People think that “Grace” is a peculiarly Christian concept. They imagine–falsely, I believe–that Grace is the undeserved Love of God for humankind–or those who accept that “Grace” without question. There is some truth in this: God does indeed love humankind, even those of us who don’t yet deserve love. However, this is not a Christian concept only, and it is too often seen only in terms of “I believe, I go to Heaven.” Therefore I will suggest three ways of understanding “Grace,” taken from Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This is because Grace is something we not only get from God, but something which we give each other.
The first is a Jewish expression, whose longevity I do not know:
If you are not for yourself, who is?
If you are only for yourself, who are you?
If not now, when?
The first question is distinctively Jewish, because we believe that before a person can help others she must help herself. Yet if you stop with yourself, that is not enough. To be a person who does not give to others is to have a lack. And puzzling as the last question is, it is always pertinent: if you do not do your good deed today, when will you? You do not really know there will be a tomorrow. About this kind of virtue, I have read phrases describing what is possible for a Jew,
You may not be able to save the world,
but to one person you may be the world.
I read a moving story in Yom Kippur Readings by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins and Dr. Arthur Green. A cab driver in New York picked up an old woman whose friends and relatives were dead and who was moving out of her old apartment to an old folks home. On hearing her story, he turned off the switch that counted how much money was spent. The two of them travelled to all of her old haunts which she had done things at when she was younger, and she told him about her husband and children–all dead. Then at dawn he took her to her new apartment. He got her suitcase out of the car trunk and then took it to the door. He gave the woman a gigantic hug, and said goodbye–free of charge. He said to the listener, “It was the most important night of my life.”
The Christian version? It is probably familiar to the reader. Mathew 25:14-30 tells the story of an employer who had three servants. He gave each one some money: the first five talents, the second two, and the third one. He told them to return the money when he came back. While he was gone, the servant with five talents invested and made five more talents, whereas the servant with two talents and invested it and got back two more. But the servant with one talent buried it in the earth, so that when his master returned he would have the money for his master. Well, the employer returned and when the first and second servant gave him the money he gave them plus that they earned he told each, “Thou good and faithful servant!” and gave them a generous reward. But when the third came, he said, “Thou wicked and slothful servant!” and beat him after giving the third servant’s talent to the first. The idea is that though one person gives much and one person gives a little, each person is obligated to give. I do not mean, by the way, “give money.” There are all kinds of way in which a person can be generous, from working one night a week at the homeless shelter to tutoring an illiterate person in reading for free.
Then there is the Sufi mystic Rabia. Her life story was a prayer. Rabia began as a slave, until her master found out that while working for him during the day, she spent her whole nights praying. Petrified, he gave her enough money to live on and freed her. She spent her life praying to Allah, and never married. She helped found Sufism, and there are stories told about her in the Middle East. The hallmark of her faith was its sincerity. Her most famous saying is, “If I pray to Allah to go to Heaven only, I want Him to send me straight to hell.” This seems extreme, but after all, there is not a cheaper faith than one based exclusively on hope of reward or fear of punishment.
That is the secret of Grace practiced by human beings–it is rooted in the certainty of God’s love, and expresses itself as a continuation of that love through the person who loves God to other human beings. As a child reading the New Testament I understood it: God loves us, and bids us love each other. Of course, I had not yet practiced God’s love in any meaningful way. Yet the seed was rooted in me. Every person has this seed, if they will nurture it and grow it by praying and doing good deeds.