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Dec 262017

This post is part of a series titled Choosing Authenticity: A Prayer of My Own.  It is Part 5/9 of Reflection V: of that series titled Conversion of Heart | Saying Our Prayers Is Not Enough.

 Choosing Authenticity
A Prayer of Our Own

Reflection V
Conversion of Heart
Saying Our Prayers Is Not Enough
(Part 4)

Work v. Grace
Finding Balance

There is a false dichotomy that shows up in much contemporary Christian teaching.  In its broadest terms the question is “Are we saved by works or are we saved by Grace?”  That broad question is beyond the scope of this reflection , but in the context of the spiritual life the question becomes “are we transformed by work or we are transformed by Grace?”

I do not remember where I heard this story, but it goes something like this.  A man was caught up in a really bad flood.  He finally had to climb up on his roof to keep from drowning.  He prayed for God to save him.  After a bit a rescue boat came along and offered to take him to safety.  He refused, saying that God would save him.  A while later another rescue boat came along and offered to take him to safety.  Again the man refused saying that God would save him.  Still later a helicopter came and offered to take him to safety, and again he refused help insisting that God would save him.  Eventually the water continued to rise and the man drowned.  When he got to heaven he asked God why he did not save him as he asked.  God replied, “I sent two boats and a helicopter, what more did you expect me to do?”  Some time we seem to assume that true Grace involves some kind of magical intervention in which we have no part.

Like the man on the roof some would argue that once we have given our heart to God, and once we have we have been baptized, once we have asked God to transform us, all we need to do is wait for that transformation to happen.  The expectation seems to be that God will somehow “zap” us and conversion of heart will just happen.  There is no work for us to do.  Others would argue that it is our job—our work—to deal with our “sin” and live like God has commanded.  It seems almost that the only Grace that is involved here is that God will somehow “be with us” as we struggle to overcome our sinful nature.

Ultimately I would argue that this is a false dichotomy.   It is not work or Grace that transforms us.  It is both work and Grace.  Through Grace that Mysterious Other we call God offers us opportunity after opportunity in our everyday lives to grow and change and be transformed.  Our work, if we choose to accept it, is to accept those opportunities and do the often hard and sometimes even painful work of the spiritual life to bring about that ongoing transformation and conversion of heart with the Grace of the guidance, strength, and courage that is available from that Mysterious Other we call God

In the rest of this reflection we will look at some of the ways Grace calls us to change and grow and be transformed—some of the “opportunities to practice” as I like to call them,—and the work that is required of us to respond to those opportunities.

These “opportunities to practice” can show up in all aspects of our day to day lives.  Maybe the most obvious place is in our own inner turmoil—in our own compulsive thoughts, emotions and impulses that arise in the various events of our day.

That turmoil  can show up in our relationships with our family, with our friends, or with our acquaintances.  It can show up as we deal with our own or others health issues.  It can show up in events involving the loss of someone close to us, or in the loss of a job, or other similar situation.  That turmoil can show up as we deal with apparent evil or other destructive events.  It can also show up in just the minor frustrations of every day life.  The turmoil is most powerful when it is accompanied by what Fr. Foley referred to as “the Grace of remorse”.

But it is not only the negative events in our lives that can provide the Grace of opportunities to practice.  It can come in the form of a challenge offered by a spiritual friend, a spiritual director, or a life coach.  The Grace of opportunities to practice can come from any event where we recognize that we need to grow and change or where we recognize that we have not been authentic.


Photo taken by unknown library patron

I met with my coach yesterday and spent a lot of time complaining about all of the things that prevented me from having time for my spiritual practice and my writing.  She suggested that I needed to be more assertive in protecting that time.  She suggested that I needed to be more willing to turn off my phone and  say “no” to the various intrusions that tend to prevent me from spending the time I need for those activities.  As she put it I needed to be more willing to take care of myself.  This discussion was clearly an incidence of “the Grace of an opportunity to practice”, and I know without a doubt that I need to do the real spiritual work of responding to that opportunity.  So I got up this morning, took care of my morning responsibilities, told my wife I was going to my room, turned off my cell phone, put on my noise cancelling earphones, and took my prayer/meditation time, and began working on this piece.  After a while I took my computer and went out to lunch.  After a few hours I essentially completed this piece which I had been struggling to get done for weeks.  I responded to the Grace offered by my coach’s suggestion.  I engaged in the spiritual work that Grace called for, and there was change and growth.  If I continue to do that work going forward I know that it will result in ongoing transformation and conversion of heart.  Why do I have to learn this lesson over and over again?

Sometimes that Grace comes in the form of our own sacred inner voice—our own sense of inner calling.  If I am “prayed up” as my wife likes to call it—if I have been really true to my commitment to regular spiritual practice—that Grace and opportunities to practice can rise up in me as simply a sense of knowing and a sense of calling.  One of the most recent examples of this was the sense of calling that I needed to find a coach and then the sense of knowing that I needed to respond when life presented me with a specific opportunity.  There was no turmoil or direct challenge in either event.  There was just a deep inner calling and knowing that I have come to trust.  I “just knew” that I needed to respond to these opportunities to practice.  I did respond and the growth and conversion of heart that has resulted has been powerful.

So what is this “work of the spiritual journey” that the “Grace of opportunities to practice” calls us to?  First of all it requires that we pay attention as we go through the events of our day—that we notice the turmoil that arises in the events of our day, and that we are attuned to the messages and the sense of calling that come from our sacred inner voice.  Then it requires that we take those messages into our time apart and ultimately into the reality of our daily life.

One of the ways we sometimes avoid both the Grace of opportunities to practice and the necessary work those opportunities call us to is  to say that the problems that arise in our lives are the result of evil or the work of “the devil”.  We fail to take responsibility for our lives.  We fail to consider the possibility that the issues that arise in our lives are actually Grace that calls us to do the spiritual work we are called to do.

The message here is that real transformation and conversion of heart comes from a balance between Grace and work.  I do not deny the possibility that the Mysterious Other we call God can at times reach down and transform us suddenly and even without our participation, but on a day to day basis, we must be open to the Grace of opportunities to practice, and then we must be willing to do the real spiritual work that Grace calls us to.

Question for Reflection

  1. How have I experienced the Work v. Grace dichotomy in my life? Identify and describe in detail a recent event or series of events in my life that could be interpreted as the Grace of an opportunity to practice. What growth, change, and transformation might that “opportunity” be calling me to? What spiritual practices might move me toward that growth? Am I willing to begin that work with the help of the Grace of available from that Mysterious Other?

If you liked this post, check out the other posts in this series.

Conversion of Heart: (View)
Saying Our Prayers Is Not Enough

Conversion of Heart (View)
What Does It Really Mean?

Divine Union (View)
Letting Go Of The Ego

Work v. Grace (This Post)
Finding Balance

(Coming Soon…)

Care of the Mind, Body, and Spirit
Seeking Wholeness

Healing Old Wounds
Letting Go Of The Past

Becoming Authentic
Incarnating Our True Self

The Real Reason We Pray
To Be Transformed

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