Conversatio Divina

Experiencing the Grace of God and the God of Grace

Siang-Yang Tan

Grace. It’s a deep word, loaded with many meanings and experiences. It’s a word that is intimately and eternally related to God. When I think about grace, it is inevitably linked to the God of grace and the grace of God (e.g., see Ephesians 1:6–7; 2:8–9; 1 Peter 5:10). Before relating some of my own experiences with grace, let me first focus on its definition.

J.I. Packer has provided the following more theological description of grace:

Grace is God’s undeserved favor, his unmerited love. The word “grace” expresses the thought of God acting in spontaneous goodness to save sinners: God loving the unlovely, making covenant with them, pardoning their sins, accepting their persons, revealing Himself to them, moving them to response, leading them ultimately into full knowledge and enjoyment of Himself, and overcoming all obstacles to the fulfillment of this purpose that at each stage arise. . . . To the New Testament writers, grace is a wonder. . . . They find it simply staggering that there shall be such a thing as grace at all—let alone grace that was so costly to God as the grace of Calvary. . . . The world is full of wonders—wonders of nature, wonders of science, wonders of craftsmanship—but they pale in significance beside the wonder of the grace of God. Nothing we say can do it justice: all words fall short of it: it is in truth, as Paul says, an “inexpressible gift” (2 Cor. 9:15 [ESVScripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.])J. I. Packer, God’s Words (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1988) 94–99.

Wayne Grudem defines “God’s grace” as “God’s goodness toward those who deserve only punishment.”Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994) 200. God’s grace is therefore an inexpressible or indescribable gift of his goodness to all of us fallen, sinful human beings, who do not deserve or merit his grace at all, but instead deserve only punishment.

Philip Yancey has described God’s grace even more extravagantly and radically:

Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more—no amount of spiritual calisthenics and renunciations, no amount of knowledge gained from seminaries and divinity schools, no amount of crusading on behalf of righteous causes. And grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less—no amount of racism or pride or pornography or adultery or even murder. Grace means that God already loves us as much as an infinite God can possibly love.Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997) 70.

More simply, GRACE has been spelled God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense! Jesus Christ paid it all for us—grace is God’s pure goodness and love toward us, totally unmerited, undeserved, unearned by us!

How then have I personally, in my pilgrimage of faith in Christ, in my life so far, experienced grace: the God of grace and the grace of God? His amazing grace has touched my life in countless ways and at numerous times. I will share six key defining moments of grace that have deeply transformed my character and shaped my life for his glory, and briefly discuss the spiritual disciplines as the means by which I live connected to God’s love.

01.  The Six Peak Experiences of Grace in My Life

The first key defining moment of grace I want to share occurred on August 12, 1968. Prior to that special day in my life, I had experienced a deep void and emptiness in my heart as a young teenager painfully and restlessly searching for the meaning of life and a satisfying answer to my fear of death. Despite outward success in my academic achievements, extracurricular activities, including sports such as soccer, and good social relationships with many friends as well as family members, I had a deep inner vacuum that I eventually realized was God-shaped and that only God could fill through Jesus Christ.

A couple of good Christian friends who were my neighbors had witnessed to me about finding meaning in life and eternal life in Jesus Christ, who died and rose again from the dead to save sinners like me. I had been thinking seriously about the Gospel and what to do with Jesus when I broke my left arm the second time within a couple of months. The first break happened when I fell off a bicycle. The second fracture occurred on August 12, 1968, when I slipped and fell off a mossy pavement by the beach close to my house in Singapore, where I grew up. That night, by the grace of God, the God of grace touched me deeply by exposing acutely my existential emptiness, fear of death, and struggle with the meaninglessness of life, especially in the face of suffering, including my twice-broken arm. With tears, I received Jesus Christ into my heart as my Lord and Savior. It was a “Damascus road” kind of conversion for me that dramatically changed my life. I experienced the peace and joy of the Lord, and the void or vacuum of emptiness within me was filled with the presence of God. My fear of death was also replaced with a deep assurance of eternal life now and in heaven to come! I was “broken but made whole” by Jesus Christ, who showed me the grace of God and the God of grace. I quickly got involved in church and in Youth for Christ ministries and had the joy of leading dozens of young people to Christ. I also grew in my relationship with the Lord, who became and still is my best friend and first love.

