Why is it so hard to get to grips with the concept of grace, of ‘unmerited favour’? Why is it so difficult to imagine that God could love us exactly as we are? Why is it that in spite of profound biblical revelation, many Christians still try to earn their way to God by personal achievement, good deeds and hard work, fearing rejection and punishment if they fail to make the grade?
I want to offer some insights from psychological and cultural studies that may shed some light on this. I’m writing from personal experience too. I can get my head around grace at a conceptual level but sometimes feel uncertain, anxious. It’s as if the promise of the gospel feels too good to be true, as if it can’t really apply to me, as if there must be hidden strings attached.
From our earliest childhood, we meet approval or disapproval on the basis of how we behave. A baby monitors its mother’s face for her reactions and learns that smiling, giggling, looking cute and not screaming evoke positive strokes and emotional rewards. The baby develops a sense of who he or she is, of what is socially acceptable and unacceptable, through these earliest encounters.
It gets complicated psychologically and relationally, however, because the baby draws subconscious conclusions from how he or she feels. The parent may indeed feel unconditional love for the child but without language to convey it in a way the child can grasp, the child can only infer from what he or she experiences and, critically, how he or she interprets that experience.
Object relations theory proposes that if a baby feels secure in its relationship to its primary caregiver, if its needs are met in a satisfying and consistent way, the baby is likely to grow up feeling secure in future relationships too. Conversely, if the baby feels insecure, he or she may struggle in future relationships, acting codependent, ambivalent or independent as a form of self protection.
A baby is of course unable to meet many of its own physical and psychological needs. The baby needs the carer for food, for cleaning and nappy changes, for burping when he or she gets trapped air, for wrapping to keep warm, for hugging to feel secure. Approval and attention from the carer feels critical to the baby for physical and psychological survival, safety and comfort.
The same child enters school and finds similarly that certain types of behaviour, paying attention, working hard, pleasing the teacher, producing good results, meet with approval. Other behaviours result in disapproval or discipline. This pattern continues into working life. Performance is monitored and good performance can result in promotion, bad performance in dismissal.
In so many aspects of our lives, therefore, we learn that love, attention and reward are based on behaving well or achieving results in the eyes of a significant other, whether that other be a person, group, community or organisation. We also learn that the converse is true. Get it wrong and you could suffer the negative and painful consequences of rejection or punishment.
We learn to put on a confident face in the office, hoping to convince significant others of our ability and therefore worth to the organisation. We put on a good show in front of other people to demonstrate we are great parents with a model family. We put on a ‘holy’ face at church, hoping to convince others of our spiritual credentials and, thereby, worthiness to belong.
By transference, we project the same expectations onto God. Surely this principle we have learned from birth must apply to him too? Surely the law in the Bible, all those rules and regulations, is the yardstick that God uses to measure our spiritual performance and, thereby, whether we are worthy of his love, whether we are good enough, whether we deserve reward or rejection?
And so we face an existential crisis, self-righteousness if we think we’re good enough and a crushing anxiety if we feel we’re not. I believe this dilemma lies at the heart of why so many Christians struggle with the notion of grace, struggle to experience the freedom the Bible promises to those who believe. It's not so much a rational conceptual issue as an anxiety driven by human experience.
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