The Labor of Grace

As I noted a little over a week ago, I decided not to rush any public meditations about my thoughts and reactions regarding the killing of Osama Bin Laden. And I still don't want to get too close that subject. What I'd like to talk about is the Christian response to the killing of Bin Laden and why it seemed so mixed.

I think it would be fair to say that the response of the Christian community to the news of Bin Laden's death was one of ambivalence. On the one hand there were feelings of relief, satisfaction, and even joy. On the other hand there was also a call for restraint, a plead for a more sober reaction in light of Jesus' command to love one's enemies. Add into that mix complex feelings about the relationship between the church and the State and, well, reactions were all over the map.

What I want to talk about were those feelings of moral satisfaction most of us felt when we heard the news. Upon hearing the news of Bin Laden's death most of us experienced a moral "click," a feeling that something out of joint suddenly snapped back into place. The moral balance sheets of the Cosmos, ten years in the red, had moved back into the black.

Where do these feelings come from? And how should Christians relate to those feelings?

Without going too much into the relevant literature, the short answer is that humans have an innate moral psychology. And a foundational part of that moral faculty is our thirst for moral symmetry, proportionality, and balance. This is the moral criterion--the quest for balance--that sits behind our notions of fairness, justice, equity, reciprocity, and the logic of lex talionis. And huge swaths of the human mind are devoted to monitoring this moral terrain and motivating the appropriate responses. In the face of these moral imbalances we feel pity, empathy, compassion and sympathy for those on the short end of the moral calculus. In the face of those who cause the imbalances we feel moral outrage, righteous indignation, or, in severe cases, a desire for vengeance and revenge. And when punishment is meted out in these cases we feel satisfaction and schadenfreude. The moral "click" we felt when we learned of the death of Osama Bin Laden.

In light of all this, why do Christians worry when they experience these feelings?

Well, given our faith commitments Christians suspect that our innate, instinctive, natural and biological moral faculties might not, in the final analysis, be holy. True, our innate moral faculty makes things feel good to us. But so do drugs and sex. The goal of morality isn't pleasure. Morality shouldn't be driven by those moral "clicks," the sense of relief, catharsis, and yes, even pleasure we feel when the moral balance sheets are righted. To be sure, this isn't to say that our innate moral sense isn't good and incredibly valuable. In fact, the quest for justice is a huge imperative in Scripture. But left on its own our innate moral sense can lead us astray, sometimes disastrously so. So there is this sense that our "flesh," and here I'm speaking about our innate moral wiring, has to be kept in check and transcended.

This is what I think Jesus was getting at in the Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Jesus, here, is explicitly pushing back on our innate craving for moral balance, the "eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth." Rather than retaliation, followers of Jesus are to love and forgive. We are to leave the moral debt outstanding. The debt isn't repaid. It is forgiven. Grace is a bomb that explodes our thirst for moral balance and proportionality. This is a running theme in many of Jesus' parables:
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’"
Balance and proportionality are also at the heart of the dispute between the father and the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

The point is, there is a great deal within the biblical witness that gives Christians pause when they experience the moral "click" in their hearts. They recognize these feelings as natural, and even good. But there is also the sense that these feelings can be temptations. That these feelings need to be monitored, restrained, and, ultimately, transcended. We aren't, as Christians, to land on "an eye for an eye." Even if it feels good. Even if it feels right.

All this goes a fair distance in explaining the complex and ambivalent reactions of many Christians to the news of Osama Bin Laden's death. Upon hearing the news there was a natural and instinctive rush of satisfaction. This is only natural. Nor is it a bad feeling. Bin Laden was an evil person. But many Christians were uneasy with "an eye for an eye" governing how they felt about the situation.

And this produces a scandal of sorts. If you struggle publicly to keep those "eye for an eye" feelings in check it can appear to others that you've gone soft in the head. Are you suggesting that Bin Laden didn't deserve what he got? That killing him was wrong? This was one reason for my keeping my feelings to myself. My spiritual struggle was just that, my spiritual struggle. And I didn't want my personal spiritual struggle to be seen a holier-than-thou, preachy, or judgmental. So I kept it to myself.

