Defining Grace

double rainbows at my backyard

I stumble over grace. It’s a pretty word. I like how it rolls off my tongue in a sweet, feather-light way. But, defining grace – well, that’s complicated. It trips me up, so this week I went searching for answers.

Grace means so many things it makes my head spin. A ballet dancer, for instance, moves with grace. There is a grace period for paying bills. People say grace before meals. Someone behaving politely or with goodwill is said to show grace. You may honor or grace someone with your presence. People of royal descent are sometimes addressed as “His Grace, the Duke of XYZ”.

So no wonder, when it comes to understanding God’s grace we might need a little clarity. According to Christian belief, grace means the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary). Yeah, did you catch all that?! What a mouthful. Let’s break it down…

Free and unmerited means that grace is not something we earn or deserve; it is offered unconditionally. We do not have to meet a “good deed quota” to receive grace. Donating things to goodwill, baking someone cookies, or reading extra bedtime stories will not buy us more grace.

Favor of God refers to his acceptance of us offered regardless of our daily rights and wrongs. God’s favor is doled out in the same amount to you, me, addicts, crooks, beggars, and the person who drives you crazy.

Manifested in the salvation of sinners means God shows his favor through an invitation for eternal life. The Bible teaches that this invitation was written by Jesus when he willingly died on the cross for our sins.

The bestowal of blessings is another way God shows his favor. He bestows or presents us with loving and merciful gifts. Blessings may come through family, friends, talents, healing, or forgiveness to name a few.

In researching grace’s definition, I found many authors and pastors use an acronym to provide understanding: GRACE = God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. That simplifies the definition, but it does not make receiving this enormous gift any easier.

Truth is, although God offers grace to every person, many of us do not readily accept it. We tell ourselves:

  • Grace is not meant for me. (False)

Our inner critics, and critics in the outside world harp on us with messages like: “you’re undeserving”, “you’re not good enough”, “you’re a real mess”, or “you’re just too far gone”. We start to see God’s favor as something meant for other people who have not made as many mistakes as we have.

But, that’s simply not Biblically true. Time and time again, Jesus makes this clear in the Bible by befriending people others say are unworthy – those who have committed murder, adultery, robbery, prostitution, and deception. He blesses them with forgiveness and healing. He leads and inspires them to turn their lives around (to repent). And, he reminds those who think they are righteous not to rank their sins against those of others. God’s grace gives every person another chance to be used for his good purposes. 

When Jesus heard this, he told them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor–sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” Mark 2:17 New Living Translation (NLT)

  • Grace is free, so I already have it. (False)

We do not have to earn grace, but we must willingly receive it through faith and obedience. A good description of receiving grace is found in the story of Noah (Genesis 6:8, the first mention of “grace” in the Bible).

In this story, Noah found favor from God because he was actively looking for it. He faithfully asked God for direction and sought a response. God blessed him with knowledge about the coming judgement and instructions for beginning anew. Noah then served as a steward of God’s grace by obediently carrying out his instructions. Grace will bless us and save us when we seek God out and have faith in his plans, not our own.

Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. Hebrews 4:16 New International Version (NIV)

  • Grace is my ticket to heaven; I don’t need to think about it right now. (False)

Life is distracting and it can keep us from recognizing the source of our blessings. Because our society is so driven by recognition, we seamlessly shift from praising God to praising ourselves. Then, we start to see grace as something off in the distance–set aside as a gift from God to be received when we die.

God’s grace is in the here and now. Evidence of God’s favor surrounds us every day in the lives of our family and friends, and in the midst of our own busy schedules. Grace calls us to slow down, appreciate what we have, and remember how far we’ve come. Getting to know God now, eases our worry about the future.

Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. 2 Peter 1:2 (NIV)

Picture God standing on a street corner trying to hand out brochures about grace. “It’s free,” he gently speaks, “because I love you so much. Please receive it.” Over and over, he repeats this request.

Can you see all the people passing him by? Their heads are down. They have problems, destinations. They think it’s strange this man is professing his love for them. They didn’t do anything to deserve it. They don’t know him…well, maybe… there is something familiar about him.

What if after passing, someone hesitates and turns around? What if she jogs nonchalantly back and takes that brochure? She reads it and ponders it, as she continues on. Her walk changes, notably full of hope and joy. Stores of love and mercy line her path. A wind whispers promises of an everlasting life. She feels something has changed; it’s subtle, but big. With certain wonder, her gaze travels from the brochure to the sky. She will no longer stumble over grace. She knows right where to find it.

