Hard to believe we’ve never posted this section from Paul Zahl’s Grace in Practice before. As with most of the provocative second half of that book, it goes well beyond abstractions and gets uncomfortably close to the bone–in the best possible way. The language here has to do with marriage, but you could easily substitute a variety of other relational contexts:
Men and women encounter a serpent-ridden wilderness of Eden when they enter into marriage. Competition for need-fulfillment and attention squanders huge amounts of energy in resentment and suppressed antagonism. The nature of the law is to place every single marriage under the Damocles’ sword of needs to be met. The word ‘negotiation’ comes to the fore: wife and husband have to negotiate who is responsible for what and when. The negotiation model for marriage seems even more important with the arrival of children. Add to that the care of aging parents, and who is going to handle the finances of the family, and who gets what rest and recreation and when, and the whole life of the family becomes an economic system of barter and exchange.
The law excels in dividing married couples on the basis of power and influence. Many marriages become long-term struggles for power. “You men are all alike,” lashes out Michelle in Diary of a Mad Black Woman. “You only think about yourselves.” Her good man retorts, “Yes, and you women are so angry. No wonder that husband of yours left you.” These are law-driven accusations. They destroy relationships every time. They imply a model of marriage as alternating need-fulfillment.
Grace demolishes the idea of need-fulfillment. Need-fulfillment is a law that has no possible satisfaction. Human need is limitless on its own terms. It is a bottomless well, a pail with a hole in the bottom. Grace nullifies this. The need for personal fulfillment is not met in Christianity. It is destroyed.
In Christianity, grace assumes a bottomless need on the part of every single man and woman. It is the self-serving expression of original sin or selfishness. This unfillable need is worse than it sounds, for there is a scorpion at the bottom of the bucket. The original sin of the unattainable need is made worse by a sadism that bonds with it in practice.
We have already seen that the un-free will is unable to put up much of a struggle against original inward sins. If I had the person alone who has hurt me and left my own needs far back in the dust, I might break his legs with a mallet like Annie Wilkes in Misery (1987). I could rationalize my cruelty on the basis of injustices he did to me, but I might not be able to rationalize myself out of my cruelty.
Grace nullifies competition in marriage. Grace says you are both equally at fault in everything, because the fault is in your chemistry and in your head. All men and women are “under the power of sin” (Romans 3:9). Grace also states the answer to psychic and actual competition between men and women, in grace’s one-way love that asks for nothing in return yet “believes all things” (1 Cor 13:7). Grace forms love in return.
The characteristic form of competition in marriage is competition over identity. The man thinks, maybe without giving it much thought, that his job, his difficult and demanding job, deserves more credit than his wife’s needlepoint shop, or her raising of their children day after day while he is at work. On the other hand, the woman may believe that only if she is chairing the board of Goldman Sachs can she bring credible equality to their marriage. Unless she is bouncing up and down against the glass ceiling, her “weight” in the partnership is not equal. The wife, in her stereotyped views of what is important and “identity affirming,” is just as enslaved as the husband in his own stereotyped views. From the standpoint of grace, both partners are equally mistaken. The best thing that could happen to them is if they both fell down from these stupendously misconceived ideas of human prize-winning and landed together on the same hill of sand, like pole-vaulters who have failed to clear the bar. Then they could observe their common failure.
Grace demolishes the human idea of success. It laughs about it. Do you remember the popular song from the 1970s entitled “The Pina Colada Song”? The singer wanted out of his marriage so badly that he answered a want ad in the newspaper: for someone who liked pina coladas and “getting caught in the rain.” What happened when the two finally arranged to meet? What a surprise! It was his wife; it was her husband. The lyric, by Rupert Holmes, finished this way: “It was my own lovely lady and she said, ‘Oh, it’s you / And we laughed for a moment, and I sad, ‘I never knew.’” The song is charming. The two unsatisfied partners are both looking for the same thing. They just don’t know it. So they “fall down” from an Olympian height of marked judgment, laugh for a minute, and begin again. They begin again from self-knowledge, humility, and, in new fact, high hopes.
Grace does not satisfy the search for a safe, human identity. Grace demolishes the search. Humor helps to universalize the pathos of people’s compulsive attempts to shore up their “identity” with some sort of external practice. Life deconstructs such attempts. Grace puts the competition on the same level and gives the same to every single person. For this reason, St. Paul says that in grace there is “no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11). This is the only satisfying news for ending the marital competition that drives men and women away from each other in the heat of the day. No presentation of symptoms of identity one-upsmanship will ever “win” the war between the sexes. Each person will only “put down” the other. Only God has the will and power to put down “the powerful from their thrones, and [lift] up the lowly” (Luke 1:52). Grace ends the competition in marriage. It demolishes self-righteousness and increases, past the Richter scale, the level of compassion required for love to exist, thrive, and continue.” (pg 143-145)