The Toughness of Grace

By Hans Deventer

Open and relational leadership is accepting grace for yourself and looking out for what grace can do in the life of others.

One of the greatest challenges of the Christian life is to accept grace. This seems like a weird statement because, what can be better than to know you are forgiven? You’d think that the whole world would run to this experience like bees to honey. And yet, it is not so. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book The Cost of Discipleship, famously talks about costly and cheap grace, explaining that the latter is a system. Though he does not mention it, to me it looks like an apt description of relational grace and non-relational grace. For non-relational grace is like a dogma, a belief that does not actually change you. Like the knowledge that the earth is not the center of our solar system, but our sun is. For your daily life, either of these options don’t change a thing. In fact, when faith functions like a system, it becomes unhelpful, if not, in fact, damaging.

To me, one of the best examples of a damaging non-relational belief is the infamous penal substitution theory of the atonement. As with all the other theories, it is a metaphor that inevitably breaks down at some point, but this one breaks down really quickly. The Scriptures do speak of justice and of punishment, even of God being a judge. But a judge is one who sets things right. He or she defeats the enemy, liberates the people of God and restores the relationship between God and the people.

We, however, have a judicial system in which people are declared “not guilty,” and released, or “guilty,” and sentenced to a punishment, a fine, time served in jail, or even face capital punishment. In this system, if it were possible for someone to fulfil the conditions of the sentence on behalf of the accused, the judgement would effectively be removed. Subsequently the judge too is removed from any necessary or essential relationship with the defendant. This is not at all the central idea of the Christian faith. It in no way represents the heart of all that is being presented by the prophets and ultimately by Jesus.

A relational view of atonement should definitely include us, and it should restore the relationship between God and us. It should not merely deal with guilt and punishment, but rather with restoration and reconciliation.

This short example tells us something about a relational view of leadership, and obviously God is our prime example of that. God is the ultimate parent and leader, which has huge implications for our own leadership.

From the very start in the creation story, God gives humanity room. YHWH brings animals to Adam in order to see which names he would give them. As early as Genesis 2, we are able to identify a very open and relational approach to leadership. God is working with humanity in a way that honors humanity’s choices. In fact, throughout the Scriptures, humanity is taken very seriously. Love does that. In Matt 23:37, Jesus laments that he desired to gather Jerusalem under his wings, but they did not want to do that, implying that he could not, in fact, make them come.

Of course, this applies totally to our own leadership. We must give room, because we cannot force people. We cannot lead those who do not want to be led. We cannot convince those who do not want to be convinced. And we cannot heal those who do not want to be healed (even apart from our skills and knowledge). Open and relational leadership might therefore be considered “weak leadership,” but I would contend it is the only real leadership. Trying to enforce anything might produce short term results but will eventually always break down. Obedience is not God’s goal. Again, also from the very beginning (Genesis 3:9), God is in search of humanity. God is seeking response and seeking a relationship.

We also find God changing God’s plans based on the realization that it “is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen 2:18). It is interesting to see God declaring all God created to be “good,” yet within that process, seems willing, and not at all shocked, to adapt. The concept of “good” is not static, and neither is God’s open and relational approach to creation and humankind.

This has significant implications for leadership. We may want to “stay the course,” considering the goal of restoration and reconciliation, but the road to that goal is not fixed, not even for God. The Messiah was born from David’s line, through Batseba, despite David’s personal sin. Even Israel’s consistent disobedience becomes the context in which the whole world is brought the gospel. Good can indeed come out of bad situations. This is not to deny the evil or sinfulness of these circumstances but highlights our understanding that God is able to somehow work good out of bad situations. The crucial thing here is that God can do that. Therefore, part of being “open” in our leadership is to remain open to God and what God can do.

Finally, God forgives. If there is one key concept that runs throughout the Scriptures, it is forgiveness. Actions have consequences. God takes us seriously and so God takes our actions seriously. But forgiveness is primarily about the restoration of the relationship that we have broken by these choices. It is not that our guilt and punishment are removed, as if that were the exclusive goal. They are removed, but the goal of forgiveness is restoration and reconciliation to God and others. Prime examples of those are Psalm 103 and Jesus’ famous parable on the prodigal son in Luke 15.

This, of course, is crucial for leadership, primarily because we must first accept that grace ourselves in order to be able to lead. Unless we thoroughly and deeply know ourselves to be forgiven, we will transmit our lack of grace rather than God’s love. We cannot share what we have not received. But real grace is tough. It is a death. A death to all our foolish pretence that we are not so bad ourselves. Jesus exposes that notion for what it is in Luke 18 in his parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Grace starts with stark honesty.

Also, grace is fundamentally unfair. Therefore, this starting point is so important. Unless you see who you are yourself, it is so easy to look down on others in a judgemental way. And declare they do not deserve grace. Which, in fact, is true. They don’t. And you don’t. But that is exactly what grace is: unmerited favor.

Open and relational leadership is looking out for what God can do in any situation. It is being open to the work of the Holy Spirit and understanding that the world is not a predetermined play that God is watching, but rather an adventure in which new things are possible.

With this relational concept of leadership, God’s laws and commandments can be understood in terms of guidance for liberated people that gives them direction in their lives. They point towards God. They are not the goals, let alone boundaries, to keep others out. They are Torah, or teaching, they primarily show Israel how to live in relation with God. As the Word incarnate, Jesus has shown us the most effective example of that very principal. And he wants to dwell in us! How much more relational can it get?

Hans Deventer is an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene, serving the Dordrecht Church in the Netherlands. Through the years, he has served the church in numerous ways, as a layman and more recently, as an elder. He loves mountains and hiking.

To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.

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