What I Got Wrong About Grace

Some time in my early 20s, I sat across the table from my mentor and pleaded with her to explain how grace worked. Life wasn’t quite going the way I wanted and I’d subconsciously been trying to “live right” in the hope that I could wrangle some blessings out of God. I’d exhausted myself, and still my attempts weren’t working.

In contrast, people around me kept talking about this condemnation-free, striving-free, anxiety-free way of becoming a person who would please God (and ergo, enjoy all the perks)—and it sounded fantastic. But no one was able to explain how to get there; it felt like I was constantly hearing about a delicious, free buffet without being given directions to get to it.

I understood some of grace. I knew that it was receiving something that I did not deserve. I believed and gratefully accepted that Jesus swapped my sinful nature with His righteous one on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:21), took the punishment that was actually mine to pay for being of that sinful nature (Romans 6:23), so that I could stand blameless before God now and at the end of my life (Colossians 1:22). That was grace; a gift I did and could do nothing to merit.

But that, perhaps, was grace for the after life.

At present, there was still life on this earth to finish living. And for these trials of daily living, there seemed to be another form of grace that the writers of Scripture enjoyed.

Paul received grace that was sufficient to cover his weaknesses when he couldn’t shake off a trying situation (2 Corinthians 12:9). Paul also knew that if he walked by the Spirit, he would not gratify the desires of his flesh (Galatians 5:16). The writer of Hebrews knew that he could approach the throne of grace and receive help in his time of need (Hebrews 4:16). And the writer of Lamentations found grace every morning to move through his suffering and anguish (Lamentations 3:22-23).

This was the kind of grace I couldn’t seem to access.

Yet, when my mentor succinctly explained that grace was simply receiving something from God that would be sufficient for my need of the moment, it still felt incomprehensible. As much as I wanted to believe her, my upbringing and culture had shaped me to believe that if I wanted to achieve something, it was my responsibility to work hard to make it happen (and if I asked for help, it meant I was being spoilt). Although exhausting to upkeep, this ethos had served me well in school and in the few life experiences I’d encountered. It was all I knew, and grace felt uncomfortably counterintuitive.

Up to that point in my early 20s, my life had been sheltered enough to make the illusion of being self-sufficient tenable. I couldn’t conceive of what it meant to encounter a situation that I could not work myself out of. This was an arrogance that emerged not so much from delusions of grandeur, but from sheer inexperience about what real hardship or need was.

There wasn’t anything I hadn’t yet solved without rallying my brain and willpower, exercising my strong moral code, or relying on my abilities and education to pull through. So how could my pool of resources be insufficient for anything? Perhaps asking for grace was wanting the easy way out and making excuses for my laziness.

Also, I couldn’t imagine relying solely on the Holy Spirit to guide my life. Did He not need my input? Was I really supposed to wait for Him to prompt me if I was going awry? But . . . what if I missed the prompt? Or what if He was silent and I stayed in need?

I wanted all the blessings that came with walking right with God; what if He didn’t deal with my weaknesses quickly enough and delayed my ability to experience the abundant life? No, no, surely it was better if I got a head start on my self-improvement based on my self-assessment. And if He spoke, I’d just add that to the pile of things to work on. After all, how could I be certain that help would really come, if I didn’t know when it would arrive, what it would look like if it did and how exactly it would help?

I didn’t know it then, but my fierce independence stemmed from a deep mistrust that anyone, even God, would be there for me when it counted in a way that mattered. The autocratic parenting style that I grew up under made it hard for me to believe that any figure of authority would care about, much less meet, my emotional needs. Relying on grace and depending on someone else for things that I really wanted felt far too risky.

Caught in this tension between exhaustion from self-effort and disbelief in grace, I settled for what I thought was a good compromise. My initiative and willpower would primarily drive my life, and grace could be a kind of tonic or supplement to give me an edge or an energy boost. Not really necessary—just in case it didn’t show up—but nice to have.

But my 20s turned out to be nothing like the tidy life I had anticipated. The equation (hard work = success) that I thought would be a cover-all hadn’t prepared me for life’s wild, unpredictable variables torching my carefully constructed plans.

My “rich resources” were as good as ashes. Life proved impervious to my attempts to control it. Producing work to the best of my ability didn’t guarantee me the job I wanted. Doing my best to make godly choices didn’t protect me from suffering the consequences of another person’s actions. And choosing God was impossible when my own brokenness kept me in a relationship that I knew wasn’t meant for me.

Chronically mistrusting God and taking full charge of my own life meant that I had managed to drive it into a dead end by the time I was 29.

Fast-forward a near decade from that first conversation about grace, my mentor sat across from me again. This time my heart was well and truly beaten to finally receive the wisdom of her words. God knows what you need better than you do, she said, and He is good and will give it to you.

With nothing to lose, and with no internal resources left, I decided to “give God a go” and began each day saying, “God, please give me the grace to get through this day.” I tossed the words up to God with no back-up plan, no expectations as to what this grace would look like, and no energy to speculate.

