’s done for us. James reminds us that everything good comes from God who blesses us because we are his “prized possession” (James 1:16,17). Thanksgiving is good, but thanks living is better.

We’re obligated to Him, in his debt, and at his mercy — because of his undeserved love and favor which are what secure our salvation, not the paltry acts of service we offer Him. “Please” and “thank you” embody saving grace, not social graces.

In our dealings with one another, it might help to remember that when we ask others for anything, they’re not obligated to give or do anything. That should make us feel grateful when they choose to bless us, and more understanding or forgiving when they don’t. And if we truly feel thankful for what others extend to us, we’ll also feel more inclined to return the favor or, better yet, pay it forward to others who can’t possibly repay us, or even our enemies, just as Jesus teaches (Matt. 5:46-48).

So let’s embrace prayer with no sense of entitlement or strings attached, and genuine gratitude that prompts a response. Anything less and our relationship with God will be little more than polite.

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Being a Gracious Parent

I may have mentioned before two mom friends of mine, called K&K. I’ve been thinking today about something K said – she’s full of wisdom, as is K. In fact both of them are far wiser than I am.

I was thinking about how gracious K is and how ungracious I can be sometimes. Once, K prayed for a pregnant friend that she would find parenthood “as easy as she thinks it’s going to be.” Other people – I’m naming no names – watch optimistic pregnant women with a sense of glee, thinking “Just you wait! You have all these ideas about how your baby’s going to behave but just you wait! It ain’t so easy!”

OK, I’m naming names. It’s me. I do that. ALL the time.

But K is a far better woman than I. She might think those things but she brings those thoughts to God and he leads her to pray graciously for those people.

Me? Not so much.

You see, parenthood has been…a journey for me. I’m not a parent that other parents envy. No one ever wants to swap kids with me. Even a dad who told me that Eva was cuter than his baby gave up any ideas of switching once he’d spent a few hours with her.

My kids are the ones that put even broody people off starting their families. We went to a lovely wedding last year of two people who had each – at different times – lodged with us. They want kids but not any time soon. Their reason? They’d lived with my son Reuben. And they’d seen parenthood close up.

So, when I see perfectly behaved children or parents who say “ooh, my child will never do that”, I feel inclined to sit back and wait for them to slip up. Call it spite, call it jealousy…I’m pretty sure it’s not godly. After all, we’re called to be “kind and compassionate to one another” (Ephesians 4:32). Not snidey and judgemental.

That’s why I want to be more like K. That’s why I want to be a gracious parent. Not a competitive, jealous one. But gosh, it’s hard.

What would being a gracious parent look like? Maybe it’s being happy for other people – congratulating someone on getting pregnant when you’re struggling to do so yourself or sharing someone’s joy at their baby’s first steps when secretly you’d been hoping yours would walk before theirs. The tenth commandment is pretty clear about not coveting someone else’s life, and jealousy only leads to bitterness. Look at Joseph’s brothers in Genesis – they were so jealous of their brother that they sold him into slavery. Did those brothers live a happier life, knowing that they had ruined Joseph’s? I doubt it.

So, maybe graciousness comes from being grateful for what you have. Not eternally wishing your children were like K’s children, but accepting them as the slightly mad kids that God has sent to live with you. I sometimes struggle to be grateful for my kids when they’re climbing all over me as I’m trying to write. But then I remember again how we prayed to have them and how smooth the pregnancies and births were and how perfect they are, physically. It doesn’t matter that the baby is eating dirt. It doesn’t matter that the 3-year-old is whining because you don’t know where he can buy a deep sea suit (do they make them in 3-year-old size?). All that matters is that I have them. I need to be grateful.

Because being grateful will lead to being more gracious. And that’s what we should be aiming for – the character of God is gracious and we should strive to be more like him. The gracious character of the Father is illustrated perfectly in the Prodigal Son. The Father welcomes us back to him again and again after we’ve strayed. For some people in that position, it would be tempting to revel in the son’s downfall and use it forever against him. But that’s not God – he is loving and forgiving, not spiteful and resentful. As Corinthians 13 famously says: “Love keeps no record of wrongs”.

So, next time I’m listening to someone talking about how wonderfully their baby sleeps after I’ve been awake all night, I’ll remember to look to God. I don’t want to be the older son, sulking as everyone else’s parties. I don’t want to be Joseph’s brothers, ruining someone else’s happiness in an envious rage. I want to be like Joseph, delighting in seeing his brothers again. Or like the Father, delighting in having his son back.

Choose your mood today – who are you going to model yourself after? Join me on this journey towards (I hope) more of God’s gracious character.

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Have I Fallen From Grace?

The question found in the title above terrified me in my early Christian years. And I suspect many other Christians agonize over whether or not they can fall from grace.

Sometimes I’d lie awake at night wondering if my recurring struggles with sin would keep me from heaven. Continue reading “Have I Fallen From Grace?” »

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God Provides a Greater Grace

I searched the websites of the major George’s (Gallup, Barna, and Curious) this morning hoping to find data regarding an important matter. I’m curious to know if balky American sinners have ever been polled to reveal their least favorite Book of the Bible. Continue reading “God Provides a Greater Grace” »

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Grace–The Taproot of Christian Ministry

No question about it! Effective Christian ministry is rooted deep in the grace of God. To begin anywhere else is to begin at the wrong place. Continue reading “Grace–The Taproot of Christian Ministry” »

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Got Grace?

Paul was a boaster. He boasted, of course, only in the cross of Christ and what it means. There is no boasting on a personal level regarding our salvation. Continue reading “Got Grace?” »

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The Gospel of Grace and Redemption

In my Christian tradition, we recently rediscovered grace (cut us a little slack…we’re a few years behind other groups on a few things). Continue reading “The Gospel of Grace and Redemption” »

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Getting Past Guilt: Embracing God’s Forgiveness

“Getting Past Guilt is a book I am going to recommend again and again. I meet too many saved people who have been trained to feel insecure. This book will help replace false teaching with truth, doubt with confidence, and anxiety before God with praise for His grace. Joe Beam has hit a spiritual ‘home run’ with this book. “ -Dr. Rubel Shelly

Getting Past Guilt: Embracing God’s Forgiveness

Forgiveness. The word itself fills our hearts with peace and hope and sends our spirits soaring. But countless Christians are plagued by haunting feelings of shame and inadequacy. While their heads tell them they are forgiven, their hearts cry out that they are guilty.

This encouraging book by Joe Beam gets right to the heart of the questions that steal the joy God intends for your life:

  • Where does guilt come from?
  • Why do I sin?
  • Why can’t I stop feeling guilty?
  • Why can’t I believe God will forgive me?
  • Why do I have these doubts?

In this book, Joe Beam gently unmasks your fears and reveals assurances and teachings from God’s Word that will fill you with the peace you crave. Whether this book is for you or someone you love, Getting Past Guilt will make the full force of God’s tender mercy a reality.

Click here to Purchase on Amazon.com.

Note: Your purchase helps Grace-Centered Magazine remain online.

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Jumping from Grace: The Mechanics of Apostasy

Pertaining to our discussion(s) below about “falling” from grace I would like to ask a few questions to clear the matter up for me. An observation first. Continue reading “Jumping from Grace: The Mechanics of Apostasy” »

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Amazing Grace Lyrics

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, Was blind, but now, I see.

T’was grace that taught my heart to fear. Continue reading “Amazing Grace Lyrics” »

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