Sunday Sermon: Take the Grace

Nineteenth-Century England produced many greater poets than Francis Thompson and many, many better poems than “The Hound of Heaven.” But it probably didn’t produce a better metaphor for God’s grace than this now-mostly-forgotten, 182-line divine Gothic romance first published in 1890.

The poem is largely built around a single metaphor: God is a bloodhound who chases the author down to offer His grace. The author wants nothing more than to reject God, His love, and His grace, and he runs to the corners of the earth–and beyond–in order to avoid having to receive God’s freely offered gift. The poem begins,

I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter. 5
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.

God, of course, hunts the author down and transforms from persistent bloodhound into beautiful lover, which is when the poem gets really weird. But it is the premise, not the conclusion, that has always fascinated me. Maybe because I can see my own actions in those of the poet. I know what it is like to run away from grace.

I wouldn’t have called it that at the time, I saw it simply as a godly form of guilt for what I imagined to be my horrible sins and my deeply flawed nature. I was right about that. I have committed horrible sins, and I do have a deeply flawed nature. But it took me a long time to realize that the whole point of grace–which Latter-day Saints often dismiss out of a doctrinally incoherent desire not to sound too much like Protestants–is that none of that matters when it comes to God’s love.

God loves us because He is good, not because we are good. And by “good” here I also mean not because we have faith in the proper things or because we have correctly checked off all of the boxes on the repentance scorecard in ways that make us transactionally eligible for the Atonement. The Atonement is not a transaction. It is an act of pure love and grace that doesn’t have a checklist.

Nor–and this has taken me most of my life to figure out–is it mediated through an institution, no matter how divine or inspired the institution is or claims to be. A church is a place that we go to experience God’s love through other people–and to help other people experience God’s love through us. It is not where we go to qualify for love or forgiveness or grace. And it should never be, though it sometimes is, a place that we go to hide from the Hound of Heaven–or from God’s desire to love us directly and without conditions.

So, why do we run away? That, I think, is the question at the heart of Francis Thompson’s poem. Why do we say to God things like, “thank’s for the Atonement and the grace and all, but, if it’s all the same with you I’ll just sit here and wallow in my awfulness and obsess about what a sinful and unlovable wretch I am.” It’s almost like we would rather be alone in our sinful and unlovable wretchedness than reconciled to infinitely loving parents who will go anywhere and do anything to bring us back into their arms. In some bizarre and self-defeating way, we feel more comfortable when we are not loved.

And this, I am beginning to suspect, is what “sin” really means. We sin, not when we eat the wrong fruit or choose the wrong church, but when we persist in rejecting the love and forgiveness that are offered freely and without conditions. We sin when we use our agency to remain separate from the source of love. The consequence of that sin–and it is a true consequence and not a divine punishment–is that we don’t experience the divine love that we do everything in our power not to experience.

Except, even then, we do. This is the point of the Hound of Heaven. The divine love is so great that, even when we are in the process of actively rejecting it, God is chasing us down–relentlessly pursuing us with grace. Our job is simply to take what is offered. Take the grace and be reconciled with a love beyond our capacity to imagine. Allow ourselves to be loved in spite of our messed-up, broken, rebellious, profane, sinful, and devilish human nature. And, when we finally figure this out, to love as magnanimously and unconditionally as we are loved.

Comments

  1. I’m having difficulty responding because I can’t see the keyboard.

  2. I have time for this message even while I’m running. Thank you.

    It has taken me well into my second life to come to peace with the idea that the institution’s ‘failure’ to mediate is not really a failure but not its job. Even if it sometimes claims otherwise.

  3. Beautiful and true words, Michael. There are a couple of points that I would write differently, I think; I don’t think God loves us in spite of our “our messed-up, broken, rebellious, profane, sinful, and devilish human nature”; I think He loves us as sinners. This is who we are, and His grace encompasses all evil as it actually is. That doesn’t mean His loved isn’t there to enable us to become something other than sinners, because obviously it is, but the becoming is irrelevant to the loving, I believe. Not that you’re saying anything different! So again, wonderful post.

  4. What am I doing to reject the love and forgiveness, if not by eating the wrong kind of fruit?

  5. I love the thought, Mike. I just find it hard to get it wrapped around my soul—completely. The Augustinian coatings seem too thick there. Can I really be saved in that state of mind? Maybe I guess. I’m a Puritan at heart perhaps. But I love the thought. Love it.

  6. your food allergy is fake says:

    “It is not where we go to qualify for love of forgiveness or grace.”
    I have noticed recently an increased usage of this word “qualify” from our leaders, when speaking of exaltation. It is in the new YW theme, for example. It’s possible that it hasn’t actually increased in usage, but what has definitely increased is the visceral repulsion I experience when I encounter it. Really a horrible word that belongs nowhere near God’s gift to us, in my opinion.

