I have posted a number of times on this blog about the vision of shalom as “well-being,” or “flourishing,” and the vital role that the wisdom of God plays in our activities to make that vision real in this world, in small or large ways. See this post, for instance. Having looked at this a great deal, I am coming to the conclusion that there is an ontological inseparableness between God’s wisdom and his shalom, and that a lack of grasping this results in strivings after well-being that resemble worldly patterns more consistently than they do God-envisioned ones. Here I want to consider an equally inseparable relationship, that of shalom to the biblical theme of grace as “well-being.”
In the early 1980s, I was playing around with some ideas about the grace of God that ended up in a little book on the subject, first published in 1993. The book was not so much a theological treatment but an attempt to look at grace as a practical dynamic for living a faithful Christian life, day after day: the life of grace. The very personal question I had been struggling with was: after “saving grace” gets us up and running in the Life of God, what then? How could that Life be lived in full bloom day after day? I had been taught that the Christian’s life was a life of grace, but what did that mean, what would it look like, whether in church on Sunday but especially from Monday through Saturday? I wasn’t finding much help with that.
Mind you, this was back in the days before everybody and his brother was writing books on grace. There was Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, which is worth reading for sure, but during the 1980s and 1990s, the big emphases in contemporary Christian teaching and publishing lay elsewhere, such as with books on family, the end times, worldview, and Moral Majority politics. Whatever books one could find on grace were, like Bunyan’s, focused on theological aspects of “saving grace,” such as its relation to sin, and to Christ’s work of redemption, and to the individual’s response. If you should happen to hear a sermon on grace, it was typically enclosed with the frame of “unmerited favor” or “free gift” and centered on getting sinners saved. But such language wasn’t answering the question I was asking.
I’m not in the least disparaging theological understandings of grace. I have benefitted greatly from them. But for me it left “grace” too abstract, which the cross of Christ is anything but. “Unmerited favor” seemed a bit of a lazy answer, and the tautological “free gift” merely drew a joke about “What gift isn’t free?” In short, my own deep itches about the grace of God for daily life remained unscratched.
They began to get scratched when I plunged into the biblical text myself, along with assistance from some good study aids and the especially blessed help of my tutor those years, the British theologian John Peck, who also teaches Hebrew and Greek. So I plunged in at the beginning of the Bible, with the first two statements where “grace” is overtly disclosed. (The following two texts are from the King James Version because the more contemporary ones – unfortunately, in my view – typically translate the Hebrew chên as “favor” instead of as “grace.”)
“Noah found grace [chên] in the eyes of the Lord.” And Lot “found grace [chên]” in the sight of the Lord (Genesis 6:8 & 19:19).
These two short statements about the grace (chên) of God can seem oddly out-of-place because the narratives in which they appear emphasize the judgment of God and the widespread destruction that resulted. But God’s grace can be found hidden amid distress and suffering.
“Grace” in Genesis, and in every other Old Testament (OT) narrative where God is the initiator of grace (chên), carries two main thoughts. One is that of “God coming down, which is a bit of an awkward-sounding way to put it today. But think of it anthropomorphically. Many times, the OT speaks of God “coming down” into human history to have a look around, so to speak, as if he were spying out the land before deciding on just what sort of intervention he should take.
One time, for instance, God came down to bring judgment during the building of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:5-8):
The Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will he impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not be able to understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.”
Another time, God came down upon Mount Sinai to bring the Ten Commandments to Moses (Exodus 19:10-11):
The Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Make them wash their clothes and he ready by the third day, because on that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.”
In another incident, God comes down to wage war (Isaiah 31:4):
The Lord Almighty will come down to do battle on Mount Zion and on its heights.
A central theme of these OT narratives (many others too) is that God actively engages in human history. In the above texts, God came down in three different ways: to bring the Law, to execute judgment, or to wage war. Now this idea of “God coming down” to engage with human life is also inherent in the chên narratives of Noah and Lot. This brings us to our second main thought about chên, which is “well-being.” So chên, then, is not about God coming down to wage war, or to execute judgment, or to bring law. Instead, God is “coming down to move people to places of well-being.”
“God coming down to move people to places of well-being” became the working definition for “grace” developed in my little book on grace for everyday Christians living. I see it as the hidden narrative in the lives of Noah and Lot and their families during eras when, and for reasons not entirely clear, human “wickedness” had increased so greatly that “every inclination of the thoughts of [everyone’s] heart was only evil all the time,” and the earth was “corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence” (Genesis 6:5, 11). That’s Noah’s day. In Lot’s, the “sin” of Sodom and Gomorrah was “so grievous,” the even God seemed surprised by it: “I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know” (Genesis 18:20).
But even in these darkest of times, with injustice and violence having become organizing principles of society, God came down to Noah and Lot to move them to places of well-being. God’s grace for Noah and his family was a large wooden boat to ride out the storm. For Lot and his family it was the helping hands of angels to lead them out of the city. They did not earn this, they could not have provided it for themselves, and apparently they did not even ask for it. It was initiated by another party, God, to those who were in mortal distress.
It is just here that we can find the nexus of God’s grace and his shalom, for both are gifts, both seek to rescue and restore, both seek to provide degrees of well-being that previously did not exist for the objects of the intervention. A dramatic OT example is the Exodus narrative, when the people of Israel “groaned” under punishing abuse and “cried out” for help. God “heard” their cry, “saw their misery,” and told Moses, “I’ve come down to rescue them” (Exodus chapters 2-3). It was the grace of God moving people out of their misery and into what for them would be a place of shalom.
Everything I have just spoken of is grace straight from God to human beings. Now here’s the rub. Having modeled for us Person-to-person grace giving, so to speak, God then puts the onus on us. We mere mortals are called to move one another to places of well-being, or shalom. This, too, is the witness of the OT. I call it “person-to-person” grace giving. Many OT Narratives bear this out, such as the grace Potiphar gives to Joseph (Genesis 39:40), or that Jonathan gives to David (1 Samuel 20:3), or that Boaz gives to Ruth (Ruth 2;13), and that even the pagan king Ahasuerus gives to Esther (Esther 2:17). There are many such stories. I recommend reflecting on them.
These many and diverse person-to-person chên narratives of the OT describe beneficent actions of human beings freely given. They contribute to the well-being of the recipient, an active generosity, particularly toward those in need. And certainly with the coming of the various and diverse gifts of the Spirit to the body of Christ, person-to-person grace giving, with Christ as our example, is not meant to mean sporadic actions but an ongoing shape of our lives.
So the question for us becomes: “Who has found grace, and therefore some degree of shalom, in our eyes lately?”
©2015 by Charles Strohmer
For interested readers, the theme of person-to-person grace giving is the subject of my little book Explaining the Grace of God. (I was never a fan of that title, which was chosen by the publisher.) If you can’t find a reasonably priced copy on the Web, let me know. I may have a spare copy.)
Top image by Sarah McKagen, middle image by Cesar Cabrera (permissions via Creative Commons)