This Is Grace

This was a sacrament talk I gave on May 23, 2021.

Years ago, the late novelist David Foster Wallace shared this little parable at a college commencement speech:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the [heck] is water?”

Wallace explains that the point of this amusing story is “that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”[1] I would like to suggest that grace falls into this category. It is the water that we swim in, but the reality of which we are so often tragically unaware. Daily life in general—and perhaps church life in particular—is just so ordinary, so unremarkable, so familiar that it is easy to become numb to the givenness of it all. Furthermore, in a (usually) well-intentioned attempt to avoid sounding like we believe in cheap grace, we sometimes overcorrect and end up pushing grace to the margins in our talks, our lessons, and our conversations.

However, when we do this, we end up turning ourselves into the young, utterly oblivious fish, asking, “What the heck is grace?” We blind ourselves to a gift that has already been given; a gift that will transform us in ways beyond our imagination if we will let it. And when we blind ourselves to this gift, we face the lone and dreary world feeling very alone and very dreary.

You Don't Know Water Until You've Left Your Fishbowl | by Thomas P Seager,  PhD | Age of Awareness | Medium

Yet, grace is not at the margins. It is central to the gospel of Jesus Christ. But before we begin to talk about how we experience grace in our lives, it’s important to define what grace actually is.

Defining “Grace”

While “grace” appears throughout the scriptures, it is especially prominent in the writings of Paul. Unfortunately, much of the modern world’s interpretation of grace is shaped by the Reformation. It is seen as a one-way gift with absolutely no strings attached; what is sometimes called the “pure gift.” Because, surely, if you give a gift and expect something in return, you’re not a very good gift giver. Right?

This notion of a pure gift is very Western, very modern, and very, very wrong (at least if we’re interested in what Paul meant). Because in the ancient world, gifts always had strings attached.[2]

The Three Graces in Botticelli’s Primavera

Paul inhabited the Greco-Roman world, so how did the Greeks and Romans understand it? In their mythology, there were three goddesses known as the Graces, generally identified as the daughters of Zeus. These Graces were often depicted as dancing hand-in-hand in a circle: one giving, one receiving, one returning to the giver. The word “grace” represented this kind of relationship. Grace wasn’t just the gift that was given. It was also the benevolence and generosity of the giver. But not only that: it was also the gratitude of the recipient.

It’s important to note, however, that gift giving did not involve parties that were on equal footing. One party had wealth, status, or influence. They had access to goods and services that the other did not. The two would enter into a relationship as “friends” with one providing access to something desirable while the other displayed public gratitude, loyalty, allegiance, faithfulness (it’s the Greek word that is often translated as “faith” in the New Testament).[3] This is why Ephesians reads, “For by grace are ye saved through faith…Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). This was not an employer/employee or buyer/seller relationship. Grace is not an earned paycheck or a bought product. It was patronage.[4] The patron was not obligated to enter this relationship. They were not in debt. They were not bound by contract. The patron did so because they wanted to.

This was the background of Paul’s understanding of grace.

But with Paul, there’s a slight twist. Most ancient patrons chose to give to people based on their status or ability to reciprocate well. However, in Paul’s teachings—and in the teachings throughout the rest of the scriptures—God extends His gift to all. To the Galatians, Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:28-29). This was not Paul eradicating distinctions. (His other writings make that abundantly clear.) What he does here is empty each of these categories of their hierarchies and status; of their privileges or lack thereof. God did not provide Christ’s gifts of atonement and resurrection based on ethnicity, social status, or sex. He didn’t provide it out of worthiness on our part. He provided it out of love. As John famously writes, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Christ atoned for us not because we earned it, but because He loves us. And He loves us as we are right now: “God demonstrates his own love for us,” Paul says to the Romans, “in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, NET; italics mine). So God loves us as we are, but loves us enough not to leave us this way (thank goodness).

Grace, Commandments, and Transformation

Two of my nieces are here today. One is two years old, while the other is one. Never once have I heard their parents say to them, “I love you just the way you are, so you don’t need to walk! You don’t need to talk!” I don’t think any loving adult would ever stunt a child’s development in this manner. Similarly, grace is meant to be transformative. It is meant to help us grow and get us (spiritually speaking) up and running. We are to “[put] off the natural man” and become “saint[s] through the atonement of Christ the Lord” (Mosiah 3:19; italics mine). Grace is meant to make us “new creatures” in Christ (Mosiah 27:26; 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15). As Elder Whiting put it in Conference last year, “You are good enough, you are loved, but that does not mean that you are yet complete. There is work to be done in this life and the next.”[5]

What all of this indicates is that when we think of grace, we should think of it as a relationship; one that is centered on the person of Jesus Christ. And if grace is at the center of the Plan of Salvation, then it should define how we understand everything else. For example, what is the purpose of commandments from the perspective of grace? King Benjamin makes it crystal clear that we are “eternally indebted” (Mosiah 2:34) to God. Even if we were keeping all the commandments (which we’re not), we would still be “unprofitable servants” (Mosiah 2:21). There is no earning salvation here.

