Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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A Grand Laughter

April 18, 2024

Kelly Keller

Last week I received a square card in the mail. The front of it had a painting of Highclere Castle, “Home of the real ‘Downton Abbey.’” The note was from a friend of mine, one of those few who still send real mail. She had sent me a thank you note for a gift.

I’ve also been known to send thank you notes through the mail, though not for every gift. I try to be faithful to do, though—I really do. People in 2024 frequently express surprise to receive such an outdated gesture. 

This friend and I used to chuckle together about that episode of The Office when Dwight Schrute decides to indebt everyone to himself by doing kind things for them. He buys the office bagels. He cleans the fridge in the break room. He holds doors for people. This is all in the hopes of gaining control of his coworkers and causing them to feel as though they “owe him one.”

What he doesn’t expect is the obstacle of his overly-polite coworker Andy Bernard, who takes pride in his own manners. Andy begins returning every favor and then presses further to exceed Dwight’s efforts with kindnesses of his own. Andy proudly says to the documentary camera: “You give me a gift—Bam! Thank you note. You invite me somewhere—Pow! RSVP. You do me a favor—Wham! Favor returned. Do not test my politeness.” Andy Bernard hates being in someone’s debt. 

Andy is all of us.

Troublesome Grace

As a concept, grace is troublesome to us because we cannot repay it. Grace hounds us; it annoys us because we cannot merit it. We cannot deserve it. We see this most importantly in the nature of the gospel, as we’re reminded by Paul in the book of Romans: “…if by grace, then it is not by works; otherwise grace ceases to be grace” (Romans 11:6 ESV). If we earned our favor it would no longer be grace; it would be merit.

In order to receive grace, then, it’s required that we are humbled out of our desire to deserve it. Before the grace of God can rebuild us, it must first break us down. Demolition before construction. Digging down before raising up. This is how we receive.

We see an example of this tearing-down-and-rebuilding grace in Jeremiah. The prophet describes the Lord’s intentions with Israel: “See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10 ESV).

God intended to rebuild the nation from the ground up, but that meant that some demolition needed to take place first. The pattern of tearing down and building back up was the only way God could impart His grace to fully transform His people. The soil had to be prepared before any growth could come to pass.

Grace and humility are irrevocably linked in this way. To receive grace, we must be humbled sufficiently. If we perceive given grace as something we’ve earned—if we instead resist and attempt to somehow merit it—we have not received it truly. 

A Grand Laughter

When Marilynne Robinson said in her book Gilead that “grace has a grand laughter in it,”[1] I think this is what she meant. To be sure, the Giver of grace is laughing: extravagant love, generosity, and care for those who cannot repay you must come with laughter and joy. God the Father is sovereignly, joyfully bringing all things to pass according to His will.

But more so, the recipient of the grace must also laugh: both at their unmerited fortune and also at their own attempts to deserve the grace they’ve received. What fortunate fools we are, thinking we can somehow merit the sheer generosity of God’s favor. We read that “we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:16–17 ESV).

We must laugh—and a grand laughter, at that. We laugh as we are broken down and we laugh as we are built up again.

[1] Robinson, Marilynne. Gilead. St Martins Press. 2005.

The featured image, “Iron Birdbath,” is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and is used with her glad permission for Cultivating.


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