Varieties of Grace

by Penrod

Most theology students and many others know that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship (1937—1948 in English) in which he described what he called ‘cheap grace’ and contrasted it with ‘costly grace’. He was for the latter. I appreciate Bonhoeffer’s intent and I was gripped when I read his book about 40 years ago. However, I have long disliked the idea of costly grace and I have consistently touted cheap grace because how can anything be as common or inexpensive as grace? I was taught that grace is unmerited favor which is “most certainly true.”

Lately I have begun to notice how thick grace is which leads me to the term—‘thick grace’. It sounds and feels generous. Though no brief or long description can exhaust it, I know exactly what I mean by ‘thick grace’. It is the texture and thickness of the fabric of our lives. Fabric composed of friends, of daily resources, and of personal memories and experiences we enjoy that help us learn to manage and to navigate this pilgrim way. Much, surely most, of this grace is unnoticed, taken for granted. We can’t stop it so it’s in our best interest to dig around and notice what’s there.

For instance, notice how our lives are enriched by stories. We would not have a life without stories. If we are lucky, humorous characters fill our imaginations. I’ve met Uncle Wiggly Longears and Nurse Jane Fuzzy Wuzzy, the Muskrat Lady and I hope you have met them, too. In our house when we pretend to be Jeeves and Bertie Wooster (PG Wodehouse), it helps make what we are doing fun as we help one another along getting ready for the day. Playing by role playing is more fun and things go better—thick grace.

Family, education, friends, church, the Bible, the Tao, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, The Little Flowers of Saint Francis, The Desert Fathers (Merton), Martin Buber, the Dahli Lama—each is a great benefit to the soul and they are guides to understanding life with one another. Grace is very thick. It comes from memories there to be rediscovered and treasured and to be more clearly understood as we move along in life. All this is real and is the body and life of grace. Very thick.

Now as to ‘cheap grace’—that’s not such a great term and perhaps I should be less cavalier in advocating it. A friend recently suggested ‘thin grace’ as better. It is better—not an exact match, but better than ‘cheap’. Grace is both vital and precious. It is priceless and no price can be paid. Grace can be enhanced by us, thickened by the fruits of our labor and by our receptivity to grace. No matter how well, how much, or how little we do, there is likely to be plenty of grace. Which carries us square into Gospel.

The term ‘free grace’ describes a variety or aspect of grace. My beloved identified yet another variety the other day—‘sticky grace’. That did not appeal at first but I have come to understand how important it is. People who have fewer resources, less capacity, those who are more vulnerable, need grace that will stick to them. They can’t provide it, not as others can. Some have more difficulty getting around, or getting in touch with others, or handling their lives and they need sticky grace that will stick to them regardless—as much as possible. Churches provide a lot of sticky grace. Friends and relatives are major sources, partners, professional helpers, and caring institutions provide sticky grace. I submit that sticky grace is also thick.

Perhaps providence—from pro videre (Latin), “to see ahead”—underlies all grace. I don’t mean a mechanical providence or a giant script in the sky, not a super God at a great screen watching as in the most sophisticated video game and seeing to it that all the lights are green for some needy person. I mean something real. I mean all the human activity like creating, maintaining, and living in our civil society in our country. For real and in fact we have all the resources of life in nature and creation. Pro videre—is as common among humans as grace itself. Grace and pro videre (providence) can hardly be pulled apart.

We can’t do much more than scratch the surface of the thickness of grace but we experience joy and satisfaction as a result of our scratching. It is so bountifully abundant that we hardly care if we are missing something. Who can handle more? May more come to whomever needs it. Grace and peace of every sort to you, dear Reader.