But it's hard not to get into a fight about grace. Grace has always been scandalous. It makes no sense, morally speaking. In fact, it can seem downright immoral. Why? Because grace violates our innate, deeply rooted sense of morality. Grace isn't natural. Grace is about the hardest thing you can do. It's damn near heroic.

One of my favorite verses along these lines is 1 Peter 1.13, particularly as it is rendered in the King James Version:
Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
"Gird up the loins of your mind" is pretty archaic. In modern translations it is rendered as "with minds that are fully alert," "think clearly," "preparing your minds for action," or simply "be alert."

But really, the King James gets this right. A literal rendering of the Greek is "girding up the loins of your mind."

As you are likely aware, this was a reference to what people had to do in ancient times with their tunics. To prepare for hard work or for battle you had to gather up the material hanging down around your feet and tie it up, freeing the legs for work, running, or maneuverability in battle.

It's a striking image. Particularly when we note that "girding up the mind" is connected in 1 Peter 1.13 to the words "hope" and "grace."

We tend to think grace is soft, unrealistic, and naive. Grace, along with hope, is for empty-headed flower children. This is a world full of Osama Bin Ladens! Grace and hope just aren't going to get the job done.

But 1 Peter 1.13 suggests that grace is actually like going to battle. Again, grace isn't easy or natural. It goes against every fiber of our being. "Gird up the loins of your mind." That's what grace is like. Grace is strenuous, backbreaking labor. Grace is planting your feet, bracing for the onslaught of battle. We're not picking daisies here. We're talking about loving our enemies. And there ain't nothing easy about that.

Does any of this mean that we shouldn't have killed Osama Bin Laden? Or that the "moral click" we felt upon the news of his death wasn't pointing to a legitimate good?

No, it doesn't mean, necessarily, any of those things. It simply means that past the "moral click" the Christian will be reaching for something more, something beyond the moral norms of this world.

It simply means that Christians everywhere, upon the news of Bin Laden's death, began to "gird up the loins of their minds" to begin the backbreaking labor of grace.

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25 thoughts on “The Labor of Grace”

  1. It's continually awesome how much psychology has to add to theology. This is a fantastic addition to the conversation.

    One criticism we have is that it may be regarded as a little too convenient when we Christians begin to gird our loins after the battle is over. Once our enemy has been killed it is easy to posture and say that we must be forgiving. Certainly it still challenges the moral instinct to celebrate a proportional result, but it doesn't actually change the outcome. Perhaps we should have been girding our loins a little more these past 10 years and counseling forgiveness before there was a corpse. Actually hundreds of thousands of corpses.

  2. Immediately before reading this post I read a news report of a particularly intense example of lex talionis - an Iranian man had thrown acid into the face of a woman who rejected his proposal, leaving her blind and her face misshapen.  The court in Iran ordered that she could blind the man.  Of course, there is not complete symmetry,  as he will be knocked out by anesthetic before she is allowed to put acid into his eyes, and it looks like she will only be allowed to blind him, not render him monstrous looking, as she had been rendered.   

    Still, there is a certain equivalence - a sense of justice in what is done, even as we recognize it would never be allowed in Western  countries today.  I guess that is the "click."  Yet, we would be aghast if our system allowed such punishments

    It strikes me that our system rarely extracts fully retributive justice.  We consider it barbaric to give criminals a true taste of their own barbarism, so we do not rape rapists, or put to death drunk drivers who cause death, or punish most swindlers.  So, perhaps we are intuitively acquainted with grace.                  

  3. Yes, that make sense. It seems a bit easy to start forgiveness after the person has been killed.

    And yet, I think forgiveness is a messy, back and forth, two steps forward one step back affair. It's beginnings and endings are elusive. Consequently, I don't think we need to envision someone actively holding onto hate and then, upon news of the death, switching over to another track ("Now that he's death I'll start to forgive him."). Rather, I'm imagining someone who has already been trying to forgive and who has actually made some progress on that front but who discovers, upon news of the death, a feeling of delight in their heart. In that moment they discover something raw and unhealed. So they continue the process of forgiveness, only now at a deep level. A level they perhaps never knew existed until that moment.

