Conversatio Divina

OK, So What’s So Amazing about Grace?

A Dialogue about Grace with Philip Yancey and Larry Crabb

Larry Crabb & Philip Yancey

What happens when two friends talk without a script for three hours about grace, and one of them is Philip Yancey, arguably today’s premier Christian writer and author of the landmark book What’s So Amazing About Grace? Well, I’ll tell you one thing that happened: we (at least I) forgot that we were chatting to generate an article for Conversations. Our conversation over lunch took on a life of its own.

For good reason. Philip is articulate, funny, candid, unpretentious, and unusually well read (take that both ways); and he’s a treasure chest of personal tales about the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev, Henri Nouwen, Bill Clinton, and a host of other equally notable and diverse figures. More than all that, Philip is a serious Christian who thinks grace is the ultimate and only real force for good in a largely graceless world.

Please don’t expect a tight interview guided by astute questions from me. Better, imagine yourself eavesdropping on a lively exchange between two friends who wish they saw more grace in themselves and in the church. As you listen in, ask yourself what could happen if grace caught on in your life, in your church, and in the world.

LC:     Philip, a good interviewer would begin with a penetrating question. I’m sure one will occur to me. But let me start by retelling an amazing story from your book. And, by the way, I’ve never been more sincere than when I endorsed What’s So Amazing About Grace by saying, “I’m trying to remember when I’ve read a more important book.”

Here’s the story. I’ll read a few lines from pages 126 and 127 to get it right. With a few other Christians, you were invited to meet with Russia’s top leaders during Gorbachev’s last days in power to discuss their concern for “restoring morality” to their country. In a meeting at KGB headquarters, General Nikolai Stolyarov, vice chairman of the KGB, startled your group by saying, “We here in the USSR realize that too often we’ve been negligent in accepting those of the Christian faith. But political questions cannot be decided until there is sincere repentance, a return to faith by the people. That is the cross I must bear.

In the study of scientific atheism, there was the idea that religion divides people. Now we see the opposite: love for God can only unite.” Philip, I’m green with envy. I wish I had been there. What happened in you as you listened to those words?

PY:     Let me tell the rest of the story. Alex, a Russian émigré who had seen terrible suffering under KGB policies, stood and said, “General, many members of my family suffered because of this organization. I myself had to leave the land I loved. My uncle, who was very dear to me, went to a labor camp in Siberia and never returned. General, you say you repent. Christ taught us how to respond. On behalf of my family, on behalf of my uncle who died in the Gulag, I forgive you.” And then Alex Leonovich, Christian evangelist, reached over to General Nikolai Stolyarov, the vice chairman of the KGB, and gave him a Russian bear hug. While they embraced, Stolyarov whispered words to Alex that were only later recounted to me: “Only two times in my life have I cried. Once was when my mother died. The other is tonight.”

That story reminds me why I wrote What’s So Amazing About Grace. I actually wrote it out of my concern that the evangelical movement has lost sight of its unique power. We’ve put too many of our marbles into the political arena. The original title I had in mind for the book was What’s So Amazing About Grace, and Why Don’t More Christians Show It?

LC:     I recall a quote in your book from a personal conversation with our mutual friend, Gordon MacDonald. “The world can do almost anything as well as or better than the church. You need not be a Christian to build houses, feed the hungry, or heal the sick. There is only one thing the world cannot do. It cannot offer grace.” That’s a vital point. You’ve seen the power of grace firsthand in KGB headquarters. And you’re bothered we don’t see more of it in the church.

PY:     I was caught by Simone Weil’s little book called Gravity and Grace. I came to see that those are the two great forces in the universe, and too often the church operates by gravity.

LC:     And gravity spiritually deforms the soul, while only grace forms people into the likeness of Christ. Am I getting your meaning? I don’t know Weil’s book. Tell me what she means by gravity and grace.

PY:     Gravity causes one body to attract other bodies so that it continually enlarges itself by absorbing more and more of the universe into itself. Something like this same force operates in human beings.

LC:     Reminds me of Augustine’s definition of sin as a soul curved in on itself.