A second key defining moment of grace happened when I went through a burnout experience in 1970. As a high-energy teenager, I was involved in a hectic schedule of activities in school and at church that eventually drained and exhausted me. For the first time in my Christian life, I experienced “the dark night of the soul” and the spiritual wilderness of dryness, lacking the deep sense of God’s presence that I had always had since my conversion. This was a very painful, Job-like experience for me with feelings of dryness, emptiness, depression, and fatigue.

By the grace of God and his healing touch, through some much-needed rest and the support and prayers of good friends, I recovered from my burnout and grew into a deeper and more mature relationship with him. I also learned some precious lessons about the need to set limits and to live a more balanced life, including having sufficient rest and sleep, regular exercise, and good nutrition.

The Lord also used this painful experience to lead me to pursue further training in clinical psychology in order to be better able to help others in emotional pain. I had another similar burnout experience several years later in 1979, when I was completing my PhD studies in clinical psychology at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. I had taken on too many ministry responsibilities in addition to my heavy academic and research load and ended up with a briefer and less intense second experience of burnout. Again, I was touched by God’s grace and healing hand, learning the same precious lessons, but at a deeper level. The Lord graciously used the loving support and prayers of my wife, Angela, and other close friends and mentors, as well as regular exercise and a break from my busy activities to restore and strengthen me.

A third key defining moment of grace took place on May 21, 1977, when I married Angela in Montreal, Canada. God graciously provided me with a seriously committed Christian life partner whose love, support, prayers, and partnership with me all these years have blessed me beyond words. My deepest appreciation for Angela is also difficult to put into words. I know that I would not be where I am today without her as a real gift of grace from God. We have also experienced God’s grace in the inevitable challenges and trials, as well as joys and blessings, of marriage and family life. We have two children, Carolyn and Andrew, who are now adults. They have also been gifts of grace and deep blessing to Angela and me. We have experienced what Gary Thomas has called “sacred marriage,” which makes us more holy and Christlike than just simply happy, as well as “sacred parenting,” in which God has used our kids to teach and influence us to grow up in Christ, more than just used us to teach and influence our kids!

A fourth key defining moment of grace occurred when I was blessed with a deeper and more powerful anointing and filling of the Holy Spirit at a church young adults’ retreat in 1989. I am very thankful for the special ministry of my close friend Dr. Joe Ozawa, also a licensed psychologist, who was mightily used by God at that retreat to bring spiritual renewal and the powerful anointing of the Holy Spirit that have dramatically transformed dozens of people who attended that retreat, even until today. Since then, I have learned to be filled with the Spirit daily and to minister with greater dependence on his presence and power, and not on myself or my abilities and gifts per se. Prayer has become central in my life and ministry, including the need for prayer covering or a prayer shield provided by faithful intercessors.

As Oswald Chambers has said, “Prayer is not preparation for the greater work. Prayer is the greater work.” This has helped me to become more faithful and fruitful as a servant of Jesus Christ, rather than successful. I have learned that faithfulness and loving obedience to God are of far greater importance than so-called success. I have learned not so much to do great things for God as simply to do things for a great God: to focus more on the great God than on the great things! As a result, I have experienced more peace and joy as I live and minister out of my being centered in him and his love for me.

A fifth key defining moment of grace happened in 1995 when I was convicted of God’s call to me to be in full-time pastoral ministry, culminating in my serving as the senior pastor of my church, First Evangelical Church Glendale, in Glendale, California. The Lord used this moment of grace to clarify and integrate his call to me to serve him in pastoral ministry and leadership, using the different spiritual gifts or “droplets of grace,” as Russ Spittler has put it, that he has so graciously given me. They include preaching and teaching, pastoring, evangelism, encouragement or counseling, and leadership. I also continue to serve part-time as a professor of psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. I am deeply grateful to God for letting me experience deeper joy and fulfillment as I serve him in this more integrated way.