So if commandments are not means of earning grace and salvation, what exactly are they? Keeping them is certainly an act of gratitude and fidelity, as Paul and—more recently—Elder Uchtdorf have noted.[6] But what’s their point? And how can they be reconciled with grace?

To see commandments merely as a checklist of arbitrary items to get into heaven is to degrade their divine purpose. Commandments, like grace, are relational in nature. They are pro-social. They show us how to properly relate to God and to one another. They teach us how to be what God is. Elder Oaks sums it up this way:

Final Judgment is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts—what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts—what we have become…The commandments, ordinances, and covenants of the gospel are not a list of deposits required to be made in some heavenly account. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become.[7]

The entire framework of commandments, ordinances, and covenants is a gift of grace. It is through these mediums that God nurtures His relationship with us and our relationships with each other. And as our doctrines of the Godhead, marriage & family, and Zion demonstrate, divinity is found in relationships. Brad Wilcox nails it when he says, “We are not earning heaven [when we keep our covenants]. We are learning heaven.”[8]

Now grace does not negate repentance. Recall that Jesus’ first message of his ministry according to Matthew and Mark is “repent” (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:15). Instead, grace makes repentance possible. Samuel the Lamanite explains that “the resurrection of Christ redeemeth mankind…and it bringeth to pass the condition of repentance” (Helaman 14:17-18). So repentance is not some punishment, but a gift as well. And it too is relational. In Hebrew, it means to return to God. In Greek, it means to change your heart or intent.[9] It is about reorienting ourselves toward God, who is graciously seeking out a relationship with us. He wants us to be reconciled to Him. His hand of fellowship is continually extended, even though we tend to slap it away over and over again. And yet, despite our constant rejections, He still seeks us out. Repentance is taking His outstretched hand. It’s accepting His gift of friendship that we are in no position to demand. As John succinctly puts it: “We love him, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19; italics mine).

Grace Is Available Now

The gift of grace should remind us of what the Lord revealed to Moses: that “[God’s] work and [His] glory [is] to bring to pass [our] immortality and eternal life” (Moses 1:39). The Plan of Salvation is for us, making the Atonement for us as well. Grace demonstrates that “the worth of souls [including each one of us here] is great in the sight of God” (D&C 18:10). There isn’t a single person here that Christ did not die for. There isn’t a single person here that is too far gone. And there isn’t a single person here that cannot partake of the love of God right now. As Elder Christofferson says, “we do not need to achieve some minimum level of capacity or goodness before God will help—divine aid can be ours every hour of every day, no matter where we are in the path of obedience.”[10] Recognizing where we fall short is part of the process. The Lord said to Moroni, “if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness…my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them” (Ether 12:27). The Lord knows our weakness and is patient with us. Perhaps we could be a little more patient with ourselves and with others.

Returning to the story of the fish and water, David Foster Wallace ends his commencement speech by encouraging “awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘this is water, this is water.’”[11] Similarly, I would encourage us all as we grudgingly attend our church meetings, as we irreverently partake of the sacrament, as we try not to roll our eyes at Brother Wright as he drones on and on in his talk, as we’re stretched thin by our callings, as we try to not be rote in our prayers, as we try to stay awake while reading our scriptures, as we struggle to be more charitable, as we desperately seek revelation, as we really try not to lose it on our kids or our spouse, as we attempt to forgive, as we work hard to overcome an addiction, as we slowly-with-guaranteed-detours-on-the-way become disciples of Christ, as we do all of these things and more that we look at these commandments, ordinances, and covenants and remind ourselves over and over:

This is grace. This is grace.

Totally Normal Activities That Are Illegal in Certain Places | Feng shui,  Goldfish, Goldfish bowl

[1] David Foster Wallace, “This is Water,” Kenyon Commencement Address, May 21, 2005; https://fs.blog/2012/04/david-foster-wallace-this-is-water/

[2] For the historical background of “grace” relayed in this talk, see John M.G. Barclay, Paul and the Power of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2020); Brent J. Schmidt, Relational Grace: The Reciprocal and Binding Covenant of Charis (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2015); David A. DeSilva, “Grace” in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, ed. David Noel Freedman (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000); Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downer Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), Ch. 3-4.

[3] See Matthew W. Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017); Zeba A. Crook, “BTB Readers Guide: Loyalty,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 34:4 (2004): 167-177; DeSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity, 115-116.

[4] E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien compare the ancient client-patron relationship to the beginning scene of The Godfather between Don Corleone and Bonasera. See their Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 82-83.

