Reconciliation vs Retribution, Part 4

Reconciliation vs Retribution, Part 4

Grace is what we call what is left over after the scouring of the self, the dying to the self…Grace comes to us in the flesh, through the spaces and forms and contents of our human life…Grace is so mixed up in the stuff of human life that it cannot be easily glimpsed at first. Ann Belford Ulanov[1]

In the consideration of reconciliation and retribution of the past few weeks, I pointed out that many churches portray God as threatening and vindictive. In that same vein, I identified our very human need to assign blame and punishment when things fail to proceed the way we think they should. The assigning of a retributive human tendency to God is a way of creating God in our image and is a form of idolatry. The God we so create is an illusion. This same human tendency to assign blame and punishment gives rise to the current understanding of sin as the “bad” things we do (that are usually byproducts of being human and not indications of less-than-stellar intentions). Last week I suggested that the biblical authors sometimes portrayed God as vengeful because of their own human need to assign blame and punishment. Some churches present the judgement of God as if it were something to fear, as if we are inherently bad people under the thumb of an angry, impatient God who will serve as our judge, jury, and sentencing marshall. Fortunately (as the story goes), we have Jesus Christ as our defense attorney to convince God we really are not that bad and would God, just this once, look the other way and let us off the hook. When God agrees, we breathe a sigh of relief and call it grace.

But what if God is not our accuser? What if it is our own human need to assign blame and punishment for failure to meet our own human expectations that is acting as judge, jury, and sentencing marshall? In that case, the grace from God is ever-present. It is our human need to create drama around our receipt of that grace that causes all the, well, drama.  It is not so much that we deserve or earn God’s grace, but that it is only our earthly misperceptions that raise questions about whether grace is there for us. In spite of mountains of evidence to the contrary, we believe we only receive what we think we have earned. We forget that we see and understand only in human, earthly terms. God is not so limited, and so for reasons beyond our ability to understand, God does not punish as we often believe God should.

The original sin, and all sins arising from it, is a sin of separation. Whenever we sincerely seek God or go to God in prayer or reflection, we bridge that separation and are reunited. Not that, from God’s perspective, we were ever separated. Grace is intimately woven into the fabric of our relationship with God, regardless of whether we accept, name, or acknowledge it. Make no mistake, grace may not save us from the natural consequences of our actions, nor will it prevent unpleasant things from happening. Rather, grace assures us of better days ahead. Reconciliation is already occurring – in fact, there was never a time reconciliation was absent except as an illusory creation in our own mind. Grace assures us that all things work together for good. We forget because we cannot see or understand the intricate inner workings of all things piecing themselves together. We mistake our temporary pain and suffering for permanent conditions instead of understanding them as the necessary, prerequisite stages that lead to something greater. In our impatience, we seek retribution wherever we cannot see the slow, steady movement of reconciliation.

It is interesting to read accounts of Near-Death Experiences (NDEs). Many such accounts describe an experience of judgement in which one’s life is reviewed with not only everything the person did, but how what they did affected others. Most accounts describe this experience not as accusatory, unpleasant, or guilt-inducing, as would be consistent with retribution, but as a gentle learning experience that opened their eyes to their interconnectedness with others, as is consistent with reconciliation.

In this week’s epigraph I quote Ann Ulanov, a professor of psychiatry and religion: “Grace is so mixed up in the stuff of human life that it cannot be easily glimpsed at first.” Grace is so close and so integrated into our everyday experiences that we miss it. We look over our shoulder for the retributive punishment we fear we deserve and miss the reconciling path God has graciously prepared before us.

This is the 31st in the series of Life Notes titled Churchianity vs Christianity. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning and browse the archives of my Life Notes, Podcasts, music, books, and other musings.


[1] Ann Belford Ulanov, What Do We Think People are Doing When They Pray? Anglican Theological Review, October 1978, pp. 392-393.

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