It’s no secret that Paul Zahl’s Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life is one of the texts that has been most foundational and inspiring for Mockingbird. Why? The book is painfully self-evident one moment, absurdly provocative the next, intellectual yet deeply pastoral, remarkably funny, and filled to the brim with powerful examples – in short, a tour-de-force of Grace-centered theology. You probably won’t agree with everything in it (as well you shouldn’t!), but we can assure you of one thing: it will get you thinking. Plus, reading Grace in Practice will give those who are interested a better idea of where many of us on this site are coming from.
At its core, the most exciting thing about Grace in Practice – and what we hear most frequently from those who’ve read it – is how it demonstrates/communicates that the same thing that occupies most of your waking hours is the main theme that occupies the Bible. And vice versa. Here are a few excerpts from the opening section:
Pg. 1: “In life there are two governing principles that are at war with one another. The first is law; the second is grace… The law crushes the human spirit; grace lifts it. The story of the Bible is the story of this perpetual war between law and grace.”
The law, which is any form of external command, provokes the opposite reaction from the one it is intended to provoke. Instead of inciting obedience or submission, it incites rebellion. It provokes revolutionary resentment. The law is a true thing, and accurate summary or description of what it means to be happy and fulfilled, especially in relation to one’s neighbors. If we were able and willing to follow it, the law would be the answer to humanity’s problems.
The law kills, the law incites, the law breeds hatred for itself, the law creates suppression. It does sometimes work to one’s temporary benefit (“no pain, no gain”) but in the long run, the law runs out of fuel. The law does not enable us – except by mammoth and exhausting effort – to do the things it commands. The Bible declares the law to be good and right (1 Tim 1:8, Romans 3:31) but then with one great persuasive insight deprives the law of any lasting capacity to do us any good (Romans 7:24-25).
The point is crucial: law tells us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about ourselves. It holds the “mirror up to nature” (W. Shakespeare). But the law fails to convey the power to correct the maladies it diagnoses. The Law is painful, like iodine on a cut, but another agent is required for healing to occur. That agent is grace.
p. 6: “But the law, no matter where it comes from, is always the law heard. I hear ‘you shall’ and you shall not’ as adversarial. This is the key to understanding human psychology and human action. All ideals and all delineations of what is absolutely good are heard and understood as accusatory statements… Say what you will about its idealistic intent, about its being the ultimate ‘design manual’ for men and women, the law is always heard as an attack. I learned this as a child living in a family. My sister might say to me, “How do you like my dress?” and I would answer, “It looks fine.” She would say back, “What the matter with it?!” I was mystified. Any judgment, any evaluation – even if it approves and speaks a blessing – will be heard as a negation.”
p. 9: “The law did not effect what it demanded. It could not deliver what it mandated. The law on its own terms is a discredited thing by the end of the OT. How could you say otherwise from the texts themselves? Failure to live it and failure to want to live it are the result of centuries of use. …Law is true. It is also impotent and counterproductive. It produces its opposite.”
p. 25: “The Law in society is a double message. It calls for perfection but stimulates rebellion. It creates the very thing it wants to control. The law is a dud. Social reformers have seen this forever. They have seen terrible ills and have worked tirelessly to correct them. They have been appalled by injustices and done everything to challenge them. Yet year after year, one injustice gives way to another.”
p. 28: “The principle of the divine demand for perfection upon the human being is reflected concretely in the countless internal and external demands that human beings devise for themselves. In practice, the requirement of perfect submission to the commandments of God is exactly the same as the requirement of perfect submission to the innumerable drives for perfection that drive everyday people’s crippled and crippling lives. The commandment of God that we honor our father and mother is no different in impact, for example, than the commandment of fashion that a woman be beautiful or the commandment of culture that a man be boldly decisive and at the same time utterly tender.
Pg. 36: “What is grace? Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is love coming at you that has nothing to do with you. Grace is being loved when you are unlovable. The cliché definition of grace is ‘unconditional love’. It is a true cliché, for it is a good description of the thing…Let’s go a little further. Grace is a love that has nothing to do with you, the beloved. It has everything and only to do with the lover. Grace is irrational in the sense that it has nothing to do with weights and measures. It has nothing to do with my intrinsic qualities or so-called ‘gifts’ (whatever they may be). It reflects a decision on the part of the giver, the one who loves, in relation to the receiver, the one who is love, that negates any qualifications the receiver may personally hold…Grace is one-way love. That is the definition for this book.”
The one-way love of grace is the essence of any lasting transformation that takes place in human experience. You can find this out for yourself by taking a simply inventory of your own happiness, or the moments of happiness you have had. They have almost always had to do with some incident of love or belovedness that has come to you from someone outside yourself when you were down. You felt ugly or sinking in confidence and somebody complimented you, or helped you, or spoke a kind word to you. You were at the end of your rope and someone showed a little sympathy.
Pg. 78: “Grace and law are the driving forces of the world. They exist in a relation, but it is not a both-and relation. It is not a little bit of one and a little bit of the other. The two are resolved in a one-time resolution that is connected to a single historical instant, the death of Christ. In the way we receive them, however – in the way they play out in everyday life – they are completely separate.”
And as a teaser for how the book spells out the implications of Grace in relationships:
Pg 139 “Grace at the origin of romantic love, which is the entry point for the hopes of marriage, is related to the concept of intimacy. ‘Intimacy’ is a word that can make you wince. It is used in sentimental settings, and it is sometimes deployed to describe relationships that are unworthy of the word. But it actually means something important. Intimacy is when I know somebody else as they really are. It is when I know someone inwardly and not just outwardly.
Christ was uninterested, for example, in human beings from the outside in. He was only interested in people from the inside out. He pulled away from people who looked like ‘whitewashed tombs’ but whose insides were filled with ‘the bones of the dead’ (Matthew 23:27). Intimacy is the opposite of the whitewashed tomb. It is seeing into the core of a person while not being repelled by what you see.”