G is for Grace (an alphabet for penitents)

Thus says the Lord:
The people who survived the sword
    found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest,
the Lord appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
    therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. (Jeremiah 31:2-3).

Grace is the ground we stand on, the word connotes “mercy” and “favor.” We are told we are ‘saved by grace’—God’s unmerited favor toward us, because of Christ and his cross. In the thought-world of Jeremiah the prophet(quoted above), grace meant that exile and destruction weren’t the final words. Because of God’s favor, faithfulness and everlasting love, there was Grace, for Israel, in the wilderness. The forty-day period of Lent gets its forty days from Jesus wilderness fast (Matthew 4:1-11). As we enter into wilderness space—through fasting and repentance—we do so with confidence, that we, too, will find grace in the wilderness.

No repentance is possible without the reality of grace. Theologians talk of Prevenient Grace—the Grace of God which precedes human repentance. Calvinists and everyone else argue about how irresistible this grace is.  I don’t know. But I do know without the existential hope of restoration and mercy, there is not much psychological need to ‘repent.’ A fast only makes sense in light of a rock-solid belief in God’s grace for us.

But God’s grace isn’t the only grace we need. We also need our own. As we strip away our comforts and take an honest stock of our heart condition, we may recoil at what we find there. We are the ones whose hands crafted idols. We justify sin and act selfishly. We have hurt other people and mistreated them. When we start to see this, we beat ourselves up and feel unworthy. Normally we dull our guilty feelings with the things that comfort us(ice cream, cookies, chocolate, etc). But the wilderness of Lent forces us to confront our demons in the den of self-loathing.

Grace in the wilderness comes as we trust in the grace of God towards sinners and learn to be gracious with ourselves. We struggle and stumble along the way. Grace isn’t a belief in our worthiness so much as a belief that God thought we were worth it. We are more than our missteps. At our core, we are God’s beloved—the objects of God’s grace and His delight. He gives rest to us when we’re weary. He searches for us when we’re far away. He loves us with forever faithfulness. We are loved. Judgment and destruction do not have the final word. Grace in the wilderness!


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