Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
share post

Coming Home to Grace

April 18, 2024

Matthew Cyr

I grew up in the church, but I didn’t know what grace was until early adulthood. When I say I grew up in church, I mean that as a baby I was held and fed and burped by other people’s grandmothers in the church nursery, and my earliest memories include playing with blocks in the Sunday school toddler room. I have no memory of a time before regular church attendance, because there was no such time. 

And yet, when I say I didn’t know what the word “grace” meant, I mean that throughout childhood and adolescence, the only definition I knew was “moving elegantly.” A ballet dancer, or a swan gliding on a still pond, could be graceful. The older, deeper meaning of “unmerited favor,” of receiving blessings unearned and undeserved, fell entirely outside my awareness. I sat through many hundreds of Sunday school lessons and sermons, mouthed hundreds of hymns. The word grace showed up in at least a few of them. But if grace ever got explained rather than just mentioned, I missed it. How could the kind of grace a dancer possessed be relevant to God? Unable to penetrate the significance, I dismissed the phrasing as another bit of church-speak and came to hazily equate it with something like “God moves/works in beautiful ways.”

The faith community of my childhood put much emphasis on holiness—not just God’s holiness, but ours. Christian holiness meant obeying and serving God to one’s utmost, and above all, not sinning. While the word grace didn’t get that much airtime outside of the hymnbook, I remember the word backsliding coming up a fair bit—occasionally in sermons, more often in conversations. Backsliding was when someone had been saved by Jesus but then got drawn off the narrow path and stopped following Him. The boundaries for when you were backsliding didn’t seem clearly marked, but you didn’t want to stray anywhere near them. To backslide meant you had fallen back into sin, you weren’t right with God, and your soul was in danger. If your ticket got punched before you turned things around, you could be spending eternity in the fire. 

It may not greatly surprise you that my attitude toward God often ranged between uneasiness and downright fear. Because I never could quite stop sinning. I couldn’t be sure just how much I was disappointing God, and I was rarely confident that if I fell down dead, I would be whisked up to Heaven instead of plunged into unending torment. 

Grace found me in early adulthood, when I finally heard the fullness of the Good News: that sin and salvation didn’t overturn each other based on my performance before God. That what happened on the cross was the irreversible severing of sin’s power to steer my eternity. I learned that grace meant not getting what you deserved, and getting something infinitely better which you didn’t deserve at all. That God loved me because of who He was and not because of anything I did or didn’t do. 

At once my faith went from something that brought me near-constant fear and shame to something I was overjoyed about. I wanted to tell everyone what God was really like. 

Jesus knew that joy, and was always trying to tell everyone what God was really like. Time after time, Christ painted portraits of grace in His parables. One of the most detailed and staggering is the story we call “the Prodigal Son.” 

When I was a Sunday school boy, if you’d asked me what that story was about, I might well have told you it was about backsliding. A son leaving God to go off and sin. Who finds himself miserable, lower than the swine he gets down in the muck with. Jealous of pigs eating pig slop while he goes empty. Lucky for him, he repents and turns back to God, and lucky for him, God deigns to take him back. Isn’t that the story?

What I overlooked was that the young man, remembering that his father’s hired men are all clothed and sheltered and well fed, determines he’ll go home and beg to be taken in on those terms. “Father, I have sinned against Heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” [1] But the father, when he sees his son, runs over and embraces and kisses him before the son can get any apology out. And when the son does start in about his sin and his unworthiness to be a son, the father interrupts him before he even reaches the part about being accepted back as a mere servant. The father brushes all that aside; the only thing he cares about is that they are together again, and the joy that this brings him. He cannot wait to begin celebrating. He wants the best robe for his son, right away; a ring for his finger and shoes on his feet; and to get the feast cooking. Because this is still his son, and always was and always will be, and anything the son did or didn’t do is irrelevant to the enduring nature of that relation between them. It turns out that his sonship, his identity as Beloved, never hinged at all on his behavior. The son doesn’t even get to abase himself properly before he is swept up in love and compassion, treated as no less than the best and most cherished of children. 

This is the story Jesus tells the Pharisees to show them what God is like. And because it’s a true masterpiece, a deep well drawn in a few words, the parable also shows us another son. The son that never went off and shamed himself in sin, who kept at his father’s work and felt himself to be “the good one.” And rather than rejoicing with their father that his brother is back and all is well, he’s outraged that this little sinner, after crawling back in disgrace, is being honored. His father is lavishing blessings on him. The older son refuses to go in to the party, and when the father comes out to pull him into the celebration, his son complains, “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.” [2] Even though he hasn’t demanded his inheritance and run off with it, we see that this brother too prizes his father’s “stuff” more than his presence and relationship, and the party he wants is with his “friends,” not with his father and brother. And he feels he’s earned these things by his years of service.

But once again the father will not settle for a mere servant instead of a son. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” [3] To the father, their relationship as father and son is the treasure, the joy, that all other blessings exist just to enrich. Who-did-what is not the important thing; the important thing is for them to come in and enjoy the celebration, for the father and his children to delight in each other. For his sons to let him love them.

In His wisdom Jesus gives us both sides of the story. Not just because it covers both types of people, but because we each take turns being the spoiled, reprobate child and the self-righteous older sibling who thinks we deserve points for working hard and following rules. Sometimes I manage to play both roles simultaneously. But grace means that we are loved either way. God needs no hired hands; He will have us only as His beloved children. We can’t earn His love, but He insists on giving it freely, unearned. Neither by our sin can we lose His love; He will enfold us in it, undeserved. When we stumble home, eyes downcast and begrimed with the muck of the stall, He sees only His cherished one. Jesus the First Son, the Original, has helped give us such a washing that the filth can’t stick. Before we can stammer out our self-loathing, our unworthiness, the Father is embracing us and showering us with kisses and affection. Rejoicing over us, trying to lead us to the celebration feast.

[1] Luke 15:18-19 (English Standard Version)

[2] Luke 15:29 (ESV)

[3] Luke 15:31 (ESV)

The featured image, “Old John Blair Bridge,” is courtesy of Steve Moon and is used with his kind permission for Cultivating.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

A Field Guide to Cultivating ~ Essentials to Cultivating a Whole Life, Rooted in Christ, and Flourishing in Fellowship

Enjoy our gift to you as our Welcome to Cultivating! Discover the purpose of The Cultivating Project, and how you might find a "What, you too?" experience here with this fellowship of makers!

Receive your complimentary e-book

Explore the

Editions Archive


organized for ease by author and category.

View Our Editions Archive