The Ladder of Grace

Friedrich Nietzsche accused the Christian church as having “taken the side of everything weak, base, ill-constituted.” He scorned a religion of pity that thwarted the law of evolution and its rule favoring power and competition. Nietzsche put his finger on the scandal of grace, a scandal that he traced back to “God on the cross.”

Nietzsche was right. In Jesus’ parables, the rich and healthy never seem to make it to the wedding feast, while the poor and the weak come running. And through the ages, Christian saints have chosen the most un-Darwinian objects for their love. Mother Teresa’s nuns lavish care on homeless wretches who have mere days if not hours left to live. …Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement admitted to the folly of her soup kitchen: “What a delightful thing it is,” she said, “to be boldly profligate, to ignore the price of coffee and go on serving the long line of destitute men who come to us, good coffee, and the finest of bread.”

The Christian knows to serve the weak not because they deserve it but because God extended his love to us when we deserved the opposite. Christ came down from heaven, and whenever his disciples entertained dreams of prestige and power he reminded them that the greatest is the one who serves. The ladder of power reaches up, the ladder of grace reaches down. – Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing about Grace?

A Kind of Secret Force

Philip Yancey, in What’s so Amazing about Grace?

Jesus’ images portray the kingdom as a kind of secret force. Sheep among wolves, treasure hidden in a field, the tiniest seed in the garden, wheat growing among weeds, a pinch of yeast worked into bread dough, a sprinkling of sale on meat–all these hint at a movement that works within society, changing it from the inside out. You do not need a shovelful of salt to preserve a slab of ham; a dusting will suffice.

Jesus did not leave an organized host of followers, for he knew that a handful of salt would gradually work its way through the mightiest empire in the world. Against all odds, the great institutions of Rome–the law code, libraries, the Senate, Roman legions, roads, aqueducts, public monuments–gradually crumbled, but the little band to whom Jesus gave these images prevailed and continues on today.

The Original Mission of the Church

Philip Yancey, in What’s So Amazing about Grace?

Not long ago I had a conversation with an elderly missionary who had spent his early career in China. He had been among the six thousand missionaries expelled after the Communists took over. As in Russia, these Communists too strove mightily to destroy the church, which until then had been a showcase of the missionary movement. The government forbade house churches, made it illegal for parents to give religious education to their children, imprisoned and tortured pastors and Bible teachers.

Meanwhile, the exiled missionaries sat on the sidelines and wrung their hands. How would the church in China fare without them? without their seminaries and Bible colleges, their literature and curricula, without even the ability to print Bibles, could the church survive? For forty years these missionaries heard rumors, some discouraging and some encouraging, about what was happening in China, but no one knew for sure until the country began opening up in the 1980s.

I asked this elderly missionary, now a renowned China expert, what had happened in the intervening forty years. “Conservatively, I would estimate there were 750,000 Christians when I left China. And now? You hear all sorts of numbers, but I think a safe figure would be 35 million believers.” Apparently, the church and the Holy Spirit fared quite well on their own. The church in China now constitutes the second largest evangelical community in the world; only the United States exceeds it.

One China expert estimates that the revival in China represents the greatest numerical revival in the history of the church. In an odd way, the government hostility ultimately worked to the church’s advantage. Shut out of the power structures, Chinese Christian devoted themselves to worship and evangelism, the original mission of the church, and did not much concern themselves with politics. They concentrated on changing lives, not changing laws.

The Place Where God’s Kingdom Thrives

Philip Yancey, in What’s So Amazing about Grace?

I had the distinct impression that God was moving — not in the spiritualized sense of that phrase but quite literally packing up and moving. Western Europe now pays God little heed, the United States is pushing God to the margins, and perhaps the future of God’s kingdom belongs to places like Korea, China, Africa, and Russia. The kingdom of God thrives where its subjects follow the desire of the King; does that describe the United States of America today?

As an American, the prospect of such a “move” makes me sad. At the same time, however, I understand more clearly than ever before that my ultimate loyalty lies with the kingdom of God, not [a single nation.]

An Unexpected Repository for Truth

Philip Yancey, in What’s So Amazing about Grace?

When I visited Russia in 1991 … I saw in Russia a people starved for grace. …

I heard form ordinary citizens who now relished their freedom to worship. Most had learned about the faith from a babushka, an old grandmother. When the state cracked down on the church, it ignored this group: let the old women sweep the floors and sell the candles and cling to the tradition until they all die off, they reasoned. The aged hands of the babushka, though, rocked the cradles. Young churchgoers today often say they first learned about God in childhood through the hymns and stories Grandma would whispers as they drifted off to sleep.

I will never forget a meeting in which Moscow journalists wept — I had never before seen journalists weep — as Ron Nikkel of Prison Fellowship International told of the underground churches that were now thriving in Russia’s penal colonies. For seventy years prisons had been the repository of truth, the one place where you could safely speak the name of God. It was in prison, not church, that people such as Solzhenitsyn found God …

What IS the Perfect Government?

[The] state must always water down the absolute quality of Jesus’ commands and turn them into a form of external morality — precisely the opposite of the gospel of grace. Jacques Ellul goes so far as to say the New Testament teaches no such thing as a “Judeo-Christian ethic.” It commands conversion and then this, “Be perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Read the Sermon on the Mount and try to imagine any government enacting that set of laws.

A state government can shut down stores and theaters on Sunday, but it cannot compel worship. It can arrest and punish KKK murderers but cannot cure their hatred, must less teach them love. It can pass laws making divorce more difficult but cannot force husbands to love their wives and wives their husbands. It can give subsidies to the poor but cannot force the rich to show them compassion and justice. It can ban adultery but not lust, theft but not covetousness, cheating but not pride. It can encourage virtue but not holiness. – Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing about Grace?

Glorious Hope

Sometimes we look out at our lives and it seems the garden is empty – plans dead as withered leaves, dreams laid waste. Could we rejoice in the season of waiting, believing that God who brought Jesus out of the black tomb and brings green shoots out of hard earth will bring new life out of all dark seasons too? Could we know that beauty is in this whole process, the waiting part too, not just the end result?

This year, I have beheld exquisite flowers, glorious outcomes that could have only been designed by God himself. I have watched Him make family out of strangers. I have watched Him sell a book that I never intended to write. I have watched my little girl walk with her foot flat on the ground for the first time in all five years of her life. I have watched alcoholics become moms who work hard to provide for their families. I have watched my 16 year old walk through processing the abuse in her past and learn to jump rope and have her childhood finally restored to her after nearly 4 years of living in a family. I have watched God answer prayers that I hadn’t even spoken yet.

As I gaze in wonder, I remember how He brought us out of the dark and the hard. I remember how He protected us from the pounding rain and the scorching sun, baby green shoots clinging to Him for dear life. I remember that as we reached high to the Son, He came down and pulled us closer. We turn out heads up in awe and we know what is around the corner, but we look expectantly to the bowing and the bending and the death of all we had planned because we know – in Him, there will always be more. Glorious hope.

By Katie Davis, from her blog on January 16, 2012