When I was in graduate school, one of my assignments was to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Let me tell you, for a girl who liked to keep up appearances, that took courage. I pulled into the parking lot of the Methodist church where the group was meeting just as the sun was setting. I wanted a T-shirt that said “Not Addicted! Just a Student” or “Counselor-in-Training.” My complete discomfort with the situation said more about me than it did about AA.
I slipped into the back pew of the church as the meeting began. A beautiful, well-dressed woman in her fifties came to the microphone and began to share her story. She was honest. She was funny. She didn’t take herself seriously, but she took her need for Jesus and for recovery very seriously.
As I listened to her speak, I was struck by my own fear about merely attending this meeting as a bystander. I hadn’t even wanted to enter the church, for fear of what it would look like to “need” an AA meeting. I realized it takes great courage to admit that we need help. I realized that people sitting in an AA meeting might be braver than most of us.
Thankfully, I’ve grown a little since then, mostly in my own understanding of how messed up I really am. But here’s the problem: Most of us don’t like grace. You might think of grace as forgiveness, kindness, or love. You might think of grace as the patience that allows us to accept one another in our imperfections. Maybe you think of a Bible-word definition—that grace is about the sacrifice Jesus made for us on the cross that allows us access to eternal life. In some way, grace is all of these things, but grace is also so much more. To be brave enough to accept the full liberating power of grace, we have to understand what grace does, why we need it so desperately, and how it changes us so completely.
Acknowledging that we need grace is admitting that we have weaknesses we can’t fix. It’s admitting that there are broken parts in us that are beyond our repair. And I don’t mean “beyond repair,” as in, “Jesus take the wheel this one time, but then I’ll be fine after that.” I’m talking about beyond our repair every single day. That’s right. I believe there are places in you—and in me—that are beyond our repair. We may have desperately tried to put them back together and then decided that our repairs will have to be good enough. Many of us have given up on the idea that the way we live requires great courage and that the way we think, feel, and experience the world matters to God. Many of us are settling for good enough when God’s looking for brave enough—brave enough to be different women on the inside and out—because of this remarkable grace.
The Key to Courage
When we come face-to-face with these broken parts of our hearts, our first response is often fear. Fear has no power until we give it control, until we decide that what it says is true and we must take action on it. Then fear becomes the captor of our souls. Fear keeps us stuck and small. Fear makes us treat the world with suspicion. Fear makes us doubt God’s goodness. Fear is the little whisper that tells each of us, Look out for yourself. Fear sidles up next to us and says, God doesn’t listen. Fear sneaks in and suggests, You’ll never make it. Fear says, God is against you.
And when those voices get loud, we respond. We might go about our day with distracted and worried minds. We might choose to be silent when we want to speak up. We might ignore our heart’s longing for adventure and purpose and choose the comfortable and known path instead. We might try to justify away our weakness. It’s as if we try drinking saltwater to quench our thirst. It feels good for the brief seconds it goes down, but it leaves us parched, dry, and desperate.
Fear sometimes drives us to take matters into our own hands. It reminds me of a story a friend once told me about her grandfather, who was fascinated with radios. His condo was full of broken radios that he insisted on keeping, thinking that the transistor from one would fix the other; that he could cobble the broken parts together and make an old radio new. But despite his good intentions—he just owned broken radios.
Our hearts can be just like that—a storeroom of broken stuff, full of mismatched bits and broken pieces. But we keep adding to the pile, thinking that more life experiences will help us sort out and fix all the broken pieces. We are desperately holding out for the one piece we need to fix ourselves. The problem is, the right piece isn’t in our hearts, and it’s not something we can find on our own. The missing piece—grace—comes from outside ourselves.
Brave-enough women acknowledge that they’ve tried to fix themselves and yet that hasn’t led to the change they seek. They understand that they need something outside of themselves to tell them who they really are, to actually set them free. Remember the story of the paralytic in Luke 5? When his friends dropped him in front of Jesus, the Lord looked at that disabled man and decided it was more important for him to know that his sins were forgiven than it was for him to be able to walk. Before the paralytic was changed physically, he was healed spiritually. And Jesus told him that forgiveness would give him tharseo, or courage. New legs were not the key to courage. Grace was the key, and grace is still the key.
Jesus considers our receptivity to his love and forgiveness critically important. It’s as if embracing our weak, sinful selves is the actual solution to our problems. He meant it when he said that we would find our life—our full, joyful, free life—when we receive him as the only way, when we receive his gift of forgiveness for ourselves. It’s this wacky, upside-down epiphany: Honesty about our failure is the key to courage.
I was talking with a friend about the kind of grit required to face the truth of our own sin. As we shared stories about how we’ve come face-to-face with our need for grace, we both shrugged our shoulders about the mystery of it all. Sometimes God draws us to our failures and then seems to serve the ball into our court, giving us the opportunity to get brave enough to change. And sometimes when all we feel is broken, small, and powerless, God arrives right on time with the strength we need to believe in his powerful love and kindness. Sometimes we need courage to accept grace. And sometimes we need courage to act on it. Most of the time, I need courage for both.
Because it does take great courage to admit that we feel broken on the inside and cannot fix ourselves, we are tempted to try and handle our limitations by ourselves. Sometimes we try to make it better by being okay with our brokenness. When someone bemoans something she said or did, we like to tell her: “You need to give yourself some grace.”
I told myself this as I was driving home from work recently. I was playing out a personal horror movie in my mind, as I like to do sometimes. I was creating ominous scenes of the future stemming from my own failing and sin. I was thinking that maybe being in ministry was ruining my kids and they would despise me as adults. I was thinking of how I wasn’t a good enough mom, wife, or sister. I was thinking of all the things I should have been doing. It was terrifying. It was a worst-case scenario for how my own actions could ruin the lives of everyone around me. Sound dramatic? It was. I finally snapped out of it, interrupting my depressing mental movie montage with this thought: You need to give yourself some grace.
Then I had a thought, a thought that ended up being very true and very helpful: I am unable to give myself the kind of grace I need.
You see, even the phrase “You need to give yourself grace” leaves Jesus out of the equation. When I’m the one doling out grace to myself, I end up rationalizing why I’m not perfect and how terrible life is. I try to placate myself with some nonsense about “being tired” or “not being focused because I am so busy.” I start justifying myself with excuses or start to blame others for my problems. Sometimes I even begin to blame God.
Can you see the problem? The cheap version of grace isn’t what my soul really needs. It’s nothing like the grace Jesus gives. The sticking point is this, my friends: I keep trying, over and over again, to not actually need grace. I keep trying, over and over again, to fix things myself. I keep trying to manufacture my own grace to repair my brokenness. No wonder it feels weak! My own grace for my own needs is completely insufficient and inadequate for the real brokenness of my soul. The thoughts, feelings, and actions that drive my life have a fatal flaw in them, and justifying, rationalizing, or ignoring them doesn’t work. The first step toward receiving real grace is admitting I am beyond my own repair.
But beyond my own repair is different from beyond God’s repair. You see, this is where grace comes in. The difference between people who live free and those who just survive is their understanding of their daily need for God’s grace. Because when you know personally and deeply the truth of God’s grace, fears become smaller. They just do. Fear shrinks in the presence of powerful grace.
As grace increases, fear decreases. It doesn’t go away, necessarily, but it loses power. As your heart longs for more grace, more forgiveness, more Jesus-courage, it begins to despise captivity. So if grace means we can’t do it ourselves, and grace is the antidote to fear, then you need to know the difference between the fake grace you try manufacturing for yourself and the true grace God offers.
This article was taken from Brave Enough copyright © 2015 by Nicole Unice. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.