[5] Scott Whiting, “Becoming Like Him,” General Conference, Oct. 2020; https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2020/10/13whiting?lang=eng

[6] See Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “The Gift of Grace,” General Conference, April 2015; https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2015/04/the-gift-of-grace?lang=eng

[7] Dallin H. Oaks, “The Challenge to Become,” General Conference, Oct. 2000; https://abn.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2000/10/the-challenge-to-become?lang=eng

[8] Brad Wilcox, “His Grace Is Sufficient,” BYU Speeches, 12 July 2011; https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/brad-wilcox/his-grace-is-sufficient/

[9] See David Bentley Hart, The New Testament: A Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 560; Brendan Kennedy, “Repentance,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016); J.R. Soza, “Repentance,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, ed. T. Desmond Alexander & David W. Baker (Downer Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003).

[10] D. Todd Christofferson, “Free Forever, to Act for Themselves,” General Conference, Oct. 2014; https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2014/10/free-forever-to-act-for-themselves?lang=eng

[11] Wallace, “This is Water.”

Carl Jung On the Inadequacy of Therapy for Treating Addiction

As a brief postscript to my article in Public Square Magazine, I thought I’d tell a little story that illustrates humility coming from a world renowned therapist. Since I complained in that article that sometimes therapists can be narcissistic by seeing every problem as treatable through acting more therapeutically, I thought I’d provide a fascinating historical counterexample.

It’s useful to share this story because, while it may not be apparent to outsiders, therapists and twelve step addiction recovery programs sometimes have a rocky relationship. It isn’t always the case, many therapists recommend (and may even require) attending a twelve step group as a valuable part of their therapeutic recovery process. (I’m one of them, for certain cases at least.) But why do some therapists have a problem with twelve step?

The short answer is: too much God, and not enough graduate degrees. The longer answer is they feel it lacks scientific support, that modern treatment models are superior, and that the free program costs too much money. This last complaint is a bit of a head-scratcher, but we’ll briefly touch on the other two at the end of the piece. Before we do that, let’s tell a fascinating story about Carl Jung and the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous that you may not have heard before.

Read more

Responding to Jaxon Washburn’s New Critique of RO

Behold, all ye that kindle a fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks: walk in the light of your fire, and in the sparks that ye have kindled… (Isaiah 50:11)

Jaxon Washburn just posted here a lengthy critique of the Radical Orthodoxy position.  I won’t do a point-by-point discussion of all of his arguments; many of the objections to RO have been addressed thoroughly in other places.

But if I were to summarize Jaxon’s position, I might do so as follows:

Read more

That is Not Gaslighting.

That thing that really bothers you, doesn’t bother me is not gaslighting.  It’s expressing a difference in perspective.

I and many other people are aware of this thing that you find distressing, but we are at peace with it is not gaslighting.  It’s an affirmation that different people can process things in different ways.

Read more

President Nelson on Gospel Learning

In the Sunday morning session of April 2021 General Conference, President Russell M. Nelson made some remarks on faithful inquiry — asking gospel questions — that have caused some consternation especially among nonbelievers. Let’s parse and explore his remarks here.

For each of these items, there are links to explore the concept in more depth.

Read more

Reflections on Guilt, Shame, and Neurosis

This morning I listened to the ever-delightful Econ Talk podcast, this time featuring Mike Munger speaking with Russ Roberts on Econ Talk.

I commend the entire episode to you, as it’s a delightful little romp on the topic of how economists view morality. (Okay okay fine, I’ll give you the quick version: economists view morality as a simple set of fixed preferences. Roberts and Munger argue that we can change our preferences, and in fact, have an obligation to. In short, we have an obligation to become better people who do not merely “respond to incentives” but rather “create their own objective functions.” [That’s fancy econ-speak for “choose to desire better things.”])

Anyway, in the discussion, Munger mentioned something that caught my attention, and I think is worth repeating and elaborating on.

Munger gives two examples.
• Imagine you do something wrong. You feel bad about this.
• Imagine you do something wrong and someone finds out. You feel bad that someone found out.
Munger then calls the first guilt, and the second shame.
The conversation quickly moved on, but I kept thinking about it.

Read more

Information Security and the Temple Endowment

For about twelve years I worked information security for a few different software companies. We sold our software to companies and government agencies concerned with making sure those accessing their sensitive systems were (a) who they said they were, and (b) only accessing information they should have access to. The first concern is called authentication (“are you who you say you are?”), and the second one is called access control (“do you have access to the information that you need and are you denied access to the information you shouldn’t have?”). Solving these two problems have always been a challenge. And though their implementation has changed throughout time, the solutions are basically the same.

While the temple has ancient roots, it contains features that are used in the most modern and secure computer systems.