A final key defining moment of grace that I want to share has to do with a season that has lasted the last few years, in which I have gone through some painful experiences of brokenness, suffering, and humbling that have taught me even deeper lessons of utter dependency on God, who alone is sovereign and in control of everything. The painful experiences have included not getting a job promotion that I had anticipated and facing the spiritual struggles of my own children.

But God has used the pain and brokenness. Through these struggles, I have learned to come to the end of myself more fully and live much more for the Lord and for eternity. I have learned over and over again that his grace is sufficient for me and that his “power is made perfect in weakness”; that “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9–10, ESV). It has been a painful but purifying and pruning season of “shattered dreams,” as Larry Crabb has put it,Larry Crabb, Shattered Dreams: God’s Unexpected Pathway to Joy (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press, 2001). that has led to greater joy and deeper trust in him alone who keeps us faithful and makes us fruitful through the crucibles and trials of life. Gary Thomas calls such fire-testing seasons of our lives from a loving Father “severe gifts,”Gary L. Thomas, Authentic Faith: The Power of a Fire-Tested Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002) 7. or what I have often referred to as God’s “severe mercies.” They are a crucial part of the grace of God and a central way of the God of grace.

02.  The Foothills of Grace

While I have shared with you some defining moments of grace in my life, let me briefly mention the way I stay connected to God each day. The spiritual disciplines are another crucial part of God’s grace, and they serve as means to grace in my life.

I take time daily to be with the Lord in prayer, silence and solitude, meditation on Scripture, and worship. Other spiritual disciplines that have helped me to remain connected to God and be centered in him include confession, submission, fasting, fellowship, simplicity, service, witness, secrecy or hiddenness, listening and guidance, and celebration. Practicing the presence of God throughout the day, for example, by using “flash prayers,” as Richard Foster has put it, is another significant part of my daily walk with God.

The spiritual disciplines, therefore, play a key role in the spiritual formation of our lives to be more like Christ on a day-to-day basis, living in the foothills of grace, so to speak. However, it is important for us to realize that spiritual disciplines by themselves can be potentially dangerous. If they are practiced legalistically, they can harm rather than help our spiritual life and growth in Christ by fostering self-sufficiency, self-righteousness, and spiritual pride. Gary Thomas therefore points out that this is why the authentic disciplines (e.g., selflessness, waiting, suffering, persecution, social mercy, forgiveness, mourning, contentment, sacrifice, hope, and fear) are such a vital addition to the spiritual disciplines:

They turn us away from human effort—from men and women seeking the face of God—and turn us back toward God seeking the face of men and women. . . . This is a God-ordained spirituality, dependent on his sovereignty. . . . There is no pride left when God takes me through a time of suffering. There’s no self-righteousness when I am called to wait. There is no religiosity when I am truly mourning. This is a spirituality I can’t control, I can’t initiate, I can’t bring about. It is a radical dependence on God’s husbandry. All I can do is try to appreciate it and learn from it.Thomas, 14–15.

The greater end of going through such authentic disciplines initiated or sent by God is “learning to love with God’s love and learning to serve with God’s power.”Thomas, 12. The grace of God has enabled me to experience more deeply the God of grace, even through painful seasons of authentic disciplines: I am learning more and more to love with God’s love and to serve with God’s power. And I am very grateful and thankful to God for his grace. For me, grace leads ultimately to gratitude, to joyful worship of God, to deep communion and union with God himself, and to loving service for him and his kingdom. Thanks be to God for his amazing grace! “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8, NIVScripture marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide. Used by permission. NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION® and NIV® are registered trademarks of Biblica, Inc. Use of either trademark for the offering of goods or services requires the prior written consent of Biblica US, Inc.).

Footnotes

Rev. Siang-Yang Tan, Ph.D., is senior pastor of First Evangelical Church Glendale and professor of psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Southern California. He has authored or coauthored numerous articles and books, including Lay Counseling, Disciplines of the Holy Spirit, Rest, and Coping with Depression. His latest book on true servanthood is entitled Full Service: Moving from Self-Serve Christianity to Total Servanthood (Baker, 2006).