As followers of Jesus, how do become like him in character? What is our responsibility? Do we actively participate or do we passively receive his grace? In the process of developing spiritual, mental, and emotional integrity, what is the balance between responsibility and grace? It’s helpful for me to picture this relationship as a dance, which I’ve not yet perfected! I’m continually learning new versions.
This how I describe it in my book, Emotional Freedom
The Dance of Choosing Grace
Jesus does not compel us to obey him. He empowers us to overcome evil and destructive passions, but it does not happen automatically. It’s a shared effort. Eugene Peterson, in The Message, uses the phrase (Matthew 11:28–30) to describe the shared relationship that Jesus invites us to have with him.
I love that “unforced rhythms of grace” phrase. It reminds me of a dance. I’m not a great dancer. My least well-developed intelligence is kinesthetic. When I was in college, I had to take beginning swimming twice in order to pass it. Kinesthetic intelligence is one of my husband’s highest developed abilities. He loves to dance. I love watching him dance. We do it as a part of our worship on Sunday mornings. I managed to dance with him at our daughters’ weddings without crushing his toes.
The concept of dancing with God delights me. I call this dance with Jesus “Choosing Grace.” It has two basic steps—grace and responsibility. Grace is God’s step of love toward me. Responsibility is my step of love toward God. Jesus said, “If you keep my commands, you’ll remain intimately at home in my love” (John 15:10 MSG).
Choosing grace is about dancing in such a close relationship with Jesus that his nature becomes a part of us, motivating our decisions and empowering our behavioral changes. Here is a clear Biblical statement describing the interaction between grace and responsibility: “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12–13 NIV).
Choosing grace is about acting on our decisions so that our behavior will change. However, it’s much more than a how-to-do list for selecting and practicing new behaviors. Through this dynamic dance with Jesus, we are transformed, and we become like him. How do responsibility and grace work together to bring about character change and freedom from destructive desires and emotions? There are two common misunderstandings.
Problems on the Dance Floor
Some of us focus entirely on God’s grace, and others of us focus entirely on our responsibility. Some of us depend on God to do all the dancing, while others of us leave him standing on the dance floor and take off in our own independent rhythm.
When we place responsibility—as well as grace—totally in God’s lap, our slogan becomes “let go and let God.” God did not design us as robots, and he does not bypass our will. We have the responsibility of choosing whether or not we will rely on God’s empowering grace.
When we place responsibility on our shoulders and forget about grace we take up the “just-say-no!” slogan. Our program of self-reform does not usually work very well or last very long. The only way we can be successful by just saying no to our destructive desires is by lying to ourselves—overlooking our slip-ups.
On any day, I may deceive myself into thinking I can stay away from the chocolate ice cream which gives me digestive problems. Perhaps by God’s grace, I’ve been successful for a few weeks. Now, I think my willpower is sufficient. I no longer need God’s assistance. What happens? I’m so focused on my performance that my craving takes over.
I tend to swing from one end of the spectrum to the other. Sometimes, I act as if God is totally responsible for my growth. In passive irresponsibility, I refuse to take initiative. I don’t anticipate problems, and I don’t plan how I can obey. I sing “I want what God wants” while waiting for him to exercise the will he gave to me. What’s the result? Nothing happens. Why doesn’t this work?
God will neither take over my will nor override the choices I make. His freedom of choice gift includes responsibility to act and accountability for our action or failure to act.
Questions for reflection:
On which end of the responsibility/grace spectrum do you tend to swing?
Do you need to take more action steps or do you need to focus on God’s grace?