From the moment the serpent wormed his way into the garden of Eden, grace hasn’t felt like grace to us. The devil knew exactly how to get to us, exactly how to turn our eyes against our Creator and against our fellow human beings who are made in his image.
…He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”
And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’ ”Genesis 3:1–3 (ESV)
His first words stir up ingratitude in her heart. God had actually said, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden” (2:16) and only forbidden one. The serpent rewrites the narrative; he emphasizes what was withheld, not what was given. The woman corrects him, but joins him in painting God in a severe light. “Neither shall you touch it”—a word God had never spoken.
The devil shrewdly draws her eyes away from common grace, and leads her first down the path of ingratitude.
Not sure what common grace is? Read this explanation first before continuing.
A Primer on Common Grace
Maybe you are asking the question, “Why is all this happening?” Alongside that important question is another one you ought to ask: “Why has it not always been happening?”
Ingratitude: when common grace feels normal
What at first was our anxiety and dread about the potential lethality of the virus (anxiety which is no less potent now) is gradually being surpassed by our irritability in response to the limitations placed on our physical activity. This irritability is not just a function of our worry about the future; it is also our very bodies letting us know that they are tired of doing what we are asking them to do.…Our bodies are prevented from engaging in the diverse environment they require in order to flourish.Curt Thompson, M.D., “A Body of Work”
The ability to breathe freely I take for granted, until I come down with a cold. The ability to walk freely I take for granted, until I injure a knee or toe. And our ability to function as human beings we take for granted until a pandemic ensures that we cannot easily gather together, cannot embrace one another, cannot even shake hands. These experiences of being physically present are deeply precious, but we never knew how good they were until they were taken away from us. God withdraws some of his common grace, and only then do we see the grace in it.
If the words of the serpent are any indication, this tendency to overlook grace—until it is withdrawn—is a subtle form of disdain for God our Creator. He looks at the world that he has made and sustains, and he sees that it is good. We look at the world he has made and sustains, and we stifle a yawn. There is something within us that wants common grace to feel normal, to feel default, to be the assumed background of our lives.
I live in Squamish, British Columbia. It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth. The image above is a view I can see from my bedroom window. I live where the mountains, sea, and sky all intersect. All this glory, all this common grace, has become the background of my life, as I occupy my mind with plans and ventures. I become blind and deaf to goodness and grace. The greenery becomes the banal and generic. I no longer notice the flowers and grass and trees, red alders and balsam poplars bursting out of every square inch of ground across the street, each green shoot a work of art designed to reveal the glory of God.
If all of this is merely normal, then I don’t have to recognize that glory. I don’t have to see myself as an undeserving recipient of grace.
So I am deeply motivated to think of my own surroundings, my relationships, my experiences as normal. I am deeply motivated not to listen to anyone who would challenge my sense of what is normal.
If one gives an answer before he hears,Proverbs 18:13
it is his folly and shame.
We trust our own experiences, our own sense of what’s normal. We do not easily listen to others; we log on to Facebook and Twitter and give an answer before we hear. I’ve noticed this pattern on social media, as we endure the hard measures of pandemic response. The pandemic is distributed unevenly across the world, crippling one region, sparing another, often with little rhyme or reason to it. People living in cities where their friends and families are dying by the thousands are speaking up and warning others about what is coming. Health care workers in these places share their stories of exhaustion and failure, of deciding who is worth saving. Meanwhile, many people live in areas that are untouched by the disease. To them, they feel the social and economic hardship, but they have no first- or second-hand experience of Covid-19 itself. This freedom from illness, they believe, is normal. They trust their own experiences and dismiss the disease as media hype. What they are experiencing is a goodness—a common grace—that isn’t normal. There are others who have not received it.