Prayer for the Week:

Dear God,

Thank you for helping me understand the meaning of grace. The magnitude of this gift is overwhelming – all the goodness in this world and the promise of eternal life, offered unconditionally because of Christ’s sacrifice. Help me learn to readily accept and embrace this gift. Teach me to recognize my value through your eyes. Lead me in faith and obedience to follow your instruction for my life. And, open my eyes to your grace that surrounds me each day. In Jesus’ Name, Amen

My Favorite Irish Blessing for You:

May flowers always line your path and sunshine light your day.
May songbirds serenade you every step along the way.
May a rainbow run beside you in a sky that’s always blue.
And may happiness fill your heart each day your whole life through.

-Author Unknown

Listen To:

Matt Redman’s beautiful song “Your Grace Finds Me” right here.

Christmas Countdown Challenge, Week 1-worry

Christmas tree hunt 2008

So, it’s coming! Less than four weeks and it will be upon us! Have you flung yourself headlong into the inevitable frenzy of Christmas yet? It is one of the most difficult times of the year for me to maintain a healthy perspective on my to-do list. As soon as Thanksgiving ends, the pressure descends to get the best deal, bake the tastiest treats, wrap notable gifts, and decorate beautifully. I get swept away by a current of tasks that equate to the “perfect Christmas”, then fail to measure up to my own expectations.

So, I’ve made a decision. This year calls for a new approach. These next four weeks, I am committed to making sense of the “Christmas crazy” through Scripture. Each of the next four weeks, I will write a meaningful Scripture on the heading of my to-do list. Before I assign priority to any task, I will read and contemplate this Scripture. Before I hit the mall, measure a cup of flour, unroll wrapping paper, or hang a stocking – I will replay this Bible verse in my mind. My goal – to feel less overwhelmed and more fulfilled, as I cross each item off the list.

Want to join me? Let’s get going. The Scripture focus this week:

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7 New International Version (NIV)

Do not be anxious about anything? Wait, really? But, there is so much to do and so much to fret about. How do we put the brakes on worry?

The Scripture above offers us a few strategies to try:

  • In the midst of making decisions, prayerfully ask God for help. While making to-do lists, intentionally prioritize, cut back, and perhaps, even eliminate some tasks. Does your heart feel heavy or light when you review your list? Do you sense that you would be happier if something on the list changed? How can you make that happen?
  • Remember this season comes one day at a time. Don’t worry about the winter road conditions for your celebrations right now. When that day comes, so will the cautious decisions you need to make. Focus on the tasks at hand for today, arming yourself with confidence and humor as you work to accomplish them.
  • Turn complaints upside down and shake them all around. Instead of grumbling about tasks, decide to speak thankfully about them. A lot of people to cook for? Remember how blessed you are to have a family to celebrate with. Shopping requires too much time and money? Remember what a gift it is to have talents and resources you can share with others. Outdoor decorating is a cold, tedious job? Remember having a place to call home for Christmas keeps us humble and grateful. How can you turn your complaints upside down?
  • Take time to be still and quiet. Carve out some time each day for yourself to revel in a little peace. Do something that you would not normally have time to enjoy this holiday season. Read a Christmas novel, take a walk in the woods, try out one of those new coloring books for grown-ups, or drink hot chocolate in front of your Christmas tree every night before bed…whatever works for you.

Prayer for the Week:

Heavenly Father, Blessed be your name above all earthly things. As another Christmas season begins, help me keep my worries in perspective. Teach me to listen for your quiet nudges on my heart regarding holiday busyness. Walk boldly beside me one day at a time, and remind me to laugh more often than not. Display my blessings prominently before me, so that I am not tempted to forget and complain about them. Lead me into quiet spaces filled with your peace. In Jesus’ Name, Amen


Click on the following PDF link for a To-Do list form displaying this week’s Scripture. Print it, if you would like, and refer to the Scripture throughout your week. Know someone else who would like this blog? Please pass it along!

To-Do List with Scripture

A Fit Faith

Dumbbell B&W

“Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.” Matthew 22:37-38 New International Version (NIV)

Flipping a 150 pound tractor tire fifty times in a workout was never a line item on my bucket list. Surprisingly, however, this feat hijacked the list, and I crossed it off with pride on my fiftieth birthday. Ha, who knew?! This girl does have strength, coordination, and endurance.