And as I hobbled through this year—grieving the loss of the person I’d loved most, losing my job, and going through the inquiry for the sexual assault I’d suffered in church—God has met every single one of my needs with grace that was in no way superfluous or abstract.

At my loneliest points, sometimes within half an hour of crying out to God, close friends would suddenly send a hilarious or engaging text message and I’d have a good conversation with them out of the blue.

God also started to deepen my delight in the time that I spent with Him, journaling and reading Scripture. He gave me innumerable timely words of comfort and hope from His Word that addressed the fears in my heart perfectly.

He pulled out work for me from the most unexpected of places, without even needing me to send out a single résumé. He gave me justice beyond what I had expected out of the inquiry and assembled the best support from my family and friends to help me survive the process. He has even healed my relationship with my parents.

He also attended to the restoring of my character. In the years that I had depended on my willpower to be a morally upright person, I ended up losing the very traits I was working so hard to keep: my sense of security, integrity, self-control, selflessness, and a clear and discerning mind. I’d never known that God had been giving me the grace to be this moral person in the first place.

This character had emerged naturally as I spent my youth seeking Him that I’d made the mistake of assuming it was an immutable part of my own nature. But as I wilfully drew away from God for a few years, what emerged from me was everything pertaining to selfishness instead.

Now, with a daily prayer for grace, I became keenly aware of the firm, quiet voice in my heart that really did prompt me every time I needed a nudge in the right direction. All I needed to do then was just obey. He had been enough all along! And I was humbled—and rather embarrassed—to have thought that I knew better than God about how to grow in Christlikeness.

I’ve turned 30 a few days ago, and it’s been a year since I decided to ask God for His grace. I’ve realised that I couldn’t understand grace—the receiving of something that perfectly meets the need of the hour—because I didn’t know the true goodness of the God from whom grace came. I didn’t know how astute He was about my real needs, how creative He could be in meeting them, and, most importantly, how deeply He loved me to want to give me good things.

If my 20s was about seeing the foolishness of thinking myself the authority on who I am, and realising the limitations of my human nature, it has been, mercifully, redeemed by discovering just how good God is at loving me. Now, with my 30s ahead of me, I’m looking forward to experiencing life from a posture of dependence.

16 replies
  1. Karina Kusuma Halim
    Karina Kusuma Halim says:

    I’m crying while reading your writing. I see myself in your writing and found answer here. Thankyou!

  2. Micah
    Micah says:

    Holding back tears from falling. Reading this made me realize a lot of things I was missing about Grace. Thank you!

  3. Stephen
    Stephen says:

    Grace is a tricky word, I think. It’s receiving good gifts that are undeserved, as you say. But what about when you don’t receive (i.e. that career you mentioned, that significant other, or even the promised intimacy from the Lord)? Is that a lack of His grace? Obviously, mainstream Christianity’s reply would be an affirmative “no” – it isn’t a lack of His grace. But then the question still remains.

    Is the onus of “seeing” or “hearing,” as it relates to these questions and the ultimate question over life’s direction, on Him or on me? If on Him, then why am I (or perhaps even you) still wrestling with these deep-seated questions? What is the definition of this “full-life” that You promised and if I’m already living in it, then why aren’t I satisfied? Are you, Nelle?

    If the onus is on me, then where’s the line between grace and effort? Perhaps I’m establishing a false dichotomy in juxtaposing these two and human categories can’t work this out between grace/effort. But that still leaves the confused Christian where he or she started.

    I feel like some people, while lost in a fog of ambiguity, are forced to decide: do you lead your life through faith though its been disappointing or do you venture on your own path? This line of questioning I think reveals something even deeper, where is the promised Shepherd or Counselor? As you may be able to tell, I too experienced utter bafflement and disillusionment along this faith journey. Admittedly, I think fear of the consequences and an inability to reconstruct an entirely new world view is what keeps me continuing in this faith.

    • Nelle
      Nelle says:

      Hi Stephen,

      Thanks for your thoughts. If I may, I’d like to respond to your questions one at a time, in the order that you’ve asked them.

      (1) What about when you don’t receive, […] is that a lack of His grace?

      For awhile I did go the route of thinking that God is a liar when He says that “at His right hand there are pleasures forevermore” (Ps 16:11), “no good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Ps 84:11). My heart sincerely believed that He was cruel and sadistic for withholding good things from me.

      It’s taken awhile (some five years or so), but I’ve realised that when He doesn’t give me the things that I want, it really IS grace. With the benefit of time, I’ve seen how sometimes there was something better lined up instead. Or sometimes I’ve realised that if I’d received what I wanted *at the time*, I wouldn’t have been prepared to handle it and would have blown that good thing. He was always going to give it to me, but just once I was ready for it so I could enjoy it properly and so other people wouldn’t be hurt by my incompetence. And other times I’ve discovered that what He’s given me instead of the thing I’ve asked for is actually something that suits me much better. I just didn’t know myself well enough to ask for it and asked for the wrong thing instead. It was, therefore, grace when He saved me from my own ignorance.