On social media, it seems that most of us are responding in some way to the Black Lives Matter protests in response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. For many of us, seeing a nine-minute video of a black man suffocating under the knee of a police officer opened our eyes to injustice. We sensed that our own experience of common grace, of deferential treatment by officers of the law, is not the experience of every American. It is not normal for African Americans. But others of us have doubled down on our experiences, on our own perception of normal. We know the common grace of a just policing and a just court system; we have never felt this grace withdrawn. “All lives matter”—that is the rallying cry, because there is no need to focus on black lives. All lives are certainly treated with the same dignity that mine is! The goodness and grace of God in my life is normal!
This mindset wells up from a deeper, darker place than mere racism. We are speaking foolishly if we are labelling it racism and moving on. The sin runs deeper than that and is far more complex. Perhaps the taproot of modern “racism” is the fundamental ingratitude toward God, ingratitude from a light-skinned majority who have benefited from common grace. We are biased to think the goodness we see around us is normal, and to dismiss the stories of those who have not experienced the same goodness. We are determined not to see the goodness of God, or at least not to see it as grace.
Oh that you would keep silent,Job 13:5–6
and it would be your wisdom!
Hear now my argument
and listen to the pleadings of my lips.
Not even Job’s friends would listen to his experience of affliction. They could not deny his suffering, but they could try to fit it into their stubborn sense of normal. Eliphaz tells him, “As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same” (Job 4:8). So in reference to the death of Job’s children, Bildad cruelly asserts, “If your children have sinned against him, he has delivered them into the hand of their transgression” (8:4). And then Zophar blames Job, “Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves” (11:6).
It is in their interest to see Job’s suffering as God’s punishment for his own sin. That fits their sense of normal life experience. To them, that’s how the world works. They refuse to believe Job’s protest that he has not earned the suffering he is receiving. They can’t bring themselves to believe that any goodness they have experienced is given freely, graciously from the hand of a good God. They want to think they have deserved it.
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.Romans 1:21
What is the outcome of ingratitude? The outcome is the disintegration of wisdom. Our minds become disordered, confused, incapable of understanding what is happening around us. We are convinced we are wise, even when we are fools.
This plague of ingratitude is present not only in a sinful, fallen world. It has corrupted the church as well. White evangelical Christians in America have experienced more common grace than almost any other people in history, and we are profoundly ungrateful for it. It is no wonder so many of us have grown so blind. When you no longer see grace, you no longer see anything at all.
But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die.”Genesis 3:4
The woman knows that God has told her husband, “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). She repeats that warning, with less emphasis: “Lest you die” (3:3). But the serpent tells her that there ought to be no emphasis at all. He assures her that it’s an empty threat. God will not call her to account for her disobedience. He will not curse her with a swift and final death.
The serpent began by encouraging the woman to doubt the goodness of God. Now he doubles back, encouraging her to presume on the very goodness he has questioned. A God of love and grace would never punish; he would surely let her go for such an infraction!
Having followed the serpent into the sin of ingratitude, she now joins him in the sin of presumption.
Presumption: when common grace feels expected
Being black in America, I mean…you already born dead…Unknown demonstrator, interview with Sergio Olmos, May 30, 2020
The serpent’s words were a half-truth. When their sin was uncovered, God did not immediately end the physical life of Adam and Eve. Their hearts continued to beat, their feet continued to walk, and their lungs filled with breath. But from this point forward, they became the walking dead. They persisted “in the likeness of God” (Genesis 5:1), but the image was defiled and corrupted. Their lives took on the shape of hell on earth. They were already born dead, cast out of the garden, driven from the presence of the living God.
Some people know this more than others. Some of us feel in our bones the absence of grace and hope, as we suffer pain or oppression. For example, those in America with dark or coloured skin don’t experience the same common grace that you do if you’re white. Those anthems celebrating the bounty of “America the Beautiful” leave you an outcast.
On the other hand, some of us have enjoyed the fruits of prosperity, a harvest a hundredfold what we have sown. We look at our possessions, our families, our careers, the stability of our communities, and we conclude that our prosperity is God being fair to us. There’s something about us, something about who we are and what we have done, that ensures this goodness.
