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.