Honestly thinking (& rethinking) about God, the universe, and everything in between

God Really Likes You, But You Suck: The Confusing Message of Grace

Photo by Melissa Baldwin

Photo by Melissa Baldwin

“♫ Amazing grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me ♪” We sing about it all the time. “♪ Grace, grace, God’s grace.  Grace that is greater than all my sin ♫” We talk about it. “By grace alone you have been saved.” And we offer it to each other. “Grace to you.” It is one of the most prominent messages in the church.  But do we really know what it means?

The Greek word for grace, χάρις (charis), is most often defined as “favor” and sometimes as “kindness.”  It has the implication of favor that is freely extended – and thus often defined as “unmerited favor.”

So if God really favors you a lot that should make us really feel good right? But do we?

Last week, blogger and former evangelical Christian turned atheist, Neil Carter, tweeted:

He followed that with an article on his “Godless in Dixie” blog titled “Evangelical Christianity and Low Self Esteem” in which he shares how we are shaped by the messages we continually hear, and the overall messages received through much of Christian music is learning to hate ourselves.  He goes on to say that such a message is consistent with Christian thinking, stating:

 “In order to sell this concept [the need for salvation] you have to magnify the flaws of your listeners, causing them to feel so very, very bad about themselves that they’d even be willing to swallow something like an eternal condemnation.”


While I obviously do not agree with everything Neil says in his blogs, I think he makes some good points here and this should at least give us pause.  And while he does not specifically address the word “grace,” shouldn’t such a prominent theme of God’s favor give us a different message than self-hate?  After all, aren’t we supposed to think that God’s point of view of us (which we are told is favor) is truer than our own self-perception?

But the general narrative of grace is this:

God really liked us in the beginning, but then humankind really screwed up and God has been pissed off at us ever since.  Fortunately, because of what his son Jesus did on the cross, this God who needed some kind of blood payment to be happy, was appeased enough to favor any humans who trust in Jesus.  Of course, even though God has promised to eternally put up with you, you wretched souls still need to continually ask for forgiveness and do things right; otherwise, you risk the possibility of falling out of his favor.

After all, you might be saved from hell, but you need to continually merit that unmerited favor in order to be liked.  Yippee!  Doesn’t that just make your heart go tingly and give you an overwhelming sense of joy? 

Of course, it is understood where that comes from.  In order to emphasize the “unmerited” side of grace, we often make sure to tie it with something we have done wrong first.  After all, it is not until you see how utterly undeserved you are that you can really appreciate the favor God offers you in spite of you.

Many plead for God’s grace to fall down on them, as if it is something he might withhold if we don’t continually ask for it. 

But is that really what grace is about?  Do we have an accurate definition?

2 Timothy 1:9 states, “This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time” (NIV).  The Greek for “the beginning of time” here actually is πρὸ χρόνων αἰωνίων (pro chronōn aiōniōn) which translates literally as “before time eternal.”

Did you hear that?  Before time eternal.  Which means before creation.  Which means before the fall of humankind…before the fall of anything.

Grace was given outside of anyone having done anything wrong first. 

Sure, an omniscient God, would certainly know that eventually humankind was going to do something wrong; but this verse indicates that favor was something that God desired to give beforehand.  It also indicates that grace is a part of God’s eternal character – it’s something that has always existed, currently exists and will always exist as part of his character?

Could this even mean that, since it was before the creation of anything, when there was only the Holy Trinity, that God the Father may have even offered it to the Son and the Holy Spirit?  Blapheme!  For they never did anything wrong.  But this gets at the very misunderstanding of our definition of grace.

When we say “unmerited favor” it is not that one must do something wrong first, thus unmeriting themselves, before undeserved favor is offered; instead, it is favor given that never had to be merited in the first place.