    That doesn't change your point, that the act of grace--top to bottom--shouldn't wait for the death or punishment of the person. I'm just saying that forgiveness is messy, transient, elusive and fragile. We don't forgive once and move on. We find ourselves forgiving over and over and over. Even when we think we've moved on.

    But again, your point is exactly right: The labor of grace starts now. Or, for OBL, on 9/12. And that's the scandal.

  4. Thinking more about this, I think the problem is that last line: It simply means that Christians everywhere, upon the news of Bin
    Laden's death, began to "gird up the loins of their minds" to begin the
    backbreaking labor of grace.
    The double note of "began" and "begin" implies no prior work. And that's problematic.

    Something like "begin again" or "continue" would have been better.

  5. Please find a completely different Understanding of what happens to every  human heart when human beings kill other beings. 

  6.  It's somewhat bewildering Richard that you associate a majority with these feelings. That Americans might feel this way isn't a great surprise, Ellul recognised that your nation is the most propagandised of any, and the simple fact that your country treats its citizens like shits, that those two towers symbolised your own alienation and homelessness and yet when an attack happens on America you all quite happily bray for revenge on a country which had nothing to do with it, screw the housing  needs, screw the health and education needs, lets spend it all on more guns, big guns - we need big guns, to kill an idea, and the man who represents an idea, and that idea is simple and unstoppable. America is a cesspool diseasing the world and must be resisted by any who are faithful to some notion of righteousness. It doesn't matter whether the idea is true, it's how you present yourself. John Boy got smacked by AJ, the Little House was repossessed and now the daughter's a hooker on crack, and this is the democracy you want to impose at the point of a gun, to all who feel the instinctive loathing of the bully Osama isn't so much pure evil as that little kid who tired of the playground thug finally takes a hammer to his head and to Iraq with the consequences. Now you gotta love the heretic and hate that there heresy.

  7. For those of you who read Richard's "The Fullness of Christ's Mercy" post, I have to say that the "theological unease" that Highanddry  identified is still with me.

    And the irony is that I think you planted the seed of this doubt, Richard!

    Your excellent exegesis of the psychology of disgust (in your book "unclean") describes the dangers of pushing nasty stuff away from us rather than embracing it (I'm simplifying, I know).  What you so powerfully establish is the link between this element of human psychology and our theology of holiness.  Let God deal with the messy stuff that makes me feel dirty.  I think this is what bothered me about the (completely understandable) reaction of the 9:11 survivor.

    It put Osama and God "over there" somewhere to sort things out.

    One of the many jewels I have gleaned from this blog, from the books of Macdonald and Heim and elsewhere is that this is the heart of the gospel; the distinctive, unreasonable, outrageous cry from the cross.  Forgiveness happens in here, not out there.  This is God's consuming fire at its most intense.

    Father, forgive all the violence and hatred - and start with me.

  8.  What I've heard and read on the death of Bin laden till now ranged across a valueless continuum between trite and rash, and I groaned to think you'd joined that chorus. How wrong I was. So, once again, thanks for the post! 

  9. Hi Phillip,
    I might be wrong to associate these feelings with the majority. But based upon my own (limited experience) 99% of the people I know felt that "justice was done" upon hearing the news of OBL's death.

    But really, it's just a framing issue. For some people, as you note, there was a moral click when 9/11 happened. American got what it deserved. I completely see that frame. For Christians who saw it that way, the labor of grace starts there. Regardless, the psychology and journey I describe still holds. Which was my larger point.

  10.  Hi Richard,               I'm certainly not saying 'America got what she deserved'. I am saying that patriotism is idolatry. The moral click you describe is perhaps only true where reason runs second to reaction. How is American invasion of another's sovereign territory and killing of an unarmed man 'moral'. It is certainly vengeance but that is properly the Lord's. 

