Economy carries with it the idea of exchange. Nations exchange goods. At work we exchange labor for money and at the store we exchange money for what we want to buy. Exchange occurs in other ways besides those that concern money and good. Relationships involve a large amount of exchange. Many of the things exchanged in relationships are not physical, tangible objects. An economy then exist within our relationships with other people. This brings the question, what kind of economy do we want to have? When we look at the Bible we find that its economy is quite different from that of the world.
Take Matthew 5:38-42 for example, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” This is not at all an equal exchange. Neither is the exchange fair in the parable in which the king forgives the man who has a huge debt. Jesus tells us to forgive a person who wrongs us seventy times seven times. A law of equal exchange would say that we pay them back one-for-one, each time they wronged us.
When it comes to our own sins, Jesus takes the punishment for them and then forgives us. Furthermore, he gives us his righteousness and His Spirit. Anything that we could give him in return is a drop in the ocean of what he give to us. The inequality of the exchange is enormous.
Bono has made an interesting distinction between grace and karma. Karma is the idea that what goes around comes around, like a universal law that makes everything equal. We attacked you, so you attack us. You ripped me off, so I am going to rip you off. We love to be the agents of karma, making sure that people get what we believe they deserve. Grace, however, interrupts the cycle of karma. It keeps people from getting what they deserve. The economy of Christians is not one of karma, but one of grace.
The economy of grace is hard to grasp, not in the sense of understanding it, but in practicing it. When we give of ourselves, we want something in return. When someone wrongs us, we want to make it even. Though I am not married, I understand that living in this way with your spouse is a sure way to disaster. “I’ll pull my weight only if they will pull theirs” is the way to failure. But this economy of grace encompasses not just the marriage relationship, but all relationships.
One reason that it is so hard to practice an economy of grace is that we are insecure. “If I take the time to really listen to this person, who will listen to me when I need someone.” “If I expend emotional and physical energy for this person, will I have enough left for myself.” “What if they reject me.” “If I don’t strike back, won’t they learn to take advantage of me.” There is certainly a danger of relationships where one person takes advantage of the other; the husband who abandons his wife and family for his career or the friend who is an emotional black hole. However, I think the danger it is less than we fear. We forget that God is watching out for us. It is ultimately Christ that meets our needs and not other people.
Another reason an economy of grace is difficult to practice is that it is at odds with our economic system. How the two should relate is something that I don’t quite understand. My only sense is that the emphasis we place on squeezing the most out of every financial transaction doesn’t match well with the economy of grace. Getting the best deal or the most for the least amount of money should not be the whole equation. That applies to the way that businesses pay their employees too.
My final comment on an economy of grace is that it promotes relational inequality. Consequently, equality is not the highest value. I think that equality between the sexes and between racial/cultural groups is not as important as it is often made. When we obsessively promote equality between people who are black, white, etc. we can unintentionally reinforce the idea of karma. White people are treated this way so black people must be treated exactly the same, point-for-point. Instead we should seek to treat each person, regardless of skin color, sex, or culture as creatures created in the image of God, to the best of our ability. Each individual should not be treated as they deserve, according to the law of equality and karma, but better than they deserve, according to the law of inequality and of grace. I find it the case that when I am with a person who is different and I focus on treating him or her as equal to others, that is when I end up treating the person the most unequally. When I focus on him or her as a human being, the equality issue tends to take care of itself.
That wraps up my thoughts on the economy of grace. A subject far harder to practice than it is to write about.