The difference seems subtle, but it is absolutely huge.  We have wrongly used “unmerited” to define grace when instead it should be used only as a characteristic of it.  It’s not a matter of God putting up with us, regardless of our rebellion or mistakes; it’s a matter of God favoring or liking us from the get go with nothing that could change that.

However, this is not what is most often taught or believed.  Many Christians live as though they are on the “edge” of grace, thinking they can easily fall out of it at any moment.  All too often when we talk of grace it is referenced in the context of failure and sin.  We overemphasize the “unmerited” part over the “favor” part and the result is a dose of uplifting favor mixed together with an often more powerful dose of down casting shame. 

To do this is the equivalent of a parent telling their child, “I really love you.  You’re actually quite an obnoxious pain to raise and don’t deserve my love, but I choose to love you anyway.”  Or someone telling their date, “You have a beautiful smile.  In actuality it’s quite ugly, but I simply choose to think of it as beautiful.”  Which part of those sentences do you think the recipient will remember the most?

And yet, this is essentially the same message that gets preached from our pulpits and the message we most often believe: “God likes you.  You really suck and there’s nothing really likable about you, but God puts up with and loves you anyway.” Our songs are the equivalent of “♪ Oh, how God really loves me, even though I am such a worm ♫” In the end, many Christians end up living schizophrenically in a sort of miserable joy.

This kind of message ignores the kind of cry that emanates from everyone’s heart, starting from early childhood.  “Does anyone like me?  Am I loved?  Do I matter?  Am I okay as I am?”  Shame sets in enough on its own without the messages of religion constantly reminding us of the inadequate failures we are.  Yet while “favor” is meant to be the primary message that is taught by the church, “unmerited” is the part most often told.  Soon enough, people begin to turn to other drastic means to feel “favored” from promiscuous love to searches for power to desperate means to fit in to forms of escape.

And as the cry to “favor me” becomes all the more desperate, the church shouts “unmerited, unmerited, unmerited!” all the more.  And when the plea to be favored ultimately gets unmet, people begin to leave the church, and leave God.

In my book Rethinking God: Because God is Bigger, Closer and More Real Than You Think I share how the things that bring about true order (against the chaos) to our world and our universe are reflections of the very character of God.  Freely given favor to others is one of those things that bring about order.  As shown by the fact God offered grace since before time eternal, God was not suddenly surprised by sin.  He didn’t go, “Oh, no, I guess I better come up with this grace thing!”

Instead grace was built into the very fabric of our universe – like cracks built into sidewalks – to allow space where things would go wrong.  God has patiently “put up” with humankind for a very long time.  I think he views humans and their potential far more favorably than we know.  And don’t you think our attitudes should match?

Now don’t get me wrong, God’s unending favor toward us in no way undermines the significance of the cross.  Far from it.  That Christ’s death on the cross and subsequent resurrection was essential for the restoration of relationship between humankind and God is absolutely true.  But it was God’s favor toward all of us that motivated such a sacrifice in the first place.  And it is God’s forgiveness offered through the cross that enables us to see God’s favor, as opposed to the unnecessary shame that we often carry which blinds us.

In addition, while God always favors us, it does not mean that God always favors our actions.  In fact it is his very favor toward us that often causes him to interfere in our actions. 

My wife and I have favored each of our four children since the moment they were conceived.  I shared in a previous post how a few years ago our eldest son lived in rebellion and we had to make the difficult decision of “tough loving” him out of the home for several months.  He had been living in direct opposition to us and there was a lot of tension in the home at that time, but never once did our son lose favor with us.  We favored him before the rebellion, we favored him during, and we will continue to favor him all the days of his life.  In fact it was our very favor towards him that motivated our asking him to leave the home in the first place – all with hopes that he would turn his life around from self-destructive behaviors and ultimately make good choices for his own future.

Now some may argue that emphasizing the favor over the unmerited part amounts to “easy grace” and does nothing to move a person away from their sins.  Yet it is the very realization of favor that helps one to avoid sin in the first place.  It was because Adam and Eve did not fully believe in God’s favor toward them that they ate the fruit.  They believed (as the serpent suggested to them) that God was somehow withholding something.  Truly believing that God has favor towards you also means believing that his rules for you are in your favor.