  7. wvs’s Puritan reference reminds me that it’s almost obligatory these days to point out that LDS teachings about multiple degrees of glory and exaltation beyond salvation is an answer or challenge to “the love and forgiveness that are offered freely and without conditions.” My approach is to think the historical Mormon soteriology is incomplete, is just part of the story. (Thinking of jokes with a punch line “shhh, those are the Mormons, they think they’re the only ones here.”) But I know my views are heterodox or worse.

  8. re. “qualify” a frequency chart by decades shows steady increase in usage at General Conference, more than doubling sine the 1980s. There is more variation than a simple progression year by year, of course.

  9. Michael Austin says:

    Chris–what if the different degrees of glory are the result of agency (what an individual freely chooses) rather than merit (what an individual deserves and receives as the result of a judgment)? What if, in other words, God shows us all of the alternatives, and we self-select into the one that makes us the happiest? Or what if terms like “Celestial Kingdom,” etc. are just short-hand ways to describe a set of relationships and agreements that we enter into, rather than physical places that we inhabit? I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that the current, orthodox view of salvation places a moral hierarchy on what is really a description of different preferences. Or, at least, that we are capable of understanding very little of what happens in eternity, so we have constructed it to look like a typical high school with permanent class assignments because that is what we know.

  10. Michael, I think free choice is a helpful start, but to really build out a theory that works I think we need a larger vision of relationships (as the second half of your question/proposal begins to do) with a good dose of eternal progression. Agency and choice take me too much in the direction of individual atomistic salvation, whereas (I believe) one of Joseph Smith’s innovations or religious genius was pointing us toward a relational concept of heaven. We’ve tied ourselves in knots making it about marriage and about limited choice in this life, but it might be possible to extract general principles from the problematic specifics.

    When I say “Mormon soteriology is incomplete” I am thinking relational + complexity + choice + progression = big(ger) picture.

  11. Exactly. Now…let’s have a discussion about how “apostles of the Lamb” can consistently and repeatedly get something as essential as this so terribly wrong. Let’s talk about what that implies about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

  12. Lofty thoughts for sure. One might do well to review Chapter 19 of the Gospel Principles manual.

  13. Jc, I definitely hear you. I’ve asked myself that same question many times about a lot of issues. But in my most charitable moments, I guess I want to say that this implies that apostles of the Lamb are humans like me who both absorb and reflect their cultural and historical backgrounds, their received religious notions, their preconceptions and biases, their fixations and blindspots, and on and on, along with, somewhere in there, some ineffable revealed truth filtered through all of those at once and expressed in a finite language.

    Sometimes I think they darn well could and should be doing better. And maybe I would do better myself or maybe I wouldn’t. But it’s been a while since I’ve expected that apostles of the Lamb, be they true apostles or no, would necessarily get things right, or that being an apostle means that God instantly reveals to them how things really work—any more than that was the case for, say, Peter and Paul. (We could probably make quite a list of things they got pretty wrong, in hindsight.)

    Just my own thoughts when I’m feeling charitable. (Which sure isn’t all the time.)

  14. I’ve never had the impression it was overly difficult to love ourselves else Christ wouldn’t have referenced it when giving the second great commandment. I think church leaders understand the concept of grace just fine, a concept so important it’s described in True to the Faith, the book given to all children 8 and up and new converts. I may not personally understand grace as well as I would like, but I view that as a personal challenge not institutional failure.

  15. Michael Austin, Chistian Kimball
    Thoughtful discussion. I think that Doctrine and Covenants 88:36-40 (and verses beyond) give credence to the idea that our post mortal, post “judgment” state is determined more by what we have become as an expression of what we love most after experiencing the grace that God offers, and after all of the experiences we have had to choose through, and all of the opportunities for the next “thousand years” that God knows we need in order to choose freely, wholly seeing God as God is, and ourselves as we are (as Paul said, “know as we are known”). In these Doc. & Cov verses the process is much more organic and unfolding and ongoing and natural than the verb “to qualify” can encompass. And those verses support the understanding that the variety of post mortal existence is much more complex and nuanced and perfectly fitted than three lumped together degrees of glory.

    As for grace, I have found the following helpful in my understanding. The 1820 Websters Dictionary defines grace as “a ready willingness to help”. That definition is listed as “archaic”
    in the modern dictionary sitting on my shelf. But that definition seems fully consistant with the idea that God’s grace is God’s total, ready, willingness to help. And when God is so filled with love that it is said that God IS love, and God is glorious, and powerful, and full of light, that ready willingness to help, that grace, is mind-blowingly amazing on this journey when we begin to comprehend it.

  16. Michael Austin, I’m very uncomfortable with your verbal self-flagellation: “I have committed horrible sins, and I do have a deeply flawed nature.” First, I find it difficult to believe that your sins are so horrible. Your attitude seems almost medieval. But more importantly, whatever your sins may be, they are between you, God, and person you sinned against.

