Is Grace Easy or Hard?

For the last couple of weeks we’ve seen that God knows us by name. He seeks to adopt us and to make us part of his family. This adoption by grace is apparently not for everyone. Not everyone wants to be adopted, it seems. Not everyone is receptive to the concept of grace. Why do we find grace such a difficult idea to accept? We are hardwired, it seems, for performance. Something for nothing just is not in our DNA. When faced with adversity, we work harder—it’s our survival mode. That we would get something for nothing just doesn’t make sense. 

To illustrate: The list of accomplished people who have lost a parent at a young age is startling and statistically uncanny. In the 1970s, a clinical psychologist from Long Island, named Martin Eisenstadt, tracked the parental history of every person who was eminent enough to have earned a half a page entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica. He found there a roster of 573 subjects, from Homer to John F. Kennedy; a rich mix of writers, scientists, politic political leaders, composers, soldiers, philosophers and explorers. 

Eisenstadt wasn’t interested in motivation per se. He was testing a theory relating genius and psychosis to the loss of a parent or parents at an early age, but he wound up constructing an elegant demonstration of the relationship between motivation and primal cues. (For the record, UNICEF defines orphans as a person under the age of 18 who has lost one or more parent.) 

He wrote that of this accomplished group found in the Encyclopedia Britannica, 400 were classified as having been orphans. Political leaders who lost a parent at an early age included Julius Caesar, Napoleon, 15, British prime ministers, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Lenin, Hitler, Gandhi, and Stalin. Scientists included in the list were Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, Dante, Michelangelo, Bach, Handel, Dostoevsky, Keats, Byron, Emerson, Melville, Wordsworth, Nietzsche, the Bronte sisters, Woolf, and Mark Twain—just to name a few. On average, the eminent group lost their first parent at an average age of 13, compared with 19 for a control group. All in all, the list was deep and broad enough to justify a question then posed in a 1978 French study: Do orphans rule the world? 

Why the connection? It is theorized that the loss of a parent is a primal cue indicating that the world is not safe and that a great outpouring of energy will be necessary to achieve safety. Orphans are often thought of as vulnerable and in need of protection and support; however, throughout history and in various cultures (as seen in these examples) there are friends who have risen to positions of power and influence, defying the odds and showing that they are just as capable as anyone of achieving great things. As a rule, these orphans serve as inspiring examples of resilience and determination, and the power of the human spirit. 

In more recent times, there have been numerous examples of other orphans who have overcome adversity: Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and others such as Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple who was adopted at a young age and faced numerous challenges throughout his life, including dropping out of college and being fired from the company he helped to create. But despite these setbacks, Jobs went on to revolutionize the technology industry and create some of the most innovative and successful products the world has ever seen. 

Another modern day example is JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series. She was born in England in 1965 and lost her mother to multiple sclerosis when she was just 15. Despite facing financial struggles and rejection from multiple publishers, she persisted and wrote one of the best-selling book series of all time, becoming thereby one of the richest women in the world. 

Genetic expert explanation for world class achievement is useless in this case, because the people on this list are linked by shared life events that have nothing to do with chromosomes. But when we look at the parental loss as a signal, hitting a motivational target, the connection becomes clearer: Losing a parent is a primal cue that you are not safe. You don’t have to be a psychologist to appreciate the massive outpouring of energy that can be created by a lack of safety. 

But being a sinner must be a spiritual cue as well that you are not safe, that you are to work harder and you are to be stronger in your general spiritual effort. Jesus himself was interested in orphans and besides telling his followers that they should take care of the fatherless, talked about them as being spiritual orphans too:

 “I will not leave you as orphans; I am coming to you.” (John 14:18)

Instead, he resolves to send us the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, and promises himself to return to us. “I will not leave you desolate,” he promises. Our overwhelming response to the loss of love and parental guidance is extra work, more effort. It is to strive harder, undertake more. It seems that we are hardwired to performance, for conquest and for advancement. Why do we find it so difficult to accept grace? 