When our eldest rebelled it was because he did not see our favor toward him in our rules.  It was only after he learned that his own ways were not so good that he finally began to see the favor we had toward him and he returned home.  In addition, prior to that he had been unable to see our favor toward him as a person.  He struggled with feelings of shame and low self-esteem – the types of things that the “unmerited” message only tend to enhance.  Had he seen himself as the valuable, desired, and loved person that he is, I am convinced he never would have headed down a self-destructive path to begin with.  Fortunately now, he has seen his worth and value and his completely turned his life around.

Nowhere is the need to emphasize “favor” over “unmerited” better illustrated than in Jesus’ addressing of the woman caught in adultery.  He did not need to remind her of her sin (she already knew).  Instead he showed her favor by, first, helping her to see that she was not alone and, second, letting her know she was accepted and not condemned (even though he was the one person who could condemn her).  It was only after that was clear to her that, out of favor for her, he told her to stop continuing in her self-destructive behaviors.

As Jesus demonstrates, showing grace does not mean that one’s failures are never addressed.  But it does mean that one must know they are favored first and primary.  True grace does not say, “You have an ugly smile but I choose to think of it differently.”  True grace says, “You have a beautiful smile, but I wish you would show me that smile like you knew you did.” 

True grace does not say, “God loves you, but you suck.”  True grace says, “God loves you and he wishes you lived in a way that shows how much you knew that.”  True grace is what ultimately brings us much closer to God.

Do we always need to maintain a sobering perspective of our sinful, and sometimes even wretched, behavior in relation to God?  Sure.  But we are all mostly well aware of it and don’t always need to be reminded.  And it is only when we realize that when God looks at us he does not see “wretch,” but instead sees “beautiful child” that we can see his grace as truly amazing.

So to whomever is reading this let me say this to you:

God favors you.

Which means he really, really likes you.  He is crazy about and adores you.

He even adores those crazy quirks about you.

When you see unlovable, he sees lovable.

When you see screw-up, he sees potential.

When you see ugly, he sees beautiful.

When you see weak, he sees strong.

When you see worthless, he sees priceless.

As the Psalmist proclaims, “For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime” (Psalm 30:5a, NIV).  You are one of his favorites.

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  1. Bob Meade

    Amen to everything you’ve said. So I only want to add this thought: I’ve always struggled with the orthodox definitions of grace as “unmerited” and “favor” – it has seemed to me that this defines “love.” To me “grace” is “the power and desire to be in a two-way relationship with God.” Grace is something He gives us, and without it, we are unable to desire Him because we are so self-focused, and we are unable to follow Him because we pretty much just follow our own desires. So when God gives us His grace, suddenly we see beyond ourselves, and we begin to desire Him, and in time we desire to follow Him.

    • Steve Baldwin

      Thanks, Bob. That’s a great perspective.

  2. RealityCheck

    Oh hell, God punished me the day that i was born.

    • Steve Baldwin

      I’m sorry to hear you feel that way. Care to elaborate?

  3. ThisIsWhyManyOfUsGoodMenAreStillSingleToday

    Well the very sad thing is that God never gave a good single man like me a good wife and family that he gave to so many billions of other people on this earth, and i never expected to be a single man at all in the first place since i was never that fortunate to find that special woman that would just be able to Accept me for who i really am. Even God doesn’t have any control at all over the women of today that have really changed from the past when love back in the old days was much easier to find with no trouble at all the way that our family members had it. It is just too very bad that God didn’t make women just like the old days that were the very complete opposite of what they’re today which really explains why i am still single, and i know friends that are going through the very same thing right now and feel just as bad as i do too.

  4. Eldon DeBoer

    The Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ illustrates, demonstrates and communicates powerfully the grace of God!

