In Manifestations of Grace, the theologian Dr Elizabeth Dreyer makes the following claim: “Grace is discovered in the concrete circumstances of life and thus its meaning is colored by the infinite variety of those circumstances.” We need to unpack this statement to be able to answer the question, “How do I recognize grace in my life?”
First of all what is grace? Basically Christians believe that Grace is a free gift of God, which doesn’t depend on our worthiness to receive it. Grace is not a “thing” among all the other things of creation. Grace is God’s free communication of Himself and, because God is infinitely beyond our understanding, so is grace beyond scientific analysis and our categories of thinking. Yet Dreyer says we can discover grace in the circumstances of our life. How can we notice the infinite God in the everyday details of life?
Noticing anything depends on our mindset. Our brain filters our experiences and interprets them. There are two basic filters when it comes to ‘spiritual’ experiences: The Scientific mindset (‘Seeing is believing’) and the Faith mindset (“Believing is seeing”). Science looks at reality and simplifies it so that scientists can fit reality into theories and equations. We have all, to some extent, adopted this mindset since the Renaissance, when man began to see that in order to control the forces of nature, we had to understand reality. Science is about simplication and control. Faith on the other hand accepts reality as it is, including the presence of an infinite unknowable God. Faith is not about control but about giving oneself over to that which is beyond our control. Faith is about sensing the deeper aspects of life, not about simplifying life in order to understand it.
If we approach the circumstances of our life with a scientific mindset (seeing is believing) will God stop givng us grace? Absolutely not. But we will have a difficult time seeing His gifts because we will look for causes for the events in our life that we can understand and control. So, the faith mindset makes it easier to recognize grace in our lives but our mindset doesn’t limit God’s giving of gifts.
When Christians are in the Faith mindset — and that doesn’t happen all the time because Christians live in a culture oriented to the scientific mindset — they notice surprises, coincidences, and delightful events amid the everyday data they take in. This happens to me often, usually in small ways. I go to walk out my apartment door and suddenly remember I didn’t feed the cat. I go into a bookstore and find exactly the right book I needed for some research I’m doing. A friend gives me a call when I’m feeling down. These are examples from among thousands and thousands in my life. A skeptic would say my unconscious was at work, reminding me about the cat, or leading me to that book. A ‘New Ager’ would say that I unconsciously put out a message to my friend because I had a need. With my Faith mindset, I know that these are gifts from God so that I know He is really here with me, in all that I do.
Is God’s self-communication limited to such trivia? Of course not. Looking back over my life, I can see that He was leading me toward Him, despite the many times I went down the wrong path and ignored his grace. I can see from my earliest memories that my mother was God’s Change Agent as far as I was concerned. I can also see and be thankful for many other people, Christians and others, who were His Change Agents in my life. So recognising grace is also a reflective, retrospective activity in my life. My desire to reflect is another one of God’s gifts of grace.
So, how do you recognize God’s gift of grace? Ask for the grace of recognition. Once, many years ago, I said, “God, if it is possible, I want to know you.” Very soon after that, I began to actually see his grace in my life, starting with the wonderful gift of His acceptance of me, just as I am. I felt His presence and heard Him say, “You’re OK Jim. I love you just as you are.” Like the song Amazing Grace says “I once was lost but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.” I had Faith before that moment but I only saw the world with a scientific mindset. Now I see it through the eyes of Faith as well, and I know for certain what the words in that great hymn mean.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.
Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promised good to me.
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.
John Newton (1725-1807)