Adopted children often face unique challenges that can result in the development of something called attachment disorder, which refers to difficulties in forming secure healthy relationships with others, often due to a history of trauma or disruption in early childhood. Often orphaned children are particularly vulnerable to attachment disorder due to the disruption of the early relationship with their biological parents and the subsequent process of adjusting to a new family and environment. 

Adopted children may struggle with feelings of abandonment, uncertainty, and fear, which can interfere with their ability to form secure attachments with their adoptive parents. They may also experience a sense of loss or grief over their separation from their biologic parents which can further contribute to attachment difficulties. These experiences can lead to behaviors such as withdrawing, acting out, or being overly clingy, which can disrupt the development of a healthy attachment relationship with their adoptive parents. 

Sin, on the other hand, is considered to be an attachment disorder with God. In a spiritual context, sin is a violation of divine law or moral principles established by God that can result in separation or estrangement, causing spiritual attachment disorder. The attachment disorder with God that results from sin is a result of the broken relationship between the sinner and God, causing feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety, and a sense of spiritual emptiness. 

But God never intended us to be detached from him. The original plan in the garden was that man would eat continuously from the tree of life, the tree of grace, the tree of something for nothing. But man took a different route. We took the way of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This is the tree of works, of self -determination; the tree of self-assessment, self-assurance (spiritual orphans rule in the realm of self-assurance) and finally self-discrimination.

The decision to take the self-actuating pathway at the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil seems to have mutated our spiritual DNA; to hardwire us to insecurity, performance, and effort. Not to be missed is that the struggle that occurred in the garden at the beginning of time goes on still today. The choice between our self-determination and God’s grace is a choice we must make daily. Like Adam and Eve. we are given a choice: One tree or the other—the tree of grace, or the tree of our own discrimination. We might call it the tree of anti-grace.

As spiritual orphans from God we are inclined to work harder, work longer, work faster, work stronger. Orphans rule the world and spiritual orphans overcome. This is the root of anti-grace. Jesus calls us to take the tree of grace. He calls it the yoke that is easy and the burden that is light: 

 “Come to Me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is comfortable, and My burden is light.”  (Matthew 11:28-30)

Why are we naturally drawn to the tree of anti-grace rather than the tree of grace? Why do we find it so difficult to accept grace? You might argue that grace can be hard to accept for a variety of reasons. Some might feel they are undeserving of grace. Grace is usually extended when someone has done something wrong or made a mistake, and can be difficult to accept because the person may feel they don’t deserve it. They may be overwhelmed by feelings of guilt, shame, or self-doubt and have a hard time believing that they could be forgiven or shown kindness in any way. 

Some might have a fear of vulnerability because accepting grace often requires vulnerability and humility as it involves admitting that we’re not perfect and that we need help or forgiveness from others. For some people, this can be scary, especially if they’re used to being self-sufficient and independent. Some might have resentment or mistrust. In some cases, accepting grace from an individual may be difficult because of a past experience of hurt or betrayal. If someone has been hurt by someone in the past, they may have a hard time trusting that person again or accepting any kindness or forgiveness that they offer. And finally, grace may be hard to accept because of misconceptions about it and what it means. They may think that grace is something that can be earned, or that it comes with strings attached, when in fact it is freely given and unconditional. 

Like orphans, we too are attracted to spiritual effort and industry. That’s why Jesus doesn’t want to leave us as orphans and promised that he won’t. He knows our tendency to be self-determining. He wants to adopt us into his family, making us orphans no more, which gives us a family—the family of God—to belong to. 

But how are we able to accept grace? Why is grace so difficult to embrace? “For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace”  (John 1:16). (“Grace in place of grace already given,” other translations read.) Apparently, our tendency to self-fulfillment is so strong, our attraction to the tree of anti-grace is so persistent, that God says we need grace just to accept grace. We need grace in order to be able to accept grace We need to come to recognize that our righteous deeds and spiritual condition are just what Isaiah calls in Isaiah 64:6: “Filthy rags.” 

