“Do you know what it means to be struck by grace? We cannot transform our lives, unless we allow them to be transformed by that stroke of grace. It happens; or it does not happen.” – Paul Tillich
You might have guessed than when compiling an alphabet of grace, it makes perfect sense for the G to be for grace. That said, grace is not an easy thing to explain. For the longest time, though, it has seemed to me entirely appropriate to compare the profound religious experience of being struck by grace with that of having been completely ravished.
Many years ago, I attended a lecture series by the celebrated author, M. Scott Peck, famous for his bestseller, The Road Less Travelled. One of his lectures was titled “Sexuality and Spirituality” and while I don’t recall too much of what he said all these years later, I will never forget how he ended his lecture. Dr Peck announced he wanted to conclude his lecture with an interactive experience. He told us he was going to play an old Cat Stevens song through the sound system and as we listened, we were to imagine our wives or husbands, our lovers, our partners, singing the song to us.
The auditorium then filled with the sounds of the 1972 hit, “Can’t Keep It In”, an acoustic guitar-guided pop symphony, featuring Cat Stevens’ most playful and lusty lyrics:
“Oh, I can’t keep it in, I can’t keep it in
I’ve gotta let it out
I’ve gotta show the world, world’s gotta see
See all the love, love that’s in me.”
I tried to enter into the exercise as best I could. I’d really enjoyed Peck’s lecture, being both delighted and stimulated by his material, and I really wanted to get the most out of his final activity. But try as I might, I just couldn’t hear my wife Caz singing that song to me. “Can’t Keep It In” has a strong, masculine, demanding lyric. The singer is exultant in his love for the person he’s singing to, inviting them to be taken, conquered, ravished:
“And I can’t keep it in, I can’t hide it
And I can’t lock it away
I’m up for your love, love heats my blood
Blood spins my head, and my head falls in love, oh..”
I didn’t doubt Caz’s desire for me, but she just doesn’t talk like that! Feeling a little disappointed with myself, and figuring it was just going to be a wasted exercise, I listened along to the rest of the song. But then, something surprising occurred. I say ‘occurred’ but it hardly seemed like something I gave any real thought to. I wasn’t thinking about it, I was just experiencing it. And I felt it very powerfully. It dawned on me in this wonderfully non-cognitive way that this wasn’t my wife singing this vigorous song of insistent love. It was God! And since I had never experienced God in this powerfully affective way before, it scared the daylights out of me and thrilled me at the same time.
I know I’m using sexual allusions here, but I don’t recall it being an explicitly sexual experience at all. And yet at the same time I felt as though God was seducing me, ravishing me. In the very depth of my soul I sensed God’s unrelenting love and acceptance and desire, and this pervaded my sexuality, my spirituality, my intellectual and emotional being, my everything.
Later, I would read this same sense of having been overwhelmed by God’s grace in the writings of Hosea and Ezekiel and Jeremiah, and those of St Therese of Avilla and Flannery O’Connor. I felt like Hosea’s redeemed wife or the whoring queen in Ezekiel 16 when confronted by the king’s remarkable love.
A Cat Stevens song only last around 2 minutes, so this was not exactly a lingering experience. Yet strangely, as delicious as the sensation was, I was relieved it was so brief. But obviously Scott Peck was on my wavelength (or more obviously, I was on his wavelength) because once the song ended he announced he was going to play it again. “Only this time, ” he said, “I want you to imagine that God is singing this song to you.”
I was undone. I had been holding back the tears until then, but as the song played a second time, the waves of emotion swept over me. I bawled. It was so raw, so humbling, so healing. I was utterly overwhelmed by God’s grace, by God’s sheer, unadulterated love for me, as I imagined him singing this to me:
Oh, I can’t keep it in, I can’t keep it in
I’ve gotta let it out
I’ve got to show the world, world’s gotta know
Know of the love, love that lies low
So why can’t you say, if you know then why can’t you say?
You’ve got too much deceit, and deceit kills the light
Light has to shine
I said, “shine light, shine light”
It was such a peculiar and transformative experience. I sobbed uncontrollably right there in my seat in the auditorium. There were no words to express my gratitude, my humility. I can now reflect on the words of Ezekiel 16:63, when God promises to forgive Israel, presented as a commoner queen-turned-whore: “Then, when I make atonement for you for all you have done, you will remember and be ashamed and never again open your mouth because of your humiliation.” That’s how I felt — humiliated by my arrogance that I thought I understood God, silenced by my thankfulness at being so loved and forgiven.
Many years later, U2 would release a song titled Grace, one line of which goes, “She [grace] travels outside of karma.” And it’s true. Grace shows us we don’t get what we deserve. we don’t get whatever energy we put out to the universe. Grace teaches us that we get what we don’t deserve. As Bono sings:
“Because Grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things
Grace finds beauty
Grace finds goodness in everything“
But grace didn’t simply leave me feeling loved; it demanded something of me. I felt God was commanding me to bow before him in the totality of my being, to bend the knee and swear allegiance.
I felt like I’d just been seduced by the creator of heaven and earth! That’s not a common experience — this pervasive sense of being touched spirituality, sexually, emotionally, cognitively. I felt as if I was tumbling in a breaking wave, trying to figure out which way is up.
I guess for those of us who like control, who insist on curating our own experience, and who like to live in our heads, the occurrence of being struck by grace can be so discombobulating.
The awesome experience of being overcome by God’s gracious desire for connection with me forced me to re-evaluate my view of how God interacts with human beings. Perhaps, I thought, God actually prefers to encounter us in the whole of our humanness, rather than simply in the cognitive or moral or even spiritual dimensions of our nature. Perhaps God desires to woo us and win us and to encounter us as much through our romantic, affective faculties as through any other avenue of human experience.
All this reminds me of something Donald Miller wrote when describing his own encounter with grace:
“….and through a dark night of the soul, I came to realize salvation happens through a mysterious, indefinable, relational interaction with Jesus in which we become one with him. I realized Christian conversion worked more like falling in love than understanding a series of concepts or ideas. This is not to say there are no true ideas, it is only to say there is something else, something beyond. There are true ideas involved in marriage and sex, but marriage and sex also involve something else, and that something else is mysterious. If we have a controlling personality, in which we like to check things off of lists, this is going to be extremely hard for us to understand and embrace. God gives us no control, really, over this ‘system’ of relationship. Introducing somebody to Jesus is not about presenting ideas, then, as much as it is introducing a person to a Deity who lives and interacts. Evangelism, then, looks like setting somebody up on a blind date: God does the work, we just tell them about him and where they can find him.”