PY:     I think that’s right. We want to expand, to acquire, to swell in significance. Weil says that every natural movement of the soul is controlled by laws like those of physical gravity. Grace is the only exception. It made me realize that I can only escape “spiritual gravity” when I see myself as a sinner who cannot please God by any method of self-improvement or self-enlargement. Only then do I see that God already loves me despite my defects. I didn’t have this next thought when I wrote the book, but the pattern I see in Jesus is that he keeps pushing the ideal, the bar of what’s good, higher and higher and higher, so high that no one can say, “I can meet those ideals.” And then he takes the bar of grace and pushes it so low that nobody can say, “I don’t qualify.” All we have to do is say, “I can’t make it,” and we experience grace. That’s what God wants.

What the church does is often the opposite. Tolerant churches keep lowering their ideal. More conservative churches keep raising the bar of grace. “We don’t want that kind in our church.” And so, we do exactly the opposite of what Jesus did.

LC:     But why? What’s so wrong with us that we talk about grace and live by gravity? The effect of sucking the life out of others into ourselves, of proving our worth by maneuvering approval from others for our performance, deforms the soul. It doesn’t transform us at all. Why do we do the exact opposite of what Jesus did?

PY:     There’s a line in Mississippi Burning. Gene Hackman plays a good ol’ southern boy who says, “If you ain’t better than a black man (only he uses the N-word), who are you better than?” And then he adds, “Everybody’s got to be better than somebody.” It’s just human nature.

LC:     So the shift from gravity to grace begins when I profoundly grasp the old cliché that the ground is level at the foot of the cross, that I’m better than nobody. I can’t prove myself by measuring up—the standards are too high. But I can step over the bar of grace when I realize it’s low enough for the likes of me to cross. Philip, when did you first realize you weren’t better than anybody and therefore tasted grace for yourself?

PY:     I was once involved in Christian service activities as a late adolescent. At that time, I was as rebellious and hardheaded and cynical and crusty and impenetrable as anybody they ever had at my church. While other guys would go hand out tracts and have those embarrassing conversations, I would sit in the student center, watch TV, and then come back and write up these fake reports . . . “I witnessed to people,” etc. That’s the kind of person I was. I didn’t give a rip.

Something about a sermon one day did something. A little while after, I was with guys on our university witnessing team, and every week we would pray with others from that team. We’d go around, everyone would pray, there’d be a slight pause, and—of course, I never prayed—then they’d end the meeting.

But once—and I have no idea why this happened—I just started praying, “God, you know that I’m up here, and I don’t care if all those university students go to hell. I don’t even care if I go to hell.” The room got very quiet. And then I had a vision. I actually had a vision. This is the closest encounter I’ve ever had with a miracle in my life. I was aware that we’re supposed to be like the Good Samaritan, who reaches down to help those reprobates who are going to hell; we’re supposed to care about them, but it hit me —I really don’t care about them at all. And then in the vision, things got twisted. What I saw was, No, I’m not the Good Samaritan; I’m the one in the ditch, and every time Jesus or anybody else reaches down to help me, I slap them away and say, “I don’t need you. I don’t need you.” I was receiving a revelation about the difference between gravity and grace. I didn’t like all the moralism dispensers I saw around me, but I had my own form of gravity, of measuring up to be someone. My anti-moralism was another form of gravity, just as much as [the gravity of] my moralistic, witnessing friends. And the only way to escape the pull of gravity was to realize I was in the ditch, a hungry beggar, on level ground with all my moralistic friends.

LC:     Was that your conversion experience?

PY:     I had gone forward to get saved, oh, about forty-seven times in junior high and high school. Actually, it occurs to me now as we’re talking that that was the shift. I didn’t want to be like my Christian friends who were looking down on all the vile sinners. So a little seed of grace got planted when I realized I was no different; I was just living out a different expression of gravity, of pulling everything into me but grace.