We must come to see our obedience and what we do for what they are. They are simply doing things God’s way. But obedience is not the way of salvation; it is just the way the family of God operates. In any family there are traditions, rituals, habits, ways of doing things, and heritage. The same holds for God’s family: It’s God’s way of doing things. It’s how Abba rules. That’s what obedience is: Doing things God’s way. Not all the time, of course, not perfectly. Not even without error, or without an occasional false start here and there. But by grace, you’re still adopted. You’re no longer a spiritual orphan, you’re part of the family. Trying to honor the way the family works is obedience. But grace is grace—it is something else. Grace is the gift of family membership, of belonging, of being adopted, of no longer being an orphan. 

Why are we so keen to let our behavior do the talking for us? Grace puts us in the family. Why is that so difficult to accept? Is it believable that that’s all it takes? How can you embrace such a concept? What are your thoughts about spiritual orphanhood, about adopting, and about the attachment disorders that sin brings; about two trees in the garden—the tree of grace and the tree of anti-grace; about being hardwired to effort and industry and performance. Why is it so hard to believe in the concept of grace?

David: Is not getting something for nothing exactly what children expect? Very young children, infants, expect to be fed, expect to have the diaper changed. Not in an intellectual sense—they have no idea about diapers and food—their hunger and discomfort are simply taken care of for them. Becoming like a little child means going back to that natural, pre-intellectual state. 

The question then is: What happens as the child grows and starts to become naughty? Up to a point, it really doesn’t matter how naughty a young child is. The parent still loves that child, still provides all the grace it needs. Perhaps we should ask what does the grace of a parent look like? What is the grace of a parent toward its child? And why ever would a child want to reject the grace of its parent? 

As the child grows, its intellect grows also. Once a child begins to apply its intellect to this question of accepting something for nothing, intellectual constructs such as distrust and suspicion start to grow in the child, who was innocent before. Then, perhaps, parental grace might be rejected by the child as its intellect grows. Jesus said, as clearly as can be, that we are to be like little children. Then we would just accept getting everything for nothing. The parent expects nothing of the child, either. Parents simply want to protect, nurture, and love their child.

C-J: I once read or heard that children in Russian orphanages—this is a long time ago— infants were lined up in cribs, but didn’t cry. When they first came in, they would cry. But after a while, they realized that those cries didn’t necessarily indicate that their need would be met. And they learned to just wait. I found that really interesting. It wasn’t about failure to thrive because eventually they would be changed, they would be fed, they would be rocked. But they learned to wait. And I thought in life, for those children as they got older, there wouldn’t be an expectation. There wouldn’t be this internal drive, because they cried and cried and still no one came. 

Grace is an interesting concept. I’ve been fussing with this myself, about “Let it go, let it go, let it go, Connie. If God has brought this to you, there’s something for you to learn. It’s an opportunity to grow. And you are a witness. What do you want these other people to know that they are not aware of now? Frame it in such a way that you are that instrument in God’s hand.”

But it’s just been a week of struggle and I’m having a really hard time finding balance in God and in society. I just feel out of sorts. But I think it comes back to “Just wait.” God is a lamp unto my feet, his word is a light unto that, the illumination of where I am at that point in time. If I can rest and believe in God as present always, that helps me but it doesn’t have endurance at this point in my life. During this week, I’ve really struggled to rest in God. It’s been a hard week

Robin: I think perhaps what happens is that for the physical world—the one that we have to learn and work in—it is all dependent on what you do as far as studying and applying yourself are concerned. And then the spiritual—such things as faith and grace—are not physical entities and therefore it’s harder to wrap your head around them, because they are intangible.

Don: I agree. I didn’t include that in my list of reasons why people don’t accept grace. But I thought about it quite a bit this week—that there is a dichotomy between the real world and the spiritual world. In the real world, nothing comes for nothing. The expectation that you’re going to perform, that you’re going to outperform someone else, is a deeply held notion in the in the real world. But God’s world is completely different. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why It’s such a hard concept to understand. Is it believable?

Carolyn: I think it’s also because from the time we were little, if we were raised in a church, we were always taught that if we were good, you would get something. It’s very hard to take that early training and change it into “All I have to do is ask and the Lord gives.” I’m not sure exactly where I’m at at this time—I’m tending to the child-like. But I think we have such thoughts ingrained in us that becoming child-like doesn’t seem possible. I feel I have to do something good to rectify what I might have overlooked.

