What are the limits of grace?
Among the many books on intimacy, identity, being true to one’s self and community are Bo’s Cafe and True Faced. There are many amazing books that really hit at the lack of depth in relationships, and the directly related lack of self-awareness and identity in our society. People don’t know themselves, they aren’t known by each other, and in that vacuum is so much hopelessness, isolation, and fear. In the place of community is so much busyness and hollow pursuits. People are just so fake to each other. There is a near universal desire to know one another and be fully known. I think many people feel that they are alone in their darkness, their sin, their fears and hurts, their past, until they find out that so many people have experienced the same thing.
There are limits, though. I think the elephant in the room is two parts. One, people rank their inner darkness according to their neighbors. Everyone imagines that they are the worst person in their family, community, church, neighborhood. No one else could possibly look at pornography, or be so tempted to cheat, or have actually cheated. Then, in finding that there are others that are on that same relative scale of brokenness, darkness, sinfulness, they feel safe. They aren’t alone. That’s the first part. The second part is, there are sins that are just too bad. Even if you find that you are at a similar level as some others, there are sins that just aren’t accepted in the community.
Unless you are in a very specific job field, or you have committed such an act yourself, it is rare to meet a rapist, pedofile, murderer, and so on. These are the sins we have ranked at the lowest of the low. There are tons of people who discreetly deal with their porn addiction, their greed, pride, and whatnot, usually in some parallel community group outside of their regular community. There are support groups for all kinds of addictions, with AA and NA being very common in most cities. I’m not saying that they are universally beloved and celebrated groups or individuals, it’s just that there are sinners we are willing to keep in our community and there are those that we expel from society altogether. If we could somehow spot every rapist, like if there was a blood test for that sin or something, we wouldn’t have any grace for it.
I say all this because, for me I have met people whose worst sins are objectively not as bad as mine. I don’t want to share with those people, I can’t help but feel their judgment. And my reaction is to call them a “goody goody” or to accuse them of being naive. It stands to reason that they feel the inverse towards me, that they would not want to be part of a community with someone who has been as rebellious or destructive or violent as me. I know people who have done horrible things. In an inebriated state, I had a friend tell me about a girl he “borderline raped” (in reality, it was just a “rape”). He was a roommate at the time, and I was horrified. It changed our friendship. There was no going back from that. I had found the limits of my grace.
Grace, the real kind, transcends all the striations and layers of goodness, comfort, protection, and judgment we have in place in our world. There are developing nations where people worship in the same gatherings as those who had previously murdered their families. There are places where rape and genocide are used as weapons of war, and then those who fought the war have to go back home and live together with those they had victimized. There are refugees in our own country who have had family members die at the hands of US servicemen, from drone strikes, or from our country’s policies. How many Iranian children have died because of sanctions in that country? Imagine being an Iranian family living in a neighborhood with X political sign in one neighbor’s yard, and Y political sign in the other. How do we extend grace to both our oppressors and to the oppressed?
That’s all abstract, global policy ideas. Imagine going to the same church as your rapist. What’s the limit of grace for sexual abuse? How much grace do you really have to give?
Put yourself in a situation where you are the one being exposed as the abuser. Would you receive grace? Would your family and community turn on you? Maybe they’d turn on your accuser instead. So often abusers are abused themselves, repeating the cycle that they had experienced in their past, and they failed to end that cycle in their own life. Is there a church that has enough grace for both? I have several situations in my life where friends in ministry have a young woman who was assaulted, but because they live in a small town everyone sides with the accused rather than her — it seems that there is a “boys will be boys” attitude, a counterfeit grace, extended to the small town hero. To the other example, where there is a swift exposure, what happens to the hundreds of people that would be affected by that? I argue that we are not dealing with sin if we simply get rid of the accused. It’d be better if that person lived in their shame and re-earned the trust of their community. But if you’re a repentant abuser, you have the option of exposing that sin and being run out of town. Or you can hide, which is so much the same problem — either option is isolating and damaging. Neither one is grace.
I want to receive that kind of grace, and it seems to me that extending it is the same as receiving it. You can’t give what you don’t have. It all flows from the same place. I personally hope that I have enough grace to be with the people who have been deemed unworthy of grace, because ultimately we are all unworthy of grace.