I doubt we would say any of this aloud, but in our heart of hearts we believe it. There is something exceptional about the nation I’m a part of, or the way I was raised, or the skills and capabilities I offer, or the hard work I’ve done. Whatever prosperity I enjoy—it is God being fair to me.
We might call this sense of just dessert the legal spirit that is deeply rooted in the fallen nature of mankind. Common grace is misinterpreted; we think it’s an unspoken legal contract with God. This is not an American phenomenon but a human one. We keep falling back into the thinking that bad things happen to bad people, and good things happen to good people. We call this arrangement karma, or The Secret, or Your Best Life Now.
Jesus Christ loathed this mindset. When his disciples encountered a man born blind, they asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). They interpreted the man’s suffering as God’s punishment for a family sin; after all, bad things happen to bad people. Jesus, however, rejected their assessment. And when a crowd asked him about his fellow Galileans who had been slaughtered by their Roman oppressors, he replied, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:2–3).
Jesus hated the legal spirit that presumes on grace, that is convinced that not only have have we deserved the good we receive, but we can expect to continue receiving it as we have before. In his hatred, he aligns himself with the Old Testament scriptures which reveal the good and gracious character of God. He aligns himself against Job’s “friends” who are entrenched in the legal spirit. God chastises them, “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:8). Job, at least, allowed his sense of normal to be shattered, and with them his presumption. Job no longer believed that God was operating with the same legal spirit that Job’s friends possessed.
We subconsciously lapse into this legal spirit, lapse into presumption, so that God has to warn us again and again in scripture, and shake us loose from our mental slavery.
It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.Deuteronomy 7:7–8
Why have we received common grace from God up till now? Why can we expect that he will be good to us in the future? Not because of anything in you and me. Not because of any of our “inalienable rights,” or merits, or status, or pedigree. “It is because the LORD loves you,” and because he keeps his promises. That is all. There is nothing he sees in us, nothing good or unique in us that he is responding to. Grace flows freely from his heart. He is not kind to us because we deserve it; he is kind simply because he is kind. We are immersed in common grace, unmerited favour that we have not deserved and cannot presume upon.
We just don’t get grace. We can’t comprehend it. I’ve witnessed people blame and accuse others for not showing them grace when they have sinned. And in my heart, I too have raged against others for failing to show me the grace I’ve demanded from them. How often do churches wrongly demand that victims of spiritual, physical, verbal, and sexual abuse start trusting their abusers again, so that these untrustworthy sinners can be restored to positions of authority and everything go on as it was? The whole point of grace is that it isn’t deserved and cannot be demanded. I can request grace from you, but the moment I begin to demand it, I show that I have no understanding of grace, that I am consumed with the legal spirit. I only know ingratitude and presumption.
Then, too, a spirit of unforgiveness reveals that we do not understand grace. That’s the point that Jesus makes in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:21–35). He is not speaking of restoring trust to an untrustworthy sinner, but of showing mercy and granting reconciliation to an unworthy sinner. When we are unwilling to grant grace, we reveal that we do not understand the grace we have received, for we too are consumed with the legal spirit. “Should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18:33).
Jesus concludes his parable with a threat of judgment from God. This, too, is a frightening implication of the grace we have received. As I write this, rehearsing the common grace I have been shown, grace beyond my ability to fathom, I am keenly aware of Jesus’ warning to me:
And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating.…Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.Luke 12:47–48
Remember the proverb from the Spider-man comics and movies? “With great power comes great responsibility.” And the same is true with grace. “To whom much was given, of him much will be required.” Jesus said it first. When you and I stand before the judgment seat of God, those who have experienced common grace in abundance will face a deeper wrath.
…Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.Romans 2:4–5
These hard words from the apostle Paul are simply an expansion of the point that Jesus is making (see also Matthew 11:20–24). A vast wealth of kindness and forbearance and patience has been given to me, the common grace of a good God. I say this with fear, knowing that apart from Christ I have no answer and no excuse for my ingratitude and my presumption.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.…Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity.…God gave them up to dishonorable passions.…God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.Romans 1:18–32
A sense of God’s grace brings an end to all the self-righteousness which corrupts his church. Have I not also been unrighteous, suppressing the truth through my own ingratitude and presumption? Yes, I have also joined in Adam’s sin, the common sin of the human race. And Paul says that when God’s future wrath spills over into our present, it looks like this: God gives people up to become what they would be apart from his grace, to dehumanize themselves as they dehumanize one another.
The worst thing that God can do to me is to let me be myself, apart from his restraining grace. As C. S. Lewis observed, there are those to whom God says, “Thy will be done.” That ought to be me. So any righteousness in me is the grace of God. If I am good, it is because he is good. If I receive good, it is because he is good. There is no place for presumption. If I am spared disease, violence, and any measure of evil, I can only talk about the preposterous kindness of God for me.
For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.Genesis 3:5
With these words, the serpent levels his final critique against God. He has encouraged the woman toward ingratitude, and toward presumption. And now he levels against God the charge of inequity. He is assuring her, “God is being unfair to you. He wants to keep you down, to keep you from being like him, from knowing and discerning what is good and what is bad as he does.”
This accusation of inequity, and a feeling of unfairness, is one of the hardest things to understand about grace. To those who have received it, grace feels normal and expected. To those who haven’t received it, grace feels unfair.
Inequity: when common grace feels unfair
For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, “You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.” So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, “Why do you stand here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You go into the vineyard too.”
And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.” And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius.
And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”
But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”
So the last will be first, and the first last.Matthew 20:1–16
I think it’s important to print this parable in full, to feel the weight of these words from Jesus Christ. Does the conclusion of this parable bother you? Does the master seem unfair? Would you call him generous—or unjust?
Grace continues to rub us the wrong way. It feels like injustice for God to grant one person common grace that he does not grant to another. The unevenness of grace troubles us. We’ve succumbed to the legal spirit and forgotten the truth that Jesus is telling us. Any common grace we receive from God is given from his generous heart. It is not the fulfillment of an unspoken contract. We cannot demand what we are not owed.
The fact that this inequity feels wrong shows that our instincts are leading us astray. To us, it seems wrong—but not to Jesus. He knows how to receive goodness, how to relate to a gracious God. We do not. The fault is not in God, but in ourselves.
The great evil of American slavery wasn’t the involuntary servitude; it was the fiction that black people aren’t as good as white people, and aren’t the equals of white people, and are less evolved, less human, less capable, less worthy, less deserving than white people.Bryan Stevenson, in “Bryan Stevenson on the Frustration Behind the George Floyd Protests” by Isaac Chotiner
There is a deep error in our thinking. We don’t understand the distinction between inequity and inequality. That second word, inequality, is a buzzword, poorly defined and sometimes misleading. But it does capture something that Stevenson describes in the quote above: as individuals and as a society, we function as though some people “aren’t the equals” of other people. They are “less evolved, less human, less capable, less worthy, less deserving.” Conservatives recognize that the unborn are treated as less human than the rest of us. Progressives recognize that women and minority groups are treated as less human. To treat another as “less human” is at the heart of injustice. This is captured by the word inequality.
When God gives grace to some and not to others, he is not guilty of inequality. He is not treating some as “less human” than others. The whole point of grace is that it is unmerited, unearned, undeserved. Grace is not given to the more-human. Neither is it given to the more capable, the more worthy, the more deserving. It is given instead to the incapable, the unworthy, the undeserving.
Grace is not a form of inequality. It is a form of inequity. It is the goodness of God distributed unevenly, given to some in different measures from others. It is not wrong for God to do this. If we declare him in the wrong, we are reducing him to our level, as though he were merely a man like us, subject to our own unspoken social contracts.
…I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name “The LORD.” And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.Exodus 33:19
God is free to distribute goodness, to show favour, to grant common grace to whomever he sees fit. He is not constrained; he is not our subject. He is our Sovereign; he is free.
This counterintuitive sense of God’s prerogative is so difficult for a fallen humanity to grasp. Over the centuries, Protestant Christians grappled with God’s freedom to give saving grace. Arminian theology was developed to re-establish some sense of equity in God’s grace. Concepts such as “prevenient grace” were invented out of whole cloth to explain how God can be equitable yet not everyone be saved from their sin.
Yet, in the realm of common grace, a realm which we can far more easily observe, there is no way to pretend, no way to assert the equity of God. Those who do so are quickly exposed as heartless, legalistic, and cruel. We are forbidden by the bad example of Job’s friends, who insisted that God must be treating Job equitably. We are forbidden by the Psalms, which give a voice of lament to those suffering without apparent cause, and a voice of thanksgiving to those who experience a goodness they did nothing to earn.
And we are shown by the Parable of the Prodigal Son how this inequity is a beautiful thing (Luke 15:11–32). The older brother rails against his father for the inequity he has shown, lavishing grace on the undeserving younger brother. But Jesus tells us that even when the younger brother “was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (15:20). The father is not interested in equitable treatment. He is not interested in being fair. He is deeply, personally affected by his son. The world is overflowing in grace because it is a world filled and enriched with the personal agency of a personal God.
I remember once, when I was a boy, getting upset at my mom because she let my younger brother get away with something that I would have been disciplined for. Mom took me aside and reminded me that my brother’s personality was different than my own. She was treating us inequitably because she knew what was best for each of us. I wasn’t convinced at the time that her unfairness was good, but I am now. Real relationship is characterized by personal knowing, by grace, and not necessarily by fairness.
Why is it that God praises Job when he tells Eliphaz, “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:8)? Didn’t Job go too far in accusing God of injustice toward him? Yes, he did. But Job did, at least, recognize something that his friends refused to see. He recognized that God was inequitable. And admitting God’s inequity is the first step toward understanding and receiving his grace.
You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.Deuteronomy 24:17–18
There is an extraordinary irony to all this: Embracing God’s gracious inequity is necessary if we are to pursue a just equality with one another.
Five times in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people of Israel, “You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt” (5:15; 15:15; 16:12; 24:18, 22; see also 10:19). Each and every time, it is given as a rationale for justice and concern for the vulnerable and oppressed among them: widows and the fatherless, servants and slaves, resident aliens, even domesticated animals. The point is clear: God freely, graciously showed you favour. Go and do likewise. Be a channel of God’s common grace to others, because you have received saving grace and common grace from God. Know God rightly, and you will care rightly for others.
But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.Luke 6:35–36
So what evil is God exposing in the white evangelical church in America? The same thing that is wrong with America. The same thing that is wrong with the whole human race. Grace doesn’t feel like grace. And in particular, common grace doesn’t feel like grace. We have responded with ingratitude, thinking his goodness is normal. We have responded with presumption, expecting goodness that we are not owed. We have disavowed or grumbled against his inequity, thinking that God ought to treat us fairly.
This is the heart of what it means to be a sinner. This is what we need to confess to God and to one another. We need to repent and be forgiven.
What I’ve written, I’ve written with a heavy heart, knowing that I am guilty of the same things. At the same time, God is opening my eyes to see goodness and beauty all around me, grace that I never noticed before.
In the weeks to come, I’ll have further reflections on the subject of common grace: how the church in America fails to understand it, how we can grow in our recognition and appreciation of it. I won’t write at such great length, though. If you’ve read to the end, I’m grateful for your time and attention, and I’m praying that God will use this to open your eyes to his grace.
Featured image by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash
4 thoughts on “When Common Grace Doesn’t Feel Like Grace”
Excellent teaching thanks for sharing
I loved this article on Common Grace. It is very eye opening and I greatly appreciate the length and effort you’ve put in by writing it. I am like every other presumptious human who has shown ingratitude towards a loving God. Thank you for writing this. I look forward to reading more.
Thank you for your encouraging reply, Ralph!