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.