      It has made me feel a bit embarrassed to have felt so much rage at God for not giving me certain things, when He’d meant well all along. It’s also been humbling to realise that I didn’t know myself as well as I thought, that I wouldn’t even have been happy if I’d received that thing I wanted.

      So now, even though I still don’t have the few things that my heart so deeply wants, even on the days that I feel miserable, the very least I give Him is the benefit of the doubt that I just simply can’t see as far along as He can. And what might seem like cruelty and meanness at this point could actually the greatest goodness and grace.

    • Nelle
      Nelle says:

      (2) What is the definition of this “full-life” that You promised and if I’m already living in it, then why aren’t I satisfied? Are you, Nelle?

      It’s funny you should ask this at this time. I’ve just spent the weekend wrestling inside over the same issue of my career again when I found out that one of my very best friends got promoted. She’s got my version of a dream job: good pay, clear career ladder/possibility of job progression, good sphere of influence to actually help people. She’s in a place where her hard work is recognised and validated and rewarded. I was happy for her, of course, she’s really deserved it. But the pain of feeling overlooked and frustrated from not even being given the chance to try work like that was definitely searing. In some of my more self-pitying moments, I feel like a racehorse that doesn’t get a chance to compete. Life certainly doesn’t feel satisfying on days like that and it really puts to the test how deeply I believed what I’ve described up in (1).

      At a really painful crossroad a year and a half ago, the only thing God asked from me, almost pleaded for from me, was to just give Him time. Not more purity, not more effort, not more good works, just time to show me that He knew how to give me a life of better fit. And as I’m trying to let go of any expectation of what my life should look like, I have started to see this life of ‘better fit’ gradually happen. The work He brings me is still “small” and hidden, but it’s work that I’ve been able to do well and has meant something to the people I’ve done it for. Perhaps what He’s doing now is trying to rewire what my definition of significant work is (maybe my definition of ‘good work’ is something the world has defined and not God). Perhaps what He’s trying to show me is the kind of work He’s made me for, and therefore the kind of work that I will find true satisfaction in. Perhaps what He’s revealing is that I’ve fixated on a certain kind of work because I’m trying to use it to fill a need in my heart that should only be filled by Him. Perhaps it’s all of it (sigh, which is likely).

      And maybe this might speak to your larger question about the abundant life—perhaps I don’t live in it fully because I’m the one standing in my own way. I can’t receive the true good because I keep filling my heart and hands with other things, and then get frustrated when those imitations don’t work, and then get upset with God for not delivering on what He said. Perhaps in order for me to receive this abundant life, I have to unlearn a lot of erroneous mind-sets and learn to see the truth of who I am and who God is. Perhaps this is precisely what He is working hard to show me. So maybe I just go with it, go with what He gives, and see where it takes me.

      I’m not sure, but this is presently where I am in my attempt to make sense of all this. There have been glimpses, just moments along the way that have felt really, deeply, satisfying. And it gives me hope that if I keep walking in this way that He has called good, perhaps those moments might grow into longer ones, and eventually become the substance of my life.

    • Nelle
      Nelle says:

      (3) Where is the promised Shepherd or Counsellor?

      I am truly sorry, Stephen, for the pain that you must have gone through to be at this point in your faith. I don’t believe you ask these questions lightly. The feeling of always walking around enclosed in darkness and silence, like being in a maze that you can’t find a way out of, can be immensely depleting, even crushing. I’ve prayed that He will reveal Himself to you in a way that speaks to the deepest parts of your heart, in a way that means the most to you.

  4. Stephen
    Stephen says:

    Hi Nelle, thank you for your kind words and the time you took to articulate your thoughts here. Even though I’ve read your reply twice now, I’ll continue to think through all that you have written. You have a powerful voice, and your ability to write is certainly exceptional in my view. As I’m sure it is the case with much of your audience, I couldn’t help but recognize an uncanny number of similarities between your story and mine, especially the feeling of being a “racehorse that doesn’t get a chance to compete.” I look forward to reading of the day when things take a dramatic turn in your life, and for the better.

    From your friend here in the States,


  5. sandeep panta
    sandeep panta says:

    Its so cool that God cares so intimately through his body of believers..Very similar mindset I deal with and was struggling with things..This was a fantastic read, helping me to believe in God slowly again and follow his lead..Just what I needed at this time for the things I am going through. Struggling to trust God with personal things, and before it was like.I would trust God with everything and stuff..but things were good back then amidst few difficulties, but this was a season of nothing working sort of and me trying to be whatever I think of as being Christian..but God is redefining/teaching Grace and I am very encouraged to read this. So thanks for writing!

  6. Stephanie Okoye
    Stephanie Okoye says:

    I am 23. And I must say…how lucky I am to acess this piece of absolute truth. I have always known that I needed to entrust all that concerns me to God. Asking for his grace through it all. This personal story of yours only solidified that belief…God bless you Nelle


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