A year ago, I considered myself a fairly physically fit person, but certainly not someone people recognized from the gym. Thirty minutes on the elliptical and I was good to go. I was not concerned about my biceps or my core, and I had no idea what a TRX or a burpee was.

After a great deal of salesmanship, my husband convinced me that strength training would be good for me to try. Strength training exercises use resistance from things like dumbbells, rubber exercise tubing, and even your own body weight to cause muscles to contract. Physical benefits include improved muscle strength, tone, mass, and endurance. Starting slow, I worked with a trainer to learn proper technique and combine new exercises.

Gradually, I noticed changes in strength, and other, more unexpected things too. I finally understood how to properly lift heavy objects with my legs, and not my back. More conscious of my posture, I found myself keeping my shoulders back and down. Flipping a huge tire fifty times became a possibility. My body continues learning to speak this challenging new language every week. Stronger and wiser, my muscles thank me for it by surprising me with what they can do.

In much the same way, I never considered writing a blog about applying Scripture to life. A far cry from a biblical scholar, I attended church randomly most of my life. A good person equals a “fairly fit” Christian, right? I was not concerned about my spiritual biceps or strengthening my core beliefs, and Bible study classes intimidated me.

When a health crisis hit our family, I found myself desperately wishing my muscles of faith were stronger. I longed for courage, for answers to serious questions, and for peace of mind. I scrutinized how fit my faith was. I could not honestly say I was dedicated to loving God with all my heart, soul, and mind.

Perhaps striving to love God that completely would guide me towards a more “fit faith”? Gradually, I am discovering and adding new spiritual exercises into the routines of my life. Some ideas to power up faith:

Learn about prayer and make it a daily practice. Max Lucado’s book, The Power of a Simple Prayer is a great resource for anyone wanting to learn more about how to talk to God. Prayer does not have to be a formal, scheduled event; it can take place throughout your day like other conversations.

Express gratitude every day. Just becoming aware of the many things to be thankful for can help us think more positively and ease worry. Use a notebook, an app, or an online journal to record blessings each day.

Seek to understand Scripture. Start understanding and applying Scripture by reading devotions, a life-application Bible, or Christian teaching books. Focus on one verse a day and see what you can learn from it.

Join a supportive network of people who also seek a stronger faith. Support can come in many ways such as attending church, discussing a faith inspired book together, using creative talents, or working on a team project for the community.

Be still. Carving out time to simply sit with a quiet mind can be a very difficult task. Taking this break, however, can rejuvenate us for the challenges we face. Solitude eases worries, brings clarity, and reveals inner strength through the Holy Spirit.

As I see it, improving faith fitness is very similar to improving physical fitness. Exercises should be tailored to an individual’s unique needs. A variety of exercises work best to challenge the mind, body, and spirit. Consistent practice is important for long term benefits. And, the results can inspire others.

Like training in the gym, stretching our faith helps us grow stronger and wiser in new ways. Asking God for help no longer seems like an insurmountable task. Blessings become more apparent than ever before, and we feel grateful to see them. Recognizing the needs of others and showing compassion takes precedence over fulfilling our own needs. And, seeking answers to common faith questions is no longer scary and isolating.

Developing a “fit faith” continues to be a work in progress for me. I do not have a formula to follow for success. What I can say with certainty, though, is that I am in better shape now to handle the next downturn in life.

Prayer for this Week:

Lord, thank you for being my patient trainer as I seek a “fit faith”. Guide me in conversation with you and help me understand how to apply your teachings to my life. Fill my heart with gratitude as I count my blessings each day. Remind me to be still in your holy presence and listen for your direction. In Jesus’ Name, Amen

Scriptures to Apply:

Matthew 22:37, “Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.” (NIV)

Ephesians 3:16-17, “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” (NIV)

Romans 4:20, “Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God,” (NIV)

Questions to Help Make Sense of Life:

How fit is my faith? Are my spiritual muscles getting the workouts they need to sustain me through the ups and downs of life? What can I change in my faith routine to strengthen my love for God?