LC:     So, in the words of a pretty traditional conservative, that’s when you got saved. But you don’t fit in all that well with traditional, right-leaning conservatives. You’ve been a close friend to Mel White, the former speechwriter for Jerry Falwell (among other conservatives), who is now an out-of-the-closet homosexual, a campaigner for homosexuality as a legitimate alternative for followers of Jesus. From my perspective, you’ve managed to find that elusive sphere of grace where you meaningfully love people who violate your understanding of biblical morality.

PY:     I was on a conservative Christian college campus when about sixty gay activists came to plead for more compassion for homosexuals. The Christian students had all been primed to reach these “pagan, evil people”—to witness to them. They never listened to the gay protestors. They just assumed none of these people could possibly know God. And the protestors were offended. Several told me they felt like Jews in Germany in the 1930s. No matter how friendly the Christian students appeared to be, the gays really felt that Christians would rather have them exterminated. I don’t want to be part of a movement that the gays perceive as nothing but angry and judgmental.

LC:     Another old cliché, a good one, I think, comes to mind:  hate the sin, but love the sinner.

PY:     I don’t want to be gracious toward anybody, myself included, in a way that minimizes the sinfulness of sin. I hear a fair number of pastors saying, “Look, I don’t want to get into a cheap grace, soft-on-sin thing; I don’t want to use grace to excuse or trivialize sin, but I do want to live out and preach true grace that calls sin “sin,” but still sincerely invites the sinner to enjoy grace. How do I do that?”

Not long ago, Jerry Falwell had a heart attack. He was actually a lot closer to death than the media reported. A gay paramedic responded to the 911 call and revived him—I think I have this right—three times. Now, to some gays, Jerry Falwell is the number one enemy. That thought must have crossed the paramedic’s mind. Falwell later said, “I will not anymore use the homosexual as the whipping boy.” He’s still persuaded homosexuality is sin, but he’s showing grace to homosexuals. I learned something from that.

LC:     One of the things I’m learning and want to practice more is reaching out to AIDS victims, whether their disease is the result of immoral sex or innocent transfusion. Christians should be on the forefront of hurricane relief efforts, housing and feeding orphans, and also of helping people who have brought suffering on themselves. But, going back to MacDonald’s thought, how do we do that in a way the world cannot? How do we show grace? How do we communicate the reality of grace as we provide help for AIDS victims just as secular folks do?

PY:      That’s a really good question.

LC:     I told you I’d come up with one.

PY:     I think if you were on the ground in Africa you’d see the difference. UN programs distribute condoms and would say there is no moral issue here at all. But it’s harder for Christians to bring relief to people whose sins have brought on their suffering—and that’s not just AIDS victims, by the way; fat people, cigarette smokers, and athletes who take unreasonable risks are in the same category—because we do properly disapprove of certain activities, and a little voice in the back of our minds says, “Hey, wait a minute. Don’t these people deserve what’s happening to them?” And they do. It’s the law of karma. It’s a gravity reaction. But we operate under grace. So when we come to people who we believe are doing bad things, we realize we’re in the ditch with them; then we wash their feet; we serve them with the attitude of Jesus. And I suspect the woman at the well, though what she had done—multiple marriages and now “living in sin”—was not good, I suspect she somehow sensed, “Jesus is for me. He really loves me. He thinks I have value.”

When you’re around Jesus, you think, oh, I want to be near Him; and I think He wants me to be near Him. There’s something in Jesus that brings to the surface the buried sense that you’re not as good as you’re projecting you are, but it doesn’t make you feel bad in a way that you want to get away from Him. Somehow you want to get closer to Him. That’s grace.

LC:     One of the most poignant and convicting stories in your book is near the beginning, the Chicago prostitute who was selling her little girl, her daughter, to men for extra money to support her drug habit. I think it was a social worker friend of yours who saw this woman so full of self-hatred for what she was doing and said, “Have you ever thought of going to church?” She replied, “Why would I go there? I already feel bad enough about myself.” The message of church needs to be the message of Jesus: that what you’re doing is really awful, but it needs to be said in a way that you’d be drawn to change, and you’d feel less lonely because you’re getting a taste of what you really want: love.

