The Transformative Power of Relational Grace

By Max E. Butterfield

Live your life to the fullest by loving God, and people, to the fullest.

I have some training in clinical psychology, but I’m not a therapist. I’m a researcher. I study the way we think about each other, and I explore how those thoughts affect our lived experiences together. Sometimes it can surprise people to find out that psychology involves research and number crunching, but the human mind is complicated. Figuring it out is a team effort, and there’s a lot we still don’t know. As I prepared to write this essay, grace was on my mind because it’s not something psychologists have studied much. We talk about grace far more often in theological contexts than psychological ones, but I think it’s time for psychologists to play catch up.

Grace is an interesting concept for a variety of reasons. It has at least seven different definitions. As a result, each of us probably has a slightly different understanding of what the word grace means, and that’s ok. We’re different people. We lead different lives, and we find ourselves in different circumstances. Although the type of grace I’m interested in here is often referenced in the Bible, its meaning there isn’t always completely clear either. What we see in the Bible can be difficult to interpret in modern contexts because the version we have today comes from a mix of languages, authors, and writing styles. The text has been derived from both oral and written materials. It’s the richest tapestry of historical literature in existence, and it’s not even close. It’s filled with poems, parables, pericopes, and prophecies. There are also genealogies, allegories, letters, and more.

Let’s talk a little more about those letters. Many of them were written by a man named Paul, and he spoke a lot about the transformative power of grace. At one time, Paul was a scholar and religious leader who was very hostile to Christianity. In the wake of the death, and subsequent disappearance, of Jesus Christ, Paul spent his days trying to snuff out the growing Christian movement. However, he had a life-changing encounter with the resurrected Christ. From that point forward, he traveled to different places, telling people about his own mistakes, and about the transformative power of God’s grace in his life. He started churches in different places, gave them a simple message about Christ, and then went on his way.

Fast forward a few years. The social, political, and religious elites in the Greco-Roman world became concerned with this growing Christian movement. Paul was a big part of that. The grace-based message was a threat to the status quo. Paul was a threat to the status quo. He was thrown in prison in Rome. While there, he heard about some trouble brewing at several churches he had started in his travels. The locals had already forgotten even the basic message he’d left them with, and they’d started arguing. A lot. So, he wrote them letters: “Dear Friends. Please stop it. Also, Timothy says hi.” Okay, he said a little more than that, but his general message was straightforward.

(a) We’re all imperfect.

(b) God loves us and invites us into relationships anyway.

(c) Those relationships, with God, and with others, transform our lives and our souls.

Scholars read Paul’s letters and see different things. Some think they weren’t written by Paul at all. Instead, they think they were probably penned under his name as a pseudonym to give them governing authority. Others even think they might have been form letters sent to all churches across the world. They would have been circulated as something like, “Dear Insert Name Here.” A lot is actually uncertain about these letters, but the uncertainties don’t diminish the message. If anything, they amplify it. The message of grace is meant for everyone.

How do we apply this to relationship psychology in our modern context? Well, what we know is that God sees all our imperfections and loves us anyway. Even better, God loves us not just in spite of who we are, but because of who we are. God doesn’t control us, tell us what to do, or force us to change. God waits. God loves. God gives grace. Can you imagine a world where we also did that for each other, a world where we did that for ourselves? We intuitively understand what it means to have a grace-based relationship with God, but what if we applied the same principles to our relationships with the people around us, or to our relationship with our own selves?

It’s easy to see the imperfections of others. The jerk who cuts you off in traffic: Imperfect. The boss who doesn’t listen to your brilliant ideas: Imperfect. The family member who seems to be disagreeable for no reason in particular: Imperfect. Similarly, it can also be tempting to over-focus on our own imperfections and mistakes, and that’s not enriching either. Deep down we know we can be pretty lousy sometimes. We feel like frauds. Or imposters. We have doubts. We don’t feel good enough. Choose your own personal shortcoming. We all have them. We know it. We feel it. We’re imperfect. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could respond to ourselves with the same grace God offers to us?

This offer of grace means that God invites us into transformative relationships, but what does that really mean? First, it means that God invites us to connect with God. That’s easy. That’s great. Who wouldn’t want a grace-based relationship with the most loving being in the universe? However, there’s more to the story. Part of the deal is that God is also inviting us to connect with each other, to have unity with one another. One of the biggest problems in the early church was that folks were constantly bickering, so when Paul wrote his letters, one of his main points was that they needed to cut it out. Unity, he said, is not negotiable. I can just picture it, “So help me, if you Christians don’t start getting along back there, I will turn this chariot around right now!”

Remember the jerk who cut you off in traffic? The boss who wouldn’t listen to your ideas? The disagreeable family member? They’re imperfect, sure, but God invites us all into relationships anyway. Our relationships with God, and with each other, will transform our lives and our souls, if only we will let them. I want to emphasize, though, that showing grace to others doesn’t mean that we always have to agree. It doesn’t mean that we have to accept abuse or maltreatment. We can’t control other people. We can only control our response to them, and that’s the story of relational grace. We’re called to let people make their own choices, and that means sometimes we have to make our own hard choices. By definition, showing relational grace isn’t going to be easy. There are always going to be bumps in the road, and our relationships with others are never going to be perfect. People can be really awful sometimes!

Unfortunately, though, we’re all people. In our own special ways, we’re all awful. We all need grace in our lives. The good news, though, is that the transformation is up to God. That’s the beauty of grace. Its power doesn’t have anything to do with us. We’re called to show grace, but it’s God who transforms the jerks, the bosses, the family members, and us. It’s God who transforms us all. We just have to trust that God is big enough, good enough, and patient enough to bring us together and finish the job. Despite our imperfections, despite our shortcomings, despite ourselves, we’re designed to love each other, to live in community with each other, and to be in relationship with each other. If we offer ourselves to God and to each other, it will transform our lives, and God will transform our souls.

That transformative grace is the story of Paul’s letters, and it’s the story of Jesus Christ. It can be our story as well. Today, I encourage you to live your life to the fullest by loving God, and people, to the fullest. Show them grace, just as God shows it to us.

Max E. Butterfield is a psychology professor at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, CA. He teaches a variety of courses, and his research explores how subtle details influence our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. He also enjoys spending time with his family, training for endurance sports, rockhounding, eating, sleeping and making people laugh. Preferably all at once.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love