The first time I read this book I was in high school.
At the time, I was a little unnerved by it. I was not altogether sure about this ‘Philip Yancey’ fellow who, I was pretty sure, was not a Southern Baptist. Who spoke with frankness and forgiveness about his struggles with a rule-laden church and an evangelical college that had strained his faith for a time. And I was even less sure about the way he described God’s grace as audacious. As shocking to the point of scandalous. As uncomfortable.
So I set the book aside. And then, years and years and years later, I came back to it. I was having a rough time, spiritually-speaking. I was frustrated with God and the fact that His plans weren’t the plans I had in mind. My relationship with the church my husband and I had faithfully attended was so troubled that going to church was an act of sheer will and not one I looked forward to with any hope or interest. I was saddened by the behavior of some fellow believers. It was one of those “dark night of the soul” sorts of times: a time when your faith is ultimately strengthened, but only after you get through the business of being humbled and being honest with yourself.
It was at that time I picked up What’s So Amazing About Grace again. And, though some of the mentions in the book showed its age, the message was as clear and relevant as could be. This time, I wasn’t afraid of it. This time, I needed to hear it. I cried the whole way through. And when I came to the end, I was refreshed, and felt that Yancey had walked me back to Scripture for a newer and deeper understanding of God.
In the book, which focuses – obviously! – on the topic of grace, Yancey chooses at times to delve into what he terms “ungrace”:
“Ungrace does its work quietly and lethally, like a poisonous, undetectable gas. A father dies unforgiven. A mother who once carried a child in her own body does not speak to that child for half its life. The toxin steals on, from generation to generation.”
This “ungrace,” he points out, is a haven for legalists and those who wish to feel superior to others, who spend their lives proving that they deserve God’s love or that they are worthy of it. And he is unashamed to point out the role that the church has played in dispensing “ungrace” over time:
“C. S. Lewis observed that almost all crimes of Christian history have come about when religion is confused with politics. Politics, which always runs by the rules of ungrace, allures us to trade away grace for power, a temptation the church has often been unable to resist.”
“[…]women much like [the] prostitute fled toward Jesus, not away from him. The worse a person felt about herself, the more likely she saw Jesus as a refuge. Has the church lost that gift?”
But the bulk of Yancey’s work is devoted to grace itself: to the contrast that exists
between the “ungrace” both at work in the church and the world and the God-given,
undeserved grace that every believer can claim. His writing – a treasure unto itself – beautifully expresses the “shocking accessibility” of a God who is willing to tear down every barrier to be with those He loves. And his emphasis throughout the text is on both the undeservedness of this grace – we cannot earn it – and the world-changing impact of it. He goes on to illustrate this through any number of wonderful stories both from Scripture and from life: anecdotes both large and small that demonstrate the disproportional impact that grace can have on a life.
Still, Yancey isn’t interested in glossing over what grace demands of us. Persistent questions linger as he writes: if God’s grace really covers everything, are we prepared to deal with what that means? Are we ready for the enormity of what grace entails? Or are we, as believers, more comfortable with a “limited” grace that still punishes those we deem worthy of punishment? Can grace be scandalous? Can it ever be “too much”? (If you’re hearing echoes of Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son here, you’re not wrong.)
Quoting counselor David Seamands, Yancey writes,
Many years ago I was driven to the conclusion that the two major causes of most emotional problems among evangelical Christians are these: the failure to understand, receive, and live out God’s unconditional grace and forgiveness; and the failure to give out that unconditional love, forgiveness, and grace to other people. . . . We read, we hear, we believe a good theology of grace. But that’s not the way we live.
And so, along with being a refresher on the topic of what God’s grace actually is and how it actually functions, Yancey’s book is a call to action: what will it look like to the world if the church lives out the grace it has received? What will it look like in our lives? How will it radically change us?
Let me give you all the reasons that, to this day, I cherish this book and return to it time and again. I loved this book because it gave me the space to feel, for the first time, that the church was not perfect – that it could hurt people, trade on power, disappoint others, and forget all about grace – and that God loves it and forgives it, anyway. That I, too, could be honest about that and about my feelings, but also love it and forgive it. I loved this book because it convicted me profoundly and does to this day that I am not living in the radical grace that I ought to be. And I loved this book because reading it felt like the very best sort of experience you’d share with a Christian friend: one that challenged you and made you smile and made you cry and left you hungry for God and hungry to live out that remarkable love.
The good news is that, if you read this book and you love it, Yancey has quite a collection from which to draw. So if What’s So Amazing About Grace sounds like it might move you, go pick it up! And if you already love it, this is your permission to go read it again. It’s worth it.