PY:     Bonhoeffer used the expression “cheap grace.” As much as I like and admire Bonhoeffer, that’s an oxymoron. Grace is free. It’s not cheap or expensive to us; it’s free. But what he really meant by that phrase has to do with grace as an excuse for sin, a blanket, a cover over sin. The question is, do we come to Jesus exposed, honest, with open hands? That’s all we really have: open hands.

LC:     Like the prostitutes you interviewed at that rather unique meeting.

PY:     I met with almost a hundred women who had been prostitutes from several dozen countries, and said, “Tell me your stories.” They were unbelievable. Sold to men at age four, every kind of degradation. So then I said, “Of those women you know who are still in prostitution, how many wish they could get out?” The universal answer was 100 percent after the first six months. The first six months, you’re treated like a queen. You’re given everything. Then they get you hooked on drugs and require you to turn as many as seventy tricks a day. I asked these women, “Explain to me the verse in the Bible that says prostitutes and tax collectors would come first into the kingdom of God.”

One of them replied, “Well, it’s obvious. We don’t have anybody to look down on. We’re as low as you can get. There’s not a mother in the world who looks at her little girl and says, ‘Honey, when you grow up, I want you to be a prostitute.’ We have no one to look down on. So when Jesus comes, we respond. The prostitute who looked at Jesus didn’t say, ‘I’d like him to be like me. I’d like him to be my client for the night.’ No, she thought, ‘I want him to liberate me because I can’t get no lower.’” I mean, think about it: who’s lower than somebody in a ditch?

LC:     And your point is, we’re all in a ditch: prostitutes, pastors, alcoholics, addiction counselors. And only when you know you’re in a ditch does grace begin to mean something.

PY:     I was asked to speak to a recovery group for Christians. I decided to talk on “Why I Wish I Was an Alcoholic.” And that wasn’t a joke. I listed five things alcoholics cannot deny or cannot know: “I can’t make it on my own,” that kind of thing. Their daily struggle undermines their pride and exposes who they really are. Addicts, like prostitutes, have to face realities the rest of us spend our lives trying to cover up by saying, “Well, I’m not as good as that guy, but I’m better than him.” We do that as individuals, as churches, and as nations.

LC:     Philip, how has all this been influencing you personally? You’re a journalist. You do an incredible job of reporting what you see, but I’m not sure how much I see of your own struggles in your writing—some, of course, but I’m not sure how much. I’m in a spiritual formation group where one night, as my birthday present, they said, “Larry, for the next two hours, talk. Be as open and honest as you want. We’ll just listen.” It was a difficult but a good night. Openness doesn’t come easily, but grace empowers it.

PY:     I’m sure you’ll identify with this situation, Larry. Things may be a little less than ideal with my wife, and now I have to go speak in public. So I operate on what Janet [Philip’s wife] calls Level 1, the calm, helpful, thoughtful me, and only she knows there is a Level 2, a layer beneath. I’m realizing that Hollywood actors are paid to act, to cut themselves into parts. As a public figure and a writer, I see the danger. I’m neither a prostitute nor an alcoholic, so it’s tempting to say, “Hey, I’m just not that dirty. And what is dirty I can hide and still function quite well.”

What comes to mind is a story Peter Hiett told [Peter pastors Lookout Mountain Church, where Philip and Janet attend]. He and his wife would drop their three little kids at the “Mom’s Night Out” program at their church. The folks in charge played games to make it fun for the kids. One question was, “What is your mom’s favorite thing to do with you?” Coleman said, “To clean me up.” When Peter and Susan heard that, they realized it’s tough getting close to a three-year-old boy, but when Susan put him in the tub, then picked him up and wrapped him in a towel and held him close, he could tell she was really enjoying herself; she really liked him. Peter then reflected, “People come into my office all the time, sit on my couch, and tell me all the bad things they do. And they think, ‘Here is this holy man close to God, and we’re terrible, lousy sinners,’ and I saw it—God’s favorite thing to do is to clean us up; not that He likes us to get dirty, but the only time we let Him hold us is when we say, ‘I blew it! I blew it!’ He loves to clean us up.” That’s grace.