Don: That’s why penance is so important. saying your Hail Marys, or crawling up the stairs on your knees, or…!

David: This is the problem. We’re always trying to apply the intellect to these questions. Belief is a matter of intellect. “Do I believe this? Why should I believe this?” We start analyzing and picking it apart in order to believe it. We build belief structures—churches and other things—around it, to explain it, to analyze it, to justify it. But none of that applies. 

In the real world, intellect is vital, but it’s anathema in the spiritual world. The garden of Eden was the original spiritual world. What was it that got Adam and Eve thrown out? It was the application of intellect: “If we eat this apple, this could happen.” This was an intellectual exercise. Until that point, there was nothing intellectual in the garden. They simply enjoyed it, took care of it, and loved it and one another. That was it. There was no intellectual exercise whatsoever. 

We cannot give it up because we live in the real world and we need the intellect for this life. But we do not need the intellect (certainly not one we have now) for the next.

C-J: I don’t believe that. That hasn’t been my experience. That doesn’t mean that my experience is unique to everyone. But I think the walking in the garden was an exchange of what we do here: Questions and examination. “Tell me what you see.” The first thing we tell a child is “Tell me what you see. What does it feel like? What does it smell like?” It’s not trying to figure out the big questions like life and death. It’s about the presence. 

I hear that in between because of our exchange in this group—that piece of emptying out and letting God fill that empty space, that experience of existentialism. But I think that can be a dangerous thing too, if we dwell on it. That’s why people get high—to experience that bliss, that Nirvana. It’s not just this dimension. I think the struggle of life is important to understanding what we don’t articulate, what we don’t really have a mean of articulating but we recognize intuitively for our survival in our communities. 

I need to have kindness not just so that if I’m hurting, someone will come and help me. Kindness is a radiation of a different kind of energy. Well, that vibration changes. I think the communion in the spiritual world is putting out good energy, thinking about the choice of forgiveness, the choice of understanding:, “Lord, teach me what grace is that I might be a reflection of that operating in me, for the others. I may not know what that person’s need is, but you do. Let me be the vessel that this person needs right now.” 

I think that’s very important. We are spirit beings having a human experience, and we cannot survive being separated from God, we cannot survive being separated from each other in this community. It doesn’t matter about the religions, the text, or the rituals: It’s the intention, the intentional purpose of unifying something that’s still dynamic but flows easily. There will be bumps, but it flows through the grace of God.

Reinhard: It’s hard to relate with a minor who loses a parent. I lost my parents when I was in adulthood. Attachment—mental and physical—is needed for protection in order to survive, but there’s a process and eventually one will adjust to the situation.

When Jesus ascended to heaven, before the pouring of the Holy Spirit, I think the apostles felt they had lost their leader. They had to be patient and let the process unfold. They had to keep praying, and after the Holy Spirit was poured they were refreshed to continue the work of the gospel. 

In our life, there are times we go through similar feelings of isolation and feel depressed. We have to make sure of our attachment to God, to keep coming close to God, and eventually we will recover. So too in spiritual life: We need God and we thank God for the grace given to us. God is always there to help us God, always there to to bring us up from the low points so we can continue to live and to worship him.

Kiran: Most people who join the church came with spiritual attachment disorder. We were so consumed with working really hard to be obedient to God that obedience became the number one thing. The more obedient we were, the more victorious we would be, the better we would be spiritually. But the opposite actually happened: The more we tried to be obedient, the worse it became. 

The key thing is accepting that grace requires humility and vulnerability, and recognizing that there is something wrong with us that we cannot fix, and that we need somebody’s help. That is so hard to understand. It is so simple to say it but it may take years to accept it and really know it in our heart. It requires that we give up control of ourselves and trust God completely. 

It makes sense that we need grace to accept grace. I still have friends with spiritual attachment disorder. They have a constant need for spiritual validation and being obedient to God. There is a constant fear in them. What changed in my life, even though we were all together at one point, there isn’t any intellectual explanation for. Somehow God gave me the grace to accept the grace. It is impossible to explain intellectually, but I’m so happy that God gave me grace upon grace.

