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Offensive grace: when it’s not “fair”

I think we’ve all heard someone older than us begin a sentence with, “When I was a kid …” The most famous end of the sentence being, of course: “… I had to walk to school uphill both ways.” And many then add something like “in a driving snowstorm without shoes and without a coat.” The goal here is for one person to either help the kid understand how good they have it today or help the kid understand how the adult suffered more than them as a child. But since when did suffering the most become a contest? And why do we want others to suffer as much as we did?

Vice President Kamala Harris made waves during the presidential campaign, claiming the Biden-Harris administration had plans to offer student loan forgiveness and tuition-free college to certain students. While we have yet to see a plan come to fruition, many people in my life who have taken on debt to pay for school or who have paid for their kids to attend college had a negative, almost visceral reaction to this plan. “That’s not fair,” many responded. “I had to pay my own way, and they should too.” Or, “I worked my whole life to pay for my kids’ education; why should they get it for free?” Regardless of whether student loan forgiveness and tuition-free college are good choices for the future of this country and our current economy, negative reactions to a plan that may offer an opportunity to someone that was not offered to us show how we can be offended by grace.

“All God’s grace to you,” I often sign my cards when I mail them out to church members. But what does that really mean? If there is one word that symbolizes the Reformed theology above all others, it is the word grace. Many of us have a warm fuzzy feeling when we read that by God’s grace we are healed and saved. We love grace – generous, free, and totally unexpected favor from God – when it is bestowed upon us. But are we okay with others receiving grace? Are we okay with grace when it favors the person on our left and the person on our right but skips over us?

Since we are telling stories about walking uphill both ways to our kids and outraged at the idea of student loan forgiveness and tuition-free college for the future, I would argue we are not okay with grace for others. Perhaps we need to go back and re-read the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) and recognize ourselves in the place of the worker who was hired first and worked the longest day. Perhaps we need to be reminded that “the wages of sin is death” for us all and it is only by God’s graceful gift to us that we are granted eternal life in Jesus Christ (Romans 6:23). What if it was less about what I am earning/getting/achieving and more about what God is doing in our community?

I do think we misunderstand grace when we think it applies to all equally; indeed, grace has often been called the offense of the gospel. Rachel Held Evans, in her book “Searching for Sunday,” reminds us that, “What makes the gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out, but who it lets in.” But it’s not just a theological misinterpretation of grace when we brag about our own suffering. When we are offended that grace affects others differently, it’s also a compassion problem. It is vengeance masquerading as justice.

I’ve heard the anonymous quote, “If you suffered in life, and want others to suffer as you did because ‘you turned out fine.’ You did not, in fact, turn out fine.” True Christianity resist the human urge to perpetuate systems that promote needless, historical suffering. True Christianity rejoices in God’s grace whether it reaches us or the person behind us in line. Yes, you read that right; how offensive! If you’re perpetuating suffering or bragging about your own, I’m not so sure you’re really for grace.

I would argue that being a champion of God’s grace is one of the most difficult parts of being a Christian. It is simple to be a champion of grace when we are the recipient, but we often find ourselves resisting grace when someone else is on the receiving end. The next time you find yourself wanting someone else to struggle because you had to, ask yourself — if God is the giver of grace, whose side are you on when you root against it? If God’s grace seems to only be able to find you, then it is hardly God’s grace at all.