I was having a conversation with a friend about respect. She said that you just can’t respect some people, the way they live or think. I said that God respected us so much that he sent his only son to become one of us and heal us. What does it mean to follow God’s example when it comes to people for whom we have little or no respect? She answered that even God doesn’t overwhelm our human freedom; we have to make a move towards God in order for him to heal us. There isn’t any automatic healing. We left off the conversation at that point; neither of us could figure out what the true answer was. Maybe a theologian can, and will comment on this post.
Limits on what God can or will do
As I pondered this conversation I realised that what we didn’t understand (and couldn’t) was how God acts in our lives. It is clear that God acted without waiting for man to be “good enough” to receive him in the Incarnation. But even in that act human freedom was involved in the story arc: Adam and Eve’s freedom to make a sinful choice; Abraham’s freedom to start his journey or not; Mary’s freedom to accept or not the angel’s message and become the mother of Jesus. God appears to rely on human free choice in his overall plan for healing us. Yet, there is an inexorable thrust toward the “omega” point in human history, determined by God, when Jesus brings all things together and transforms them into a suitable gift to the Father. Human freedom, with all its weaknesses and limitations is participating in this cosmic transformation. God chooses to let this happen and limits His power by doing so. It is obvious that He could instantly transform everything and make it perfect, yet He doesn’t. So God is limited in what he will do, not what he can do.
Which comes first, grace or human freedom?
Answering this question is like asking a fish to imagine what it would be like to live without water. It is impossible for us to imagine living without grace because we never have and can’t. God’s grace is pervasive; every human being lives with its effects, however subtle they may be. To say that a human being — enfleshed spirit that we are — lives without God’s life sustaining us is to conjure up some other elemental life-giving force for our spirit. There isn’t any. [You may wonder how I know this. I don’t; it’s my belief.] Therefore to ask such a “chicken or egg” question — either grace or human freedom must come first — is to profoundly misread our human situation and existence. It makes no difference whether we believe in God or not, our spiritual life comes from God, as does our human freedom.
Back to my original conversation then. What if we can’t respect a person? What if their behaviours are despicable and even inhumane? They are still sustained by God’s grace even when they choose to profoundly misuse it. What does it mean then for us to respect them? To me it means that God’s grace is active in every person and I can’t (and never will) understand what this means. I ought to give them and God the benefit of the doubt. Something is going on in this person — their human freedom is being nudged or however you want to think about it — and I might just be the one God has chosen to help heal them. If I don’t respect them, I’m saying I know more about this person and God’s activity in them than God does. It’s pretty obvious, to me at least, why we must respect every human being no matter what.
This is a very important lesson in these days of Christians versus Islamists; liberals versus conservatives; rich versus poor; right to life versus women’s right to choose and all the other human conflicts in our world today. Transformation always starts with respect.