    Just meditate and ponder the teachings of John 1:14-18; Romans 5:1-11 and 2 Corinthians 8:9.

    • Honestly Thinking

      Agreed. I especially love the Corinthians one: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”

      That is AMAZING grace.

      • Eldon DeBoer

        Most definitely and infinitely AMAZING GRACE!

  5. Gordon

    God does not favor most people. Those who die without converting to Christianity will be denied repentance, will have their love judged to be filthy rags, wil have their sins made infinite to justify punishing them infinitely, and will then be eternaly damned. Any temporal ‘favor’ they experienced on earth does nothing in eternity but highlight their torment by contrast. When it comes to those who turn out to be wrong about Christiaity, “The only reason God permits good, pleasure and happiness is so that people can know what they are missing when they are in pain.”
    The immense negativity and self-hatred in the Christian message transmitted in song is what lubricates the acceptance of eternal damnation upon those in other faiths who are better people than you: everyone must be lowered to barely-contained degeneracy to justify the unattainable standard that Christianity puts on humanity that prompts God’s barely-contained desire to see them in torment, which they can’t escape if they die in the incorrect faith and don’t get their Jesus-Card.
    Without the threat of eternal hell, Christianity has nothing to offer the world.
    This is why the world hates Christ: he came having already condemned all humanity for not being his followers, to save those who become his followers (John 3:18). Jesus first summoned fiery serpents to bite us forever, but then raises himself as the brazen serpent for those who obey him in exchange for the antivenom (John 3:14).

    • Steve Baldwin

      Thanks for your input, Gordon. Your take on Christianity is certainly one I don’t even recognize and very different than the Jesus I’ve met. I would be curious to hear your story of what got you to this place.

      • Gordon

        I’d bet my take on the Soviet Union is certainly one that Marx wouldn’t recognize and very different from the future he imagined, but you don’t need to hear from me to learn about Communism, do you?

        My personal story actually speaks against my case: I was born into and still live in a very safe and ideal environment for me, and saw benefit in the evil I speak against. I won’t speak of myself further.

        It is not actions that speak louder than words, but end-game results that speak louder than political gestures.

        In the rest of this argument, when I say God ‘does something,’ this encompasses all the loopholes apologists use, such as ‘lovingly permit’ ‘forsee but create anyway’ or ‘withdraw his grace, resulting in…’ ‘pass over some leaving them to…’ I don’t buy it.
        God does not ‘let go of the hammer and let you experience the consequencea of the laws of physics’.
        God “drops the hammer on your toes.” No soft language.
        When Jesus saves the world, but then effectively damns all parts of it that aren’t Christian, he’s actually damning the non-Christian world. They were not damned before; such thing is not in Moses’ law.
        John 3:14 is clear: God’s love for the world is only a partial consolation to some of those whom he condemned for what is natural to being human, such as not being born twice, just as in the Exodus story, when the people cried out that they were doing to die a horrible death of thirst, a pretty natural thing, God really gave something to cry about: horrible death by snake venom. Everyone who died before Moses lifted up the bronze snake was doomed to die. They had no chance. God pinned them, found a reason to hurt them, and hurt them. John 3:18 repeats this message. God arranged that Adam sin and then forced a sinful nature onto everyone except for himself. Once he did that, he waited for them to inevitably sin and then condemns them with that which he decided would be the wages of sin: eternal life in hell.
        God created this new Law that Paul made up. Sin couldn’t exist without the law. In fact, the law does nothing whatsoever but make certain actions sinful and worthy of eternal life on hell.
        If God decided to do something else instead of creating a trap that we cannot avoid falling into, he wouldn’t have us in his grasp so that the political gesture of killing a human body of himself and napping for three days as some excuse so that your religion is good people who go to heaven, and everyone else are bad people who do to hell. Because they aren’t one of us (John 3:18). Do you not understand how cruel and demented you depict God to be in how you translate scripture?
        Now if you translated “the name” in John 3:18 to HaShem, or God’s character, you could remove at least one pillar of this evil you ascribe to God, but that would be inclusivism, and that’s unacceptable.
        Everything you say that Jesus is saving us from, eternal life in hell, is his own doing, his own setup. His trap that you blame us all for springing, looking away from the fact that you cannot unspring or avoid springing the trap.
        My own words aren’t even needed any more.
        “Is God limited or constrained in anyway? No, he does as he pleases. He invented every atom on this planet from scratch, he devised the narrative of our history, and he defined sin and set the parameters for its punishment. No force outside of God is forcing him to punish us. No one but God requires a blood sacrifice for sin. He, and only he, makes the rules. According to God, you must serve and love him, or you will suffer for all time.”
        “Any person possessing critical thinking skills can understand that a magnificently powerful god would have no incentive, interest, or even the slightest inclination to inflict pain and suffering on dead people.”
        “Justice which demands eternal punishment for anything is not justice, but vengeance, cruelty, and hate. I tell you straight, this just God of yours is nothing but the reflection of your own dirty mind, which is still back in the days when they hanged a woman for stealing ribbon. You may twist yourself into philosophic knots as much as you like, and pile up explanations that don’t explain to your heart’s content, but you cannot get over the fact that a “justice” which demanded everlasting punishment for anything would be just another name for inhuman brutality. That is all this divine “justice” is, it is a survival, a superstition in the worst sense.”