  11. "it's hard not to get into a fight about grace. Grace has always been scandalous. It makes no sense, morally speaking. In fact, it can seem downright immoral. Why? Because grace violates our innate, deeply rooted sense of morality. Grace isn't natural. Grace is about the hardest thing you can do. It's damn near heroic...Grace is strenuous, backbreaking labor. Grace is planting your feet, bracing for the onslaught of battle. We're not picking daisies here. We're talking about loving our enemies. And there ain't nothing easy about that."

    amen and amen

  12. Richard,

    i have a whir of thoughts that i find hard to formulate into a question.  i'm wondering something about how God's forgiveness differs from our own.  Where repentance/confession/reconciliation fit into the moral/psychological scheme of forgiveness and grace.  i think it's difficult for me generally to have a clear and tidy definition of what forgiveness is.  Any thoughts?


  13. I think I'm tracking with you. You ask, "How is American invasion of another's sovereign territory and killing of an unarmed man 'moral'." I guess there are a lot of ways an ethics class could approach and answer that question. But when I speak of "moral" in the post I'm talking about a moral psychology, a feeling of rightness. The issue I'm wrestling with in the post, in light of those feelings, is if those feelings are indeed "moral" or "Christian." On that score--questioning those feelings--we'd agree?

  14. I have some ideas. At the end of the post I started to take up the issue of God ("Vengeance is mine, I will repay.") and how that fits in with our psychology of forgiveness and justice (e.g., I can forgive OBS because God will punish him). But the post was getting pretty long (a constant problem with me) and I didn't want to get too many ducks out there (I think I just coined a phrase...). I plan to come back to this issue next week. But I still need to get my head around some things first. You know, I have to get my ducks in a row before I get my ducks out there.

  15.  Sounds good.  i anticipate reading it then.

    It's always been a tough subject for me.  i understand and resonate with the sense of "forgiveness" when we're talking about letting go of a wrong done to us for the sake of healing and moving on.  And we also talk of "forgiving" when we mean, don't aim or desire revenge regardless of how the wrong-doer feelings about his/her own wrongdoing.

    But at least, when God forgives, it seems like a thicker concept than that right?  It seems to require some kind of change in attitude on the part of the wrongdoer.  And it includes reconciliation. 

    Now i know on your view, that's still open for Bin Laden even now.  But i think Jesus was teaching primary about how to behave in the here and now.  And that thicker concept of forgiveness doesn't seem open between me and the dead.  Even if you're right about eschatology, the truth is i don't know how a dead person currently feels about their wrong doing.  Perhaps even this minute, they're still hard-hearted. 

    But again, i'm trying to focus on this-life issues.  Is there such thing as "forgiveness" in the biblical sense in the absence of some kind of repentance/confession/reconciliation? 

    i guess at the end of the day it bugs me a little that there seems to be this asymmetry between human forgiveness and divine forgiveness.

    And surely, at least i would think, surely the psychological state of "forgiveness" of the impenitent is different that the state of forgiveness of the penitent confessor, no?

    Not sure if these are the sorts of things you aimed to talk about or not.


  16. There may be another sentiment (I'm sure there are many) in this mix. You have drawn the contrast between retribution and forgiveness. The first is the way if the world which only perceives the short run. The latter is practicable by believers who have faith that they are already living in the long run. In between is restitution which is the prudent response of societies which enjoy a decent rule if law. Where civil law with punishment has replaced common law with payment victims no longer can expect to be made whole. This has been a shift in western societies over the last century. This has the effect of pushing unbelievers into the eschatological stance which requires vengeance.
    When most believers don't practice living in eternity through forgiveness, and when prudence is set aside for a hopeless eternity starting now, Christian discussion of justice is sure to be utterly confounded.
    Nathanael Snow

  17. This is an interesting look at the media/politics of the issue:

  18.   "Is there such thing as "forgiveness" in the biblical sense in the absence of some kind of repentance/confession/reconciliation?"

    I'm dealing with that question as well. Thanks for framing it so well.

  19. qb experienced the dissonance too.  But to say that OBL was "unarmed" is to ignore this central fact:  he was using his family's vast fortune to underwrite legions of people with guns and bombs and rockets and deeply seated malice.  He was anything but unarmed, whether he was holding an AK-47 or not.

