The Awful Grace of God
As we begin a new year, one of the many things I need to take a hard look at is whether or not I've learned anything from the past one.
I try not to live in the rearview mirror, but an old and wise adage states, "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
I'm not for repeating past mistakes; I'm guessing no one reading this is either.
Each of us has the opportunity at the beginning of a new year to reflect on what we have learned from our mistakes, the decisions we've regretted, and the things we wish we could have done differently.
But how many of us take the time and energy to do that? It's far too easy to just continue on without a great deal of self-reflection, especially if what we need to learn requires some measure of change on our part.
Some time ago, I read a quote attributed to the Greek tragedian and poet Aeschylus that troubled me and caused me to think more deeply about what it means to learn from the past:
He who learns must suffer.
And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget,
Falls drop by drop upon the heart.
And in our own despair, against our own will,
Comes wisdom to us, by the awful grace of God.
If this quote troubles you, too, I understand entirely. It doesn't seem all that inspiring at first glance, but there's more to this than meets the eye.
First, this quote deals with the difficulty that comes with personal growth and how our openness to admit we haven't got everything figured out can be painful at times. It takes humility to own our missteps; with that humility, we may also find ourselves feeling regret.
Still, we often need help with what we need to do in order to gain wisdom from what we've experienced. The easier path is the one of self-pity, self-loathing, and even despair.
What the poet offers up is a vision of how when we are most vulnerable (sleep is a metaphor here) and let down our guard, the work of grace continues to bring wisdom if we are willing to let it.
Which makes that last line so important and also a bit confusing. Like me, I'm sure most of you read the words "awful grace of God" and responded with "What!?"
Here's the thing: for centuries, the word "awful" did not have an entirely negative connotation. The etymology of the word reveals that it used to mean "awe-inspiring, worthy of respect or fear."
With this in mind, the poem's last line has a new meaning.
The poet essentially says that one day, we may wake up and realize that the grace of God has fallen upon us, over and again, despite all of our efforts to hold it at bay, which we often do because we think we're not worthy of it.
This grace enables us to move past the struggle of learning and into a new way of living that allows us to leave the past in the past.
And with this grace comes the kind of wisdom that enables us to see ourselves more clearly as God sees us not as broken, despairing people with a litany of mistakes to wear us down but as loved, cherished, and restored.
So, allow yourself to be vulnerable and open to learning from the ways that you feel you fell short of where you wanted to be. Receive God's grace and forgiveness, which never runs out.
Learn to forgive yourself and move forward in joy.
And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen.