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The Language of Grace

April 3, 2013

Yesterday, Mark Sanford, the former governor of South Carolina, won a runoff to be the Republican candidate for a seat in congress from that state.  This is news because Sanford resigned as governor of South Carolina after starting an affair with a woman he called his “soul mate” while still married to another woman.

In a conservative state with a high percentage of evangelicals it would have seemed that this disgrace would end his career in office.  But, if he wins the election against the Democrat (Who is the sister of Stephen Colbert.) it would appear his career is not over.  How did he manage to get back into this position?  How did he ruin his marriage and not, seemingly, ruin his career?  How could he stand there and accept the nomination, with his former mistress and now fiancée at his side?  In his campaign he used the language of grace.

He admitted his sin.  He took full responsibility for his failures.  He acknowledged that he is the recipient of the grace of God and of many of the voters.  He blamed nobody by himself and admitted the forgiveness he received was not in any way earned.  This struck a chord with enough of the evangelical voters in his district for him to succeed.

Some political experts are mystified by this.  Believing evangelicals to be all about judging sin, they can’t see how this could happen.  But evangelicals have always been more about grace than judgment, even if we don’t often sound that way.  But here is the problem – was he sincere?  Did he truly repent?  Should the voters have responded with forgiveness in such numbers? Or is he playing them for fools?

I don’t know.  This is exactly the grace problem.  Since grace is, by definition, something you can’t earn it needs to be freely given without regard to the merits of the individual.  As a result the clever liar can often fool the human grace-giver.  This creates a problem.  Sooner or later, if we show grace to those who offend , if we extend forgiveness, we are going to get duped.

I want to show grace.  I want to emulate Jesus in this regard.  The Gospels are full of stories where he shows grace to the guilty.  In a few of those cases the individual had not even asked for grace but Jesus gave it anyway.  I want to be like that but I really don’t like the idea of being duped.  It doesn’t feel good.

So what are my options?  I don’t have divine insight like Jesus did so what do I do?  After I use my best judgment I see only two possible paths.

  1. I can be kind and take the chance that I will be deceived.
  2. I can be cynical and refuse to show grace.

I know we are supposed to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves but, in real time, I find I am often clueless as to how to do both at the same time.  In our culture today, on all sides of all issues, it appears that the cynics are winning.  So I need to ask myself this question – would I rather be seen as too kind or too cynical?  I think I am going to go with kind.

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