LC:     I love the passage in Hosea, where after God says in chapter 9, verse 15, “Because of all their wickedness in Gilgal, I hated them there.” But in chapter 11, God says, “But I can’t give you up . . . all my compassion is aroused.”

PY:     I remember once getting stuck in LA traffic and arriving fifty-eight minutes late at the Hertz rental desk. I walked up in kind of a bad mood, put the keys down and said, “How much do I owe?”

The woman says, “Nothing. You’re all clear.” I said I was late, and she smiled, “Yes, but there’s a one hour grace period.”

So I asked, “Oh, really, what is grace?”

And she said, “I don’t know. I guess what it means is that even though you’re supposed to pay, you don’t have to.”

LC:     You see the church living more by gravity than by grace. Are you hopeful for the church?

PY:     Sometimes I think the only reason God tolerates or blesses the United States is that we’re the bankers for a lot of the external work, you know, in other countries. But I am hopeful. I’m really pretty upbeat about the church. When you get into actual churches, through all their faults, they are about the only place where a diverse group of people (and it could be as minimally diverse as intergenerational) spends time together. How many groups have you been in that involve eighty-year-olds and two-year-olds? It happens at church at some level. And the potential, not always the reality, is there to address our issues of pride, to expose ourselves, so to speak, to be vulnerable in a safe place.

LC:     But it really doesn’t happen much.

PY:     It could if we lived by grace and not gravity.

LC:     Philip, I’ll be writing up our chat for a journal that people who are really hungry to become like Jesus will read. Our readers don’t thumb through Conversations as they might through the morning paper. What do you want to say to hungry Jesus-followers as we wrap up this time?

PY:     Well, I’ll just be personal. I’m writing a book on prayer right now, so I began reading Israel’s prayer book again, the Psalms. I remembered trying to come to terms with the “cursing” psalms, so a couple years ago I started doing what I called my “anger walk” on the hill behind my home. Every Sunday afternoon, it was a little ritual. I would hammer it out with God about all the people who had wronged me and how unfair it was and how that person didn’t see things right, blah, blah, blah. In the tradition of the Psalms, I did that for quite some time, a couple of years. Now, looking back, something’s changed. I still go on walks behind my house, but now they’re more “praise walks” than “cursing walks.” I had been authentic before God, exposing maybe the worst part of myself. And somehow, God was accepting me with all of that. His favorite thing to do is clean me up. I really don’t need the anger walks now. I think I “made space” for God to pour grace into me. And He will come if there is space.

And, too, I’m making space for others. The one day I spent with Henri Nouwen came after he had returned from spending time with guys suffering from what they then called the Gay Men’s Syndrome, AIDS. “What’d you do?” I asked.

“Well, I’m a priest, and I listen to people’s confessions.” Then Henri said, “Philip, these people were dying, literally dying for love. And I would ask them if they found it. And they answered, ‘No, I’ve found death instead.’”

I learned a new way to pray that day. Instead of, “God, help me tolerate that immoral, repulsive, wrong person,” I say, “Help me to see that person as a thirsty person.” They’re lost, but they’re also thirsty. God’s favorite thing is to pour water into our dry throats and clean us up as we let Him hold us. The only way He will do that is if we admit we’re dirty and thirsty. Which only makes sense to do if grace is real. That’s the gospel, right?

LC:     It’s the gospel of grace, not gravity. Thanks, Philip. This was fun. I think I like grace more than I did three hours ago.

Footnotes

Philip Yancey is editor at large of Christianity Today and Co-Chair of the Editorial Board for Books and Culture. His books include Finding God in Unexpected Places (2005), Soul Survivor (2001) Reaching for the Invisible God (2000), The Bible Jesus Read (1999), What’s So Amazing About Grace? (1998) and The Jesus I Never Knew (1995).

Larry Crabb is a psychologist, author, spiritual director and founder of NewWay Ministries.  He currently serves as Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Colorado Christian University, and Spiritual Director for the American Association of Christian Counselors.  Among his more than twenty books are Inside Out, Shattered Dreams, The Pressure’s Off and SoulTalk.  His latest book, The PAPA Prayer, will be released in January 2006.