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Grace isn’t always compelling

Most every Christian I’ve met says the same thing; the tougher life becomes, the closer they draw to God.  Lovely, but I couldn’t disagree more.  So often in my life the sweetest moments of holy communion came not from the trenches of despair, but rather the pinnacles of glory.  I always knew this was odd, but until recently, I never bothered to explore the quirkiness with any real determination.

In the annoying clarity of hindsight, I can see this tendency dyed into many secular aspects of life as well.  Rock climbing, an activity of little value beyond pure recreation, fell under this discoloration.  I remember clearly.  It happened every Saturday in Missoula, when the warm air of spring or fall would send us scouring the leaning granite cliffs south of town.  Each weekend would bring a rotation of climbing partners, but on most occasions, I spent the day with Brandon.  Though we shared a mutual love for rock climbing, our differences in other key areas were obvious. He was incredibly talented, and I, though perhaps above average, was quite mortal.

But it wasn’t the differences of climbing ability that were so profound, but rather our reaction.  Specifically, the reaction that occurred when something went wrong.  When he climbed poorly, which admittedly was still far above my mediocre efforts, he just smiled and shook it off.  In his eyes, it was simply glorious to be outside and success on the route was a periodic bonus.  This was certainly a sensible response.  Standing atop a 1,000 foot tower deep in the wilds of the Northern Rockies is a beautiful experience.

I, however used a different approach, a model where the entire happiness of the day hung upon the thin thread of absolute success.  And climbing, given the fine grade of it’s rating system, was perfectly suited to such a perspective.  I imagine most people, if they have never rock climbed, picture a very basic rating system: kinda hard, hard and super hard, with these descriptions generally applying to the pitch of the wall.  If it’s vertical it is likely pretty hard, and if the angle kicks back to completely overhung, it must be exceptionally difficult.  But no, we climbers have taken what should remain as broad generalizations and scrapped them in favor of a precise gradient.

This minor quirk of recreational measurement brings with it a series of unfortunate consequences.  First, victory or defeat on a climbing route is immensely obvious.  You either make it to the top in style and grace or fall in pathetic defeat.  There is no middle ground whatsoever.  Second, the sport is so finely graded that it is quite easy to measure your exact progress from one week to the next.  This would be wonderfully encouraging if your climbing ability marched continuously upward in some perfectly linear graph.  In reality, this grading system simply allows you to remember what you used to be able to climb.  For example, you climbed 5.11d’s (hard) all last summer and today you’re flailing on a 5.10a (easy).  This would be akin to a runner who normally finishes a 10k in 35 minutes showing up at a Sunday race and crawling across the finish line 12 hours later.

Compounding this frustration was the absolute lack of control over the success.  It wasn’t like skiing or mountain biking where after failing on a run, you simply dust yourself off and try again.  Climbing relies on a very small portion of your body to achieve its goal, specifically the small section of muscle running from your wrist to your elbow.  And this muscle has the unique ability to completely consume its resources in a matter of seconds.  From the moment you chalk your hands and clamp down on the first flake of rock, to the final anchors at the top, no other muscle plays any significant role.  If the climb goes well, you reach the top before your arms implode.  If not, you’re left whimpering and shaking 60′ off the ground with nothing to do but fall.

For most climbers, this was simply part of the game.  But for me this maddening system could not be accepted.  How was it physiologically possible to fall on a route I’d easily climbed just weeks before?  I did not ponder the answer in the quiet reflection a day in the wilderness ought afford.  Rather, I found it much more appropriate to seethe at this terrible injustice dashed upon me.  Sitting just a few feet away, with a tangle of rope between us, sat Brandon, smiling cheerily.

In the beginning, I imagined this indicated a certain lack of dedication.  And though I clearly climbed at an inferior level, I at least climbed at my utmost ability.  He, on the other hand, loafed about at levels far below his potential.  Unfortunately – no more than that, infuriatingly – this assumption wasn’t even close to true.  Within a short while I observed with exasperation that not only did he have more talent and peace, he also had incredible dedication.  Disarmed, I reconciled myself to defeat and simply tried to emulate his style.  Surprisingly, though it required ten years of reconditioning, it eventually worked.