    I personally find it difficult to understand the need for an Atonement. Since I don’t believe in a Fall (a literal Adam, Eve, and Eden), doesn’t that negate the reason for an Atonement? Thus understanding grace is personally difficult.

    Since I’m 74, I’ve seen the Church move from an emphasis on works, to a more pronounced interest in grace. Beside yourself, it seems like the BYU religion department has emphasized grace as part of their feelers to the Christian right. Not a group I’m comfortable with. I understand that just because the Christian right emphasizes grace that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also. But I’m still concerned with the company we keep. If their concept of grace works for you, that’s great. I personally like MB’s willingness to examine the old definition of grace: “a ready willingness to help”.

  17. I’ve always been aware that, as MB and Roger Hansen suggest, there is tension between older Latter-day Saint teachings and the doctrine of grace. In fact, grace has often served as a foil in the way we talk about God’s purposes. My own journey to embracing the doctrine of grace was a fairly long one, with several unexpected turns in the road. Nonetheless, I am entirely at peace with the essential Mormonness of the doctrine of grace. I read Michael’s beautiful post as a pure expression of Latter-day Saint faith.

    I feel sure that our increased openness to the doctrine of grace is due largely to Ezra Taft Benson’s emphasis on the Book of Mormon thirty years ago. His teachings set members of the church to reading the Book of Mormon more seriously than we ever had, on the whole. And what did we find when we did that? We found that our common Mormon wisdom could not entirely accommodate what that book says about atonement and grace.

    Like Roger Hansen, I’m not especially happy about political alignment with conservative Christianity. But it would be a huge mistake to see the rise of the doctrine of grace among Mormons as simply a political development. I hope that we will not conflate these things. The doctrine of grace is a key to accepting God’s love, and love is ultimately what we must rely on as a force for peace.

    In response to Roger Hansen’s comment on the Atonement and the Fall: I’m agnostic about the literal historicity of Eden and the Fall. However, humanity’s fallen nature is a real thing. Mormonism’s extreme optimism about the potential for humanity is good. It is beautiful that such optimism can exist alongside and complicate the reality of our fallenness. We have perhaps carried that optimism a little too far if we have allowed it to crowd out the idea of fallenness. We rightly hope that atonement and the promise of eternal progression will defeat the Fall, but in this imperfect life, there is not a perfect solution; there is always only hope and faith and love.

  18. I came to a strong version of grace on my own, long ago. I think. Certainly not anything to do with the Christian Right. For quite some time I thought that strong version separated me irrevocably from Mormon orthodoxy. Adam Miller’s “Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan: An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul’s Letter to the Romans” and Martin Luther’s “An Introduction to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans” all of which led to rereading the letter to the Romans, persuaded me otherwise. Grace as a backup plan (cf Adam Miller) is difficult to integrate. Grace as the starting point works. In Miller’s words: “Grace is not God’s response to sin. Sin is our embarrassed, improvised, rebellious rejection of God’s original grace.”

  19. Re: the Fall, I see it as a metaphor that doesn’t describe well the way that Mormonism sees eternal progress. We didn’t become less upon arriving in our mortal bodies; we took a step forward. We were born imperfect, struggling, infantile in our understanding, but not fallen. Grace, if it is a “ready willingness to help”, seems to accompany well the image of us as spiritual toddlers: our patient eternal parents stand by with a ready willingness to help us as we take our unsteady steps forward.

  20. ” It’s almost like we would rather be alone in our sinful and unlovable wretchedness than reconciled to infinitely loving parents who will go anywhere and do anything to bring us back into their arms. In some bizarre and self-defeating way, we feel more comfortable when we are not loved.

    And this, I am beginning to suspect, is what “sin” really means. We sin, not when we eat the wrong fruit or choose the wrong church, but when we persist in rejecting the love and forgiveness that are offered freely and without conditions.”

    This tremendous Michael, thank you. I have three thoughts/questions
    1. I suspect also that grace IS simply the love of God. We become more like God not only by accept that grace, but by giving grace. None of us qualify fully in this, but maybe we can never learn how to love without being in situations where we are imperfect or even really bad at it. The atonement is a unifying love, unconditional. The covenant path is the means, like the Mosaic Law a framework work or type of schoolmaster, but is not the thing itself. With proxy ordinance work and ongoing teaching/learning after this life, the framework will be made available to all. But it is the love that brings us there. More of a process than a transaction. Thrones, kingdoms, principalities, powers, dominions… to follow the declension found in D&C 132:19, can all be mimicked by the adversary or in ourselves (our own worst enemy?). But the final thing that can’t be duplicated is the exaltation, because that has to do simply with what God is, which is love. I love MB’s reference to knowing as we are known… there is no accident that Paul’s great sermon on charity concludes with this reference to exaltation.

    2. Is it possible we hide from grace because it is so terrifying to acknowledge that we are so completely able to succeed or even survive without it?

    3. It’s not too weird that God becomes a lover in the poem. Isaiah totally rocked that vibe again and again.

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