Joy > Happiness

Dancing in the rain

“Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy,” 1 Peter 1:8 New International Version (NIV)

Weary from a long car ride, my then nine-year-old daughter lumbered out of the minivan to stretch, while our dog, Dandy, relieved herself. Dandy stretched, wagged her tail, and rubbed against us for petting. Struck by our dog’s enthusiasm despite the long car ride, my child asked, “Why is Dandy always so joyful?”

Similar to my daughter’s observation of our dog, do you know someone who quickly brightens or calms the moods of others? These people readily provide a smile, reassurance, or even just a sense of peace. A quick judgement leads us to assume they do not experience hardships or burdens. But, in getting to know them, we learn this is not the case. Many joy-filled people are seemingly coping very well with difficult situations. My daughter asked me this “joyful question” over a decade ago, and it has stuck with me not only for it’s humor, but for it’s deeper pondering of what joy really is.

Lately, I have been reading the book Think, Act, Be Like Jesus by Randy Frazee. In his book, Frazee writes about what he sees as an interesting difference between happiness and joy. He describes happiness on a scale of high to low; how happy we are is dependent on the number of problems present in our lives. When problems arise, we become unhappy. When problems are solved, we become happier again. “Joy, however, is not dependent on circumstances, and, in fact, ironically, can become strongest when trouble comes”(Frazee 169). Frazee states that, “Joy has more to do with remaining in the presence of Jesus than with avoiding problems and struggles in our lives”(170).

Since reading this book, I’ve been trying to make sense of the difference between happiness and joy in my own life. For example, I am happier when the furnace works, when appointments run on time, and when my family is healthy. Getting some exercise, sleeping well, and eating nutritious food also brings fewer problems, thus making me happier.

Joy takes more work to define and achieve. Even in the midst of dire circumstances like job layoffs, divorce, and serious illnesses some people demonstrate a resolve not to be defeated. They may be experiencing unhappiness, but they remain content in the knowledge that they cannot control their circumstances. Learning how to be satisfied with the status of things by trusting God, brings a reassurance which is naturally passed along to others.

In thinking about this type of trust and reassurance, I am reminded of the devastating shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012. Many of us were in awe of the courage and forgiveness displayed by the families of the 20 children and six teachers and administrators killed.

Scarlett Lewis was one of the parents waiting with her older son, JT, at the firehouse where parents gathered for news about their children. In a Women’s Day article titled “‘I Forgave My Son’s Shooter,’” she writes about finding words of comfort for her older son, stating, “I prayed for the words to comfort him. Somehow, they came out: I told him that even if something had happened to Jesse—maybe even the worst and he had been killed—that he was in heaven and that he was fine now. I told him that we were going to be OK too” (Web. 11 December 2013).

Trusting God to help us find the right words and actions when we are hurting is difficult. How do we get to the place where our assurances of God’s promises shine through even when discouraging things are happening? The joy displayed in our character depends upon strengthening our relationship with Christ. Nurturing joy requires planting faith-filled habits, like prayer, into our daily lives, so that turning to God becomes a natural occurrence no matter what is happening.

The more at ease we become with including God in our lives, the more we start to notice the opportunities for joy God has placed in front of us. We find ourselves turning over more of our worry to him and trusting in his plan. We start seeing the good acts around us that work to alleviate the bad. And, we begin searching for ways to join these efforts by serving him.

Life’s hardships still come our way, but we will be more equipped to handle them if we proactively work on building faith-filled habits into our lives. The things in this life that really scare us will not derail the inner contentment we feel. This contentment or joy will be visible to others through a smile, kind words or actions, or simply by offering a calming presence. Those crossing our paths, then, in turn, may pause and wonder, “why so joyful?”

Prayer for this Week:

Lord, thank you for the many blessings that bring me happiness. Help me as I work to develop faith-filled habits which nurture joy in my character. Teach me to watch for opportunities to build my trust in your plans for my life. Show me how to embrace even negative circumstances as a way to strengthen my faith, remain content, and lead others to you. In Jesus’ Name, Amen

Scriptures to Apply:

1 Peter 1:8, “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy,” (NIV)

Philippians 4:11-13, “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (NIV)

Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and He will make your paths straight.” (NIV)

Romans 15:13, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (NIV)

Questions to Help Make Sense of Life:

Is there someone in your life that exudes joy even in difficult circumstances? Have you ever wondered how their mind-set of faith might bring about such joy? Can you prayerfully begin to model joy for others?