Economy of Grace

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.

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5 comments

  1. Laura · November 29, 2012

    There’s always a micro and a macro scale in which to “practice” grace. “Better than they deserve” is of course relative to what “we” think “they” “deserve”. There is quite a lot of history on the micro and macro levels of inequality. There is also something to be said about the way we benefit from the oppression of others, and our complicity in those systems and interactions. Being wise in practicing how to treat others “better than they deserve” means being a good listener and learning about those complex histories. Grace and/or “equality” is not about sameness, it’s about appreciating the differences and building the other up, which hopefully means being aware of where they started.

    • roadgeon · November 29, 2012

      You make some good points Laura. There is an oppressive inequality which is evil and graceless. Equality and inequality have a lot in connection with justice. Now justice includes equality, but I think it includes much more. How justice relates to grace is something I still struggle with.

      Reading your comment makes me think of the recent fire in the clothing factory in Bangladesh, which has been on my mind a lot. Could the American lifestyle we have come to feel we deserve exist without inequality? One could blame the companies, but we are the ones clamoring for sales. While we don’t run Foxconn, we are the ones who rush to buy the newest iPhone. We share some complicity in the system. How should grace play out on the macro level there?

  2. Laura · November 30, 2012

    Yeah, great questions. And yes, grace does not let us off the hook of justice (in our practice of it). Justice is just the base line under which grace would not fall. How would you answer your own questions? (And yes, I am what is wrong with the world, as are we.)

    • Caleb · December 1, 2012

      You will have to find someone wiser than me to answer the questions. They are ones that I frequently try to shove out of my mind. One could buy local, become a fixer, buy used, and knit their own sweaters. Yet this feels like a tiny cog in a large, complex machine. For example, the people who benefit most from cheaply produced clothes, besides Walmart execs., are poor people in the U.S. Eating organic sounds great until you live on a fixed income. Should we strive for mathematical equality with the people who make stuff for us? Should every Bangladeshi should have the opportunity to have two cars, a flat screen TV, and a smart phone. I don’t think so. What should they have then?

      Moving on to Foxconn. The assembly line is a wonderful invention and has done so many great things. But what does it do to the human soul? It doesn’t matter if I get paid better than most people in my country, if I had to solder the same wires every ten-seconds, eight hours a day, I would consider killing myself. However, that is just me. Maybe some people like that.

      It is one thing to correct a personal sin. What do you do when evil is woven into a system? How do you remove the evil without causing the system to collapse, a system that many people rely on? Think of slavery in the South. Instantly freeing all the slaves would not have been a good plan. The economy would have collapsed and you would have had many Africans without a place to live or food to eat. Emancipation did happen in the midst of a total upheaval of Southern culture. The result was still that many Africans were forced into the virtual slavery of share-cropping. Answers are not easy to come by. There are so many systems like this in the world that it seems daunting to deal with.

  3. Matthew Bible · February 15, 2013

    You guys bring up a lot of interesting questions. Caleb, your initial post reminds me of the fundamental Biblical principle that we’re supposed to be comparing our actions, and in this case specifically our treatment of others, not with the actions of others but with God’s desire for our actions.

    As for taking on corrupt systems I don’t think there are any perfect answers. God does not give us answers for questions that are not our problem. That sounds escapist, but what I mean is that we need to be careful not take on responsibility that God is not trying to give us. Take Foxconn for instance. I see two situations: First, God is putting it on your heart out of a desire to have you take the actions you can take and which you feel you should take before Him. That might include prayer, or not buying iphones. Secondly, God wants you to “solve” the problem, and He will give you the means to do that. I see no situation in which God asks you to shoulder the entire burden of the situation while giving you no real means with which to affect it.
    My point here is that it’s easy to make ourselves feel good in a morbid/emo sort of way by shouldering burdens God never meant us to carry. Rather, focus on what you can do in the situation God has placed you in, since God will never ask you to do what you can’t.
    Biblically, this is held up by the examples of people like Joseph, Esther, and Daniel. They all had situations in the heart of powerful empires who promoted everything from slavery to pagan worship, yet although they did nothing (as far as we know) to remedy those issues on a global level they are held up as shining examples of those who did the best they could in the situations in which God placed them. Again, God saved and honored Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego for being shining examples of unwavering principle. He did not rebuke them for not extinguishing pagan worship among the rest of the empire.

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