But success was limited.  Performance as a litmus test for satisfaction was removed from climbing, but other aspects remained unchanged.  Whether at work or school or any other sphere, performance reigned as the ultimate predictor of joy.  In most areas, I barely gave it a cursory glance; it provided a wonderful impetus to succeed and opened the door to many accomplishments.

At first, well to be accurate, for many years, I didn’t see this as having any connection to my spiritual life.  I simply believed a Christian should feel peace and joy and satisfaction as the reward of spiritual accomplishments.  And the opposite was defined as well.  A dark and numb connection with God must be the result of an idle and unproductive Christian walk. It all seemed very tidy.

Yet as the years wore on a pervasive discontent remained.  The moment I stopped reading, studying, serving and leading, everything fell apart.  All it required was a few days of a flu and my soul fell quiet and cold.  I began to dread illness, not because of the pain itself, but rather the gnawing sense of worthlessness that soon arrived.  Recently, after a bout with food poisoning a horrifying thought played across my mind.  What if I never recovered?  What if I was consigned to a life of eternal convalescence?   I wasn’t concerned with the normal terrors of a debilitating disease, the question of how could a loving God allow such pain.  No, I questioned how I could continue to operate without feeling like I was doing something profound for God.

What I found quite surprised me.

Grace isn’t always that compelling.  There were many occasions when I found it completely unhelpful, even annoying.  Which is odd.  I always imagined grace as some wonderful present, a miraculous and unmerited gift of infinite joy.  Yet I found myself asking God to take it back.  Not all the time, I was not so foolish as to desire to step away from the mercy poured out over my sin.  No, I found all that quite comforting and compelling.  But the grace given to cover my lack of accomplishments was very different. I just didn’t want it.

Though it wasn’t an answer, it did explain why so many attempts by fellow Christians to offer comforting words fell dull and flat.  It was like your football coach telling you that no matter how you played, he thought you were special.  I wouldn’t play a single game for a guy like that.  No, I wanted a coach who while always respectful, doled out admiration based on action and evidence. Grace felt more like some liberal minded suburban soccer club where everyone on the team won MVP.  Clearly God never got the memo – if everyone wins, no one wins.

And here is where it gets bizarre.  This feeling doesn’t spill over into my understanding of salvation.  I’d be perfectly happy if the whole lot of earth were redeemed and ushered through the heavenly gates.  But on earth, well, that is a very different game.  Because on earth I am surrounded by people.  And it is utterly impossible to not periodically take notice of where they stand in relation to me.  If everyone were lying around sick and useless, I would likely feel quite content with the small contribution I managed to provide. But as I lie sick on the bathroom floor, crawling towards the toilet, I was keenly aware of the Christian next door growing his ministry ever larger.

But the competitive aspect, however powerful, is not the final ends.  No, this relational consideration is only a means to answering a much bigger question.  The question.  Am I legitimate? Am I worthwhile, am I useful, would God notice if I went missing, would some divine system feel a loss if I were washed from the earth’s memory?  This is the it.  For many men, this is the only question.

I wish I could write this with some profound conclusion detailing the answer that led to a life of peace and contentment.  But it remains undone.  And perhaps it always will, a constant struggle between the absurd grace He provides and the caricatures of accomplishments I keep trying to bring to Him.


Comment from Steve Wallstrom
Time March 3, 2010 at 8:39 pm

I like this Jim. I have to say that after reading it I am likewise back at square one in my own mind concerning why God does what he does with regards to doling out grace on undeserving humans. I hope that over time I’m able to articulate exactly how I feel and believe that the only way to do that is through my own personal journey of delving into what I really believe God has saved me from, and why I am deserving of nothing but my own personally chosen hell and rebellion. But God is good! and I am compelled to pursue Him in response to His pursuit of me. Good stuff.

Comment from Toyin
Time August 13, 2010 at 8:55 am

That is a great place to be; there is no greater peace than knowing that only important accomplishment is knowing that you are loved by God!
Awesome blog; check out my blog at

Comment from Caleb
Time March 12, 2011 at 9:54 am

This post finds me wrapping up 3 days “uselessness” where I was a slave to my bed, vitamin C, and water, in which I find your writing, quite useful.

This makes me ponder the things that are truly useful to others in this life.

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