        • Steve Baldwin

          I appreciate the follow-up. You speak much about what you think I believe – even putting words in my mouth. Regardless, rather than hearing what is wrong about I or others believe, I am much more interested to know what YOU actually believe. What is your explanation for the world, life, etc.?

          • Gordon

            I’m just telling you what the Bible says. The words aren’t in your mouthm but they are between the lines in the book when read traditionally.
            Are you ACTUALLY interested in what I believe, or just interested in breaking it down, in the way that I am interested in breaking down what the Bible says? I can yet only tell you more about what I don’t believe than what I do believe. Negative theology is much less prone to error than any other sort, and much safer. Describing what God is not is more suited to those like myself who still need a “solid foundation” to cling to for a sense of safety and haven’t matured past the fear of speculation and independent thought that Christian modernism (not post-modernism) has been drilled into me. I don’t have a dogmatic equation or systematic theology to present to you, if that’s what you’re asking. That’s like telling me to point the center of the earth on a wall map.

          • Steve Baldwin

            I genuinely am interested in what you believe. #1 because I value differing opinions as it helps me grow. #2 because it would help me better understand the points you are making. I confess, I’ve struggled to decipher some of what you’ve said because I’m unclear if you are A) a Christian who has problems with the way other Christians have interpreted scripture snd their own faith; B) someone who believes in God but has a problem with Christianity; or C) someone who does not believe in God and has a problem with religion overall (or D, some other variation of above).

            I commend you for avoiding dogmatic equations. I’ve come to a point where I believe there is much more mystery to it all. At the same time I would encourage you to take that same approach in interpreting scripture. In the 35+ years since I became a Christian, I have read and studied scripture cover to cover dozens of times (at least reading through once per year +multiple individual book studies) and I still come up with a very different read than you, as well as have continually evolved on it. Not that mine is right and yours is wrong, but your statement of “what the Bible says” is actually what Gordon says the Bible says. I’ve come to believe there’s a lot more mystery to what the Bible says and that much of it was written with the intention of being read that way.

            I appreciate the conversation. I would also encourage you to read https://www.honestlythinking.org/we-should-be-naked-why-religion-is-a-symptom-and-not-the-solution/ if you ever have some time as it gives an example of how I read the purpose of atonement differently, though I suppose I have even evolved on some of that since I wrote it.

Tell me what you honestly think. Keep it respectful to all (no insults, personal attacks, etc).

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