Philip Yancey: How can we race to show grace in a hostile world?
“People don’t perceive the Gospel as good news anymore,” renowned Christian author Philip Yancey announced matter-of-factly at the Eagles Leadership Conference last Friday. Things were different in the past though.
“We live in a culture of vanishing grace,” he continued, relating to the audience what had happened the last time he had written an article for the Huffington Post titled “What Good Is God?”
This was where he had a good taste of the hostile world, he said, and proceeded to read out several hate comments left on his story.
Best known for his books such as Reaching for the Invisible God and Where Is God When It Hurts?, Yancey was speaking on dispensing grace in a hostile world.
FROM UNGRACE TO GRACE
The world as we know it runs on what Yancey described as “ungrace”. You bomb me, I bomb you back. Most corporations don’t run on grace. Governments, schools, athletics – nothing runs on grace. “If I can’t pay my loans, the bank will show up and repossess the things I own.”
“What’s the reputation of Christians in your country?” he asked the crowd. “What would someone on the street say about Christians if I went up to ask them?”
Several suggestions were offered, and Yancey made his point: “Not one time has anyone ever said Christians represent grace, that they’re the ones who love one another.”
Across the world, wherever he speaks, he gets the same responses to this question, he explained. But isn’t dispensing grace what Jesus tasked us to do as His disciples?
“From what I see, we’re not doing a very good job at that,” Yancey said, pointing out that there are over 45,000 Christian denominations in the world, every denomination representing a slightly different doctrine. “I just wish there were 45,000 denominations competing to show grace.”
The Church has been called to be “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), as Jesus exemplified, but there is a tendency to be hard on the truth angle. And we have been so focused on getting our doctrine right, we have somehow not communicated what we were sent to do: Dispense grace.
See to it that no one misses out on God’s grace.
“Making the whole world Christian is not possible,” Yancey continued, drawing the difference between preaching the Good News everywhere and converting everyone to Christianity. “There is nothing in the Bible that shows you how to do this.
“Jesus knew it was going to be hostile, that we were always going to be a minority.”
This is where Hebrews 12:15 gives us an important directive, he said, paraphrasing the verse: “See to it that no one misses out on God’s grace.”
LOOK FOR THE “HINGE MOMENTS”
Yancey then talked about what he calls “hinge moments”, when people are exceptionally receptive to grace.
One of his friends became an Internet pastor who helped couples in need of premarital counselling but had no access to a pastor because they were not in church. Another even committed to listening to telemarketers, just so she could pray for the sales people at the end of the sales pitch.
“I’ll let you figure out how to do that in Singapore traffic,” he said with a laugh.
He broke this down into three big ways of dispensing grace in our world today: As activists, artists and pilgrims.
1. Activists: Activating movements of grace
In the old days, the best way to share the Gospel was at a rally that gathered thousands of people together, Yancey believes. But in this information age, people tend to say “so what?” to what the Bible says.
“We have so many defences now,” he said. “Head to head doesn’t work.”
Instead, the best way today is what Yancey calls the “hand to heart to head” method, where we focus on practical ways of serving people, especially those who are in need and cannot repay us, which touches their heart. And this becomes a hinge moment that gives us an opportunity to share the reason for our good deeds.
An example of an activist would be U2’s frontman, Bono, who has been doing work in Africa.
Yancey himself has interviewed Bono before, after hearing that Bono had been reading his books. After his initial trip to Ethiopia, Bono had been greatly burdened by the AIDS problem there, which affected whole communities of young children born into the condition.
Although he wasn’t a social worker, doctor or politician, God had then spoken to Bono about using his connections as a globally recognised rockstar to get the right people on board with sending help to Africa. And that’s how over US$15 billion was raised through his efforts.
“Sometimes we pray ‘God don’t you care?’ and He replies with “Yes, that’s why you’re here,” Yancey said with a smile.
Christianity, once a relatively small Jewish sect in ancient Rome, eventually took over the city as their religion when Constantine legalised it. And this was done not by sword, but by acts of compassion of the Christians on the pagans in the midst of plagues and trials.
When infanticide was the norm in ancient Rome for unwanted babies, Christians would organise platoons of wet nurses to save those left out to die of exposure on the streets. And when the bubonic plague hit, the Christians would stay behind to nurse the sick, Christian or pagan, back to health.
“The small is how we grow,” Yancey concluded. “Small pieces of salt are all that are necessary to keep the whole meat from going bad. Small yeast causes the flour to rise.
“That’s how the Church works.”
2. Artists: Reaching the heart with art
Yancey also talked about the power of the arts to create “hinge moments” that convey the message of the Gospel, which gives those who may never enter a church the chance to encounter God through visual or auditory experiences, such as in the performing arts, painting or music.
It’s a point that has also been made by Tim Keller previously:
“The Church needs artists because without art we cannot reach the world. The simple fact is that the imagination ‘gets you,’ even when your reason is completely against the idea of God.
“Imagination communicates,’ as Arthur Danto says, ‘indefinable but inescapable truth.’ Those who read a book or listen to music expose themselves to that inescapable truth.
“There is a sort of schizophrenia that occurs if you are listening to Bach and you hear the glory of God and yet your mind says there is no God and there is no meaning. You are committed to believing nothing means anything and yet the music comes in and takes you over with your imagination.
“When you listen to great music, you can’t believe life is meaningless. Your heart knows what your mind is denying. We need Christian artists because we are never going to reach the world without great Christian art to go with great Christian talk.”
The bottom line? Art can do things that sermons cannot.
3. Pilgrims: Seeking and saving the lost
In Jesus’ parables, He often referenced things that were lost – lost coins, lost sheep, lost sons – which gives us another picture of showing grace. “There are a lot of people around us who are lost,” Yancey shared. “Who don’t know why they’re here or where they’re going.”
He continued, “Christians aren’t a new category of people, we’ve just got a map. And that is good news! The joy of being found.”
So in response to this, we can, as fellow pilgrims in life, look out for those who are lost.
“Hinge moments” could occur at the birth of a baby or during times of suffering. In the ICU, nobody talks about trivialities, Yancey explained. People are open to the faith when questions we don’t normally think about come bubbling to the surface.
Personally, it helped to ask this question whenever he crossed paths with someone: “I don’t know what cross this person is bearing – how can I dispense grace to him/her?”
“It’s a tough world,” Yancey said. “A lot of people get beaten down by that. People who don’t rank, who can’t climb the ladder.
“And we’re to see to it that no one misses the grace of God. That’s our job.”
THINK + TALK
- What do you think Christians in Singapore are known for?
- What are areas in your life where you have lacked grace?
- How can you dispense more grace in your sphere of influence?