It was only a few days after I’d completed a computer security certification when I went through an endowment session again. It occurred to me that you could look at the endowment though an information security lens and gain some valuable insights. I’ll explore some of them in this post. Some of my discussion will necessarily be oblique, and may only make sense to those who have been through themselves. I take seriously the desire to keep these things sacred, and I hope my post here will be in harmony with that.

Read more

Do You Understand The Plan?

In April 2019 and again in April 2020 General Conference, President Dallin H. Oaks offered members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints an insight into one of his assignments as a member of the First Presidency.  President Oaks said in his April 2019 talk on repentance:

My message today is one of hope for all of us, including those who have lost their membership in the Church by excommunication or name removal. We are all sinners who can be cleansed by repentance.

A year later in April 2020, President Oaks said in a talk on the Plan of Salvation:

In conclusion, I share the conviction that has come to me from many letters and by reviewing many requests to return to the Church after name removal or apostasy. Many of our members do not fully understand this plan of salvation, which answers most questions about the doctrine and inspired policies of the restored Church. We who know God’s plan and who have covenanted to participate have a clear responsibility to teach these truths and do all that we can to further them for others and in our own circumstances in mortality.

In light of what President Oaks said here, do we understand God’s Plan? Obviously there are a lot of aspects of it that we can’t understand, but what are the things we can understand from scripture, from prophetic teachings, and from our own experiences? The following is a set of questions we can ask to gauge our level of understanding of the Plan of Salvation.

Read more

On Secret Combinations, Conspiracy Theories, and Looking to the Prophet of God

I’ve been listening to the Maxwell Institute’ Brief Theological Introduction Series on the Book of Mormon which is all available in audiobook form on Deseret Book’s Bookshelf Plus. I really wanted to read these books but could not justify spending the money for each one, so I am so grateful that I get the chance to listen to them all now. I have really enjoyed the series and I just finished Kimberly Matheson Berkey’s book on the Book of Helaman and hers is definitely one of my favorites so far.

Berkey offers a really poignant critique of the topic of secret combinations in the Book of Helaman. Berkey notes that so many modern readers approach the Book of Helaman trying to identify secret combinations that are external to us. And when we find them, we normally identify them in our political or social enemies. We therefore use the fear of secret combinations as a form of self-justification. We indulge in conspiracy theory thinking. And we therefore create division, partisanship, and fragmentation.

But that is not what the Book of Helaman is calling us to do. Rather, the prophets in the book are directing us to self-examine and probe our own weaknesses. We are to turn inward rather than outward in our examination.

Berkey points out one serious danger with the outward search for secret combinations. When the sign of the coming of Christ begin to be fulfilled, the people of Nephi are skeptical not towards the forces urging them to doubt, but towards the very prophets who God has placed as guardians on the watchtower.

This past year I have observed a very alarming trend among more conservative and formerly stalwart members of the Church. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic so many members embraced conspiracy theories regarding the evils of masking or the perils of vaccination. Accordingly, when our Prophet is vaccinated or apostles urge us to wear masks, people respond with hostility or skepticism. People are also so politically attuned to their own favorite pundits that when an Apostle of Christ declared Black Lives Matter, people respond with derision and a hard and skeptical heart. I have even seen people suggest that the Prophet is part of the “deep state” or has fallen pray to the ways of the world.

In the Book of Alma (in Alma 30) when Korihor argues that the servants of Christ are working to manipulate and trick the people into bondage, few people initially seem to embrace that idea. By the end of the Book of Helaman (in Helaman 16) roughly 70 years later, the greater part of the people rejects visible signs and angelic manifestations by concluding that the prophets of God are trying to keep them into ignorance. It is as if in this period of Gadianton Robbers and conspiracies the people have grown more skeptical not towards the wicked institutions that ensnare them, but against those called of God.

The Book of Helaman calls us to question the things that we hold certain in politics and social policy and instead to look to the Savior and to His Prophets as they reveal God’s will to us in our days. It is only if do so that we can truly be kept safe from the snares of the world.

Avoiding Spiritual Burnout

With all of the variety of things we are asked to do in our church service, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.  We have

  • Our callings
  • Our ministering assignments
  • Requests to help out with our kids’ youth activities
  • Special assignments for ward activities
  • Encouragements to participate in missionary work
  • Encouragements to participate in temple and family history

…and more. It’s very easy to see these things as an impossible stack of chores that constantly looms over us and drains the joy out of our discipleship. And we know that church commitments are not supposed to be as high on our priorities list as our families and our employment, but it’s hard to draw those lines clearly sometimes when other people draw their lines differently and sometimes even apply social pressure to mirror the way they draw their lines. Sometimes we just need to say no to things, for the sake of our own well-being and that of our families, and it’s hard not to feel guilty in those situations.

Read more