  20. Richard wrote: "Bin Laden was an evil person."
    I'm sure I've also said this in the past, but I doubt it's helpful to think that anyone is evil. Certainly Bin Laden did evil, but to say someone is evil implies they're beyond redemption. (Perhaps it's just a bit easier to say someone is evil, and it sounds a bit less "holier than thou".)
    Anyhow, I personally felt some relief when OBL was killed as it seemed to lessen a just little the threat of more evil. However, I also felt sadness that he was killed because killing rarely stops more killing. I was also very sorry to see the jubilation expressed at his execution. As has been said, we need to seek justice, not vengeance. But how do we love those who hate us (eg Islamic Jihadists)? Is "turning the other cheek" appropriate in the context of terrorism? If not, what should Christians (and nominal Christian nations) be doing to love those who hate us? I wonder if, as a first step, we need to listen a lot more closely to what their grievances are.

  21. Thanks for this Richard,

    There are a number of responses I could make but for brevity I'll go with the most prescient. This conversation plays into a broader conversation I am having regarding God's justice and in particular the necessity of the 'balanced and proportional' justice we seem to long for. No doubt, human beings have this innate desire for wrongs to be righted. However, in my reading of the Easter event, one of the most significant Messianic expectations that gets upset, is our sense of justice. We long for God in Jesus to right every wrong but instead our Messiah; is executed by an occupying force; having been found guilty at an illegal trial; of crimes he did not commit. The injustices Jesus suffers are not righted let alone the more universal injustices.

    Theologically we point to the resurrection as the 'righting' of the wrongs, but this is our necessary step and not God's. The fact of the matter is that the 'justice' that is revealed in the cross is the scandalous 'exploding bomb' that takes the injustice into itself (maybe then an imploding bomb). Practically speaking for us, to model this grace is to give away forgiveness in spite of rejection, condemnation and continuing evil not because it will lead to the transformation of the one being forgiven (although we hope for this) but because this 'forgiveness' is the very heart of God. The resurrection is the justification of this costly self-giving. That even though we die; we live. That despite the apparent logical disconnect, by loving in this way we will find life and healing and wholeness, and, dare we believe, we might just reflect the heart of God to others.

    Is this ever easy? Patently not. Can we do this on our own; in our own power? No. But if we place our lives in Jesus and put our trust in the scandal of the cross then inch by inch, moment by moment, our lives are transformed: "From glory to glory." So it is in the mode of confession in which we utter our all-too-human desire to have justice done on our enemies in the name of God's justice, and we pray to our crucified Lord for mercy.

  22. qb wouldn't the victims of American expansionism argue that's precisely what the American people, through their taxes do; spend a 'vast fortune to underwrite legions of people with guns and bombs and rockets'. If you are able to find his actions abominable why not turn it around and acknowledge that your war in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and now in Libya, is nothing but State Terrorism disguised beneath a veneer of moral posturing whose only real purpose is to secure dwindling energy supplies. A read of Philip Goodchild's Theology of Money would really help clear away the haze that patriotism produces and allow one to understand the power of money in its abstract totality is truly the 'god of this world' and as such we are all its minions. As someone wryly observed the Texan creationist still uses the geologist when he goes looking for oil.  

  23. Deb, I like the perspective you bring.  I can definitely see how many people in Europe would have that sentiment.  I am largely influenced by my pastor, Greg Boyd, who has made some waves in evangelical circles by loudly speaking out against this type of American nationalism.

    I also can understand the knee-jerk reactions by irritated Americans when they read articles like the one by NT Wright (poor guy has enough trouble with the Yanks - he's either completely loved or completely hated).  And I think the problem may be that people seem to be pointing out the problem but not the remedy.

    While Dr. Beck's piece wasn't political and I'd hate to rabbit trail away from it, I'm too curious.  Does there seem to be a widely adhered-to opinion as to what should have happened with Bin Laden?  (Other than the opinion that the U.S. shouldn't have gone to war in the first place).   

    Grace and Peace! :)

  24.  Thank you for this.  Ambivalent is a good word to describe my reaction...cognitive dissonance, too!  When Pres. Obama said in his 60 Minutes interview that "anyone who thought OBL didn't get what he deserved should have their head examined," I didn't appreciate the implications.  Grace is hard work -- that makes sense to me :-)

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