Robin: Is what we are living now the true reality, on this planet that was affected by disobedience? Or is God trying to tell us this is not reality? After all, it is spiritual reality that lasts for eternity. Mortal reality is temporary. 

Don: We are living in The Matrix? 

Robin: I couldn’t stand those movies—way too intellectual for me! 😉

Obedience is more like a gift. Once we can grab hold of the fact that we are just loved and that we are forgiven and that there is grace for our failings, then obedience becomes a natural part of the process. But when we try to earn obedience, that’s where we get stuck.

My grandson is not quite a year and a half yet. Of course, we don’t want him to climb over the back of the couch or onto the end table because we know he’s going to fall and get hurt, but he doesn’t know that yet. He doesn’t know what obedience is. He’s going to have to fall, I think, in order to learn that he should listen to what mommy and daddy and Nona say because otherwise he’s going to get hurt. But if he never fell, I don’t think he would learn it. It would just look to him as though we were trying to ruin his fun.

Michael: I think this is reality. But something that gets forgotten is that we think that since we’re all rational, thinking adults, the way we see reality is all the same. I think nothing could be further from the truth. Research in psychology has shown that your reality is really determined by how you view it. For example, let’s say you’re in a relationship and you think you’re in a great relationship. Even if your relationship is in fact mediocre, or even if your partner is cheating on you, the reality and the truth for you is that you are in a great relationship. 

The problem with us humans is that we tend to focus much more on the negative experiences and realities rather than the positives. They just have a much stronger impact on us. Any negative experience leaves a mark, but positive experiences are fleeting and don’t make any impression. It takes an effort to see the positive in our lives and appreciate that we do get a lot of things for free—good things. Maybe it can help us to see more grace, instead of being blind to it.

C-J: The idea of bonding is really something that occurs not just out of goodness, nurturing, being rocked, being read to. But when you’ve gone through something that’s traumatic and survived, with another person, that bond seems to be deeper, in part, possibly, because of what you said, and we’re going along and everything is just fine. But when you hit that bottom, to stand up and say, “We made it”…. There’s something,… a trust that comes out of that, an expectation that comes out of that, of trust that grows, that gets a root. But if you don’t have those experiences….

I think that happens in God, too. When you think about the times where the people that we are able to tick off that are notable, that had clay feet and realized it: They didn’t grow without those bumps. They didn’t come into a deeper understanding of who God was and God couldn’t use them in the same way. It takes more than trust, it takes engagement. The rules of engagement with God say that “You will fall. And when you look up, I will be here. I’m always in the room.”

Reinhard: Bonding, attachment, is the issue The opposite of attachment is detachment. Old Testament figures from Adam and Eve onward, when separated from God after committing some sin, were lonely from their loss. David went through such a period, Moses, Elijah went to the desert. In the New Testament, the disciples were lost when Jesus went to heaven. Jesus himself was lonely at one point during the crucifixion, as if he were far away from his father. During Paul’s imprisonment in Rome, some of his friends left him and, as he mentioned in his epistles, he was lonely. 

In our life, there are times when we too feel lonely, when we lose people close to us, or when we have done something against God’s will and feel that God is far from us. We need encouragement to come to God. We have to be submissive, we have to be humble in our spiritual life. With grace, we come to God, if we read his words and pray. God will work through the Holy Spirit to help us to learn to keep coming to him, no matter what happens to us in life, good or bad. I think that’s what we need. We need to attach the Tree of Life.

Joyce: I have no problem accepting grace. It seems like it was the plan. If the death of Christ was not enough for our sins, then we’re lost. We have to accept that. We know we can’t do it on our own. Many people try to do it on their own and they fail, then maybe they get depressed, they get angry: “I’m not good enough, I can’t get this right.” 

The gift was given without conditions. It was a gift. We don’t have to give something in return. All you have to do is accept the gift and it’s yours. But we make it complicated. Even our Bible makes it complicated, in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament, Jesus was so forgiving and so kind and so innocent, and he made the sacrifice for us. I feel like we betray him if we don’t accept his gift without putting stipulations on ourselves to do something to make ourselves good enough to deserve it, or worse, to undermine someone else’s walk with grace by telling them that maybe they need to straighten this or that out in their life. 

