This essay was originally posted in 2004.
It was late evening. I was headed for a meeting, at the end of a too-long day, and stopped into Starbucks for a fix. The store was empty except for a single barista. I ordered my coffee, and was stunned when told: “Your drink has been paid for by someone else.” I looked around: no “someone else” here.
The coffee was free, but better yet: I had received a free life lesson on grace.
I was raised with the conviction that one should expect nothing in life for free, and that hard work will ultimately be rewarded. Perhaps as a result, I have always been uncomfortable with complements or gifts received in unexpected contexts. Such awkwardness with gifts or complements seems common in others as well, a discomfort I suspect comes from a deep-seated sense of unworthiness or shame. There is a reflex need to reciprocate, to depreciate oneself, or even to decline the gift itself. I suspect I’m hardly alone with this awkwardness.
But here, at Starbucks, I was left without the opportunity to justify, minimize, rationalize, or refuse the offered grace. The perpetrator was long gone. I was busted.
As a Christian of many years, with hours of Bible study, books and sermons under my belt, I have long believed that I possessed a good intellectual grasp of grace. Grace was unmerited favor, best exemplified by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. And of course, I understood that I was saved by grace and not by my own merit. Yet there is something deep within, at the level of instinct, which resists this notion with great ferocity. I believe I can bridge the gap between myself and God because I have minimized with wild abandon the vastness of this chasm. God saved me, and I pay Him back by living as moral and upright a life as possible. It’s only fair, you know, gratitude and all. It’s also utterly wrong.
A stranger left a few dollars at a Starbucks for someone he or she would never know nor meet, who could not thank them. There would be no reciprocal payback, no Thank Yous, no praise for their generosity or acknowledgment of their kindness of spirit. Pure giving, with only the joy at anticipating that some unknown person would be blessed.
God’s grace is given with His full knowledge of the unworthiness of its object. It is pure love: not intended to get something in return, but rather to change the very nature of the object of grace. The thief on the cross had nothing to give back to God, but his life was transformed moments before his death–and we are the recipients of the grace given to him. I do not serve God to pay Him back for His grace; I serve Him because His grace changes my very nature, into one who in some small measure is an instrument whereby He can pass His grace on to others.