I think it’s easier than we think. I often pray for God to accept me as I am. To help me to overcome my failings, yes; but while I don’t want to sin, I know I’m going to. So I’m glad that there is this provision. I didn’t ask to come here. I didn’t ask to be of this world. We were put here, into a sinful world. Adam and Eve were placed in the garden with a temptation that God must have known they were going to succumb to, but he let the whole thing happen anyway. Why? I don’t know, but he made provision for it. 

People have said to me that this whole thing took place because God didn’t just want to be done with Lucifer (he could easily have just destroyed him) but he didn’t want the angels, the heavenly beings, to worship him out of fear. Yet here on Earth, we try to get people to live a particular lifestyle out of fear, the fear being God that will not love you enough to let you come to heaven if you cannot follow these rules. 

From what I’ve been told, It goes totally against what we’ve been told about why it all started to begin with. And now we want to put fear in people’s hearts and minds that they’d better toe the line or they’re not going to heaven

David: Amen to all of that.

Anonymous: A very, very dramatic moment in my life came when I learned about grace. Then I started to wonder how do I live in this natural world where people are not grateful? How do you deal with that? How do we overcome the dichotomy between spiritual grace or the spiritual side of grace—dealing with God, dealing with God’s people—and the ungraceful people in the world? That led me to the thought that it is hard to live in between. You have obligations to to live gracefully, to accept God’s grace, to be graceful in heart. Yet when you deal with the world, you don’t find yourself able to apply these rules, because the world is different. That’s the dichotomy. 

And then I thought: How do we overcome that? Does the lack of ability to be graceful in the natural world with real people mean that we’re not established in grace? What do we need to be able to live both sides successfully? I thought that maybe I should imitate the lessons that I receive to be graceful to people to whom I owe nothing. Instead of just being graceful to people who do favors for me, why not do something good to somebody who never did anything for me? Maybe, I thought, that will lead me to practice grace in the natural world. 

Michael: That’s a great point. We’ve discussed the rules of the kingdom of heaven (you go to the end of the line, you’re more of a servant, etc.) Are these the rules of living in grace? Do they help? Is living in the kingdom of heaven the same as living in the kingdom of grace?

Don: I think it is. One of the points I was trying to make is the concept of obedience. Obedience is basically living in the family of God as if you are trying to underwrite and uphold and honor the way in which the family operates. You do things in your family that are traditional and habitual and ritual and heritage. Some people celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve, others on Christmas morning. Some people eat special meals for certain special occasions. These are family traditions, and part of the tradition of obedience is that you belong to the family of God, and therefore you try as best you can to honor the kinds of ways that  the leader of the family (in this case, Abba, Daddy, God himself) wants you to behave. 

You can’t do it all the time. You can’t do it perfectly. You can’t do it without false starts and errors. But you’re part of the family and you try to live in that way. I think that those are some of the rules. Can you do it all the time? Is it practical? No. Can you do it some of the time? Can you be a demonstrator of the rules and ways in which the family operates? I think that’s what Anon was saying. But it’s not required for salvation. It has nothing to do with your salvation. Obedience is not the way to salvation and disobedience is not the way to hell. 

Carolyn: I hear so much about the freedom of grace. I want to be free, with the limitations that I live constantly in the eyes of God. We hold the Sabbath as a sacred time, but our lives should be conducted in a way that there’s very little difference between the sacred and the secular. I want the freedom to know that I don’t have to follow little petty rules. I want to be free to think and not fear condemnation, not just of God but also of my family, friends. We sometimes neglect the big issues and let the little petty things weigh on us way more.

C-J: There’s an old saying: “If you knew who I really was, you wouldn’t like me.” When I listen to Carolyn, that’s what I hear. In my mind, I have this expectation of what others have of me, but with God, it is grace, because there are no secrets between me and God. I wish that sometimes he didn’t know my heart. I go “Lord forgive me,” but he already knew that was bubbling. I think that’s our greatest fear—that if you really knew who I was, who I am, you wouldn’t love me. And God says “I’ve always loved you.” I think it’s just profound.

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