The Textures of Grace

By: Dale M. Coulter
Friday, April 16th, 2010

Because grace makes beauty. . .out of ugly things (Grace by U2)

Inside I’m dying, I hide from the light, but you see me beautiful, you see; I roar like a lion, an unlovable sight, but you see me beautiful. You make me beautiful, you make me, you make me beautiful. (See Me Beautiful by Sister Hazel)

Christian tradition has always seen a close connection between grace and beauty although this connection can be obscured when one focuses exclusively on a single dimension of grace. Grace is a word rich in texture. One of its most common definitions is unmerited favor. Protestants usually connect this definition to God’s justifying activity in which sins are freely forgiven and humans are unconditionally embraced. From this perspective, grace expresses the qualities of kindness, compassion, and mercy, which are best encapsulated within the Hebrew term hesed (loving kindness, covenant faithfulness, compassionate mercy). The grace of God is his determination to remain faithful when all others are faithless, and this is his love in action (Rom. 3:24; Eph. 1:7; Eph. 2:4-5, 7). I know that I am accepted because God has freely extended his favor toward me and adopted me into his family. In the words of Sister Hazel, “Inside I’m dying. . . but you see me beautiful.”

Another way of considering grace is in terms of strength and power. For Paul, grace is the strength made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9), and this gift comes through the working of divine power (Eph. 3:7). Grace is the perfecting power or energizing presence of God that brings the individual to completion, causing the person to flourish. It is not enough to see humans as beautiful; we must be made beautiful.

Ultimately, these textures of grace point us back toward the triune God whose life is love. To borrow a metaphor from the second-century bishop Irenaeus of Lyon, the love of the Father extends to the world through his two hands, the Son and the Spirit.

The Incarnate Son is the shape of divine love. His life, death, and resurrection extends divine favor to the world “God so loved” (John 3:16). In the language of Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109), the Son renders satisfaction to the Father for the sins of the world. To make satisfaction (satisfacere) really means to do (facere) enough (satis). Jesus did what no mere human could do by conquering the forces of sin and death and thus restoring order to a world that had descended into chaos. As Jeremiah reminded Israel during her exile, the Lord’s loving kindness never fails and his compassion does not end (Lam. 3:22-23). The Son is the shape of love because he embodies the Father’s determination not to allow the powers of sin and death to hold humans captive on a slave ship bound for the abyss of nothingness.

There is no distance between justice, love, and righteousness: By restoring order, the Son brings justice; by rectifying what was wrong, the Son brings righteousness; and by ordering and rectifying a world in the chaos of exile, the Son fully expresses the love of the Father. These connections emerge when we cease to think of justice solely in punitive terms and begin to see it as not allowing the broken to remain broken or the disordered to remain disordered. So, I would call for a rejection of views of Christ’s work that pit justice against mercy and love. Justice is love in action and righteousness is the expression of justice.

The Spirit is the power of divine love. As the love of God poured out into human hearts (Rom. 5:5), the Spirit restores order to human desires and emotions thereby releasing us to express our love rightly and fully. We are liberated from sin as a self-destructive power (the flesh), or the emotion and desire that binds us to all kinds of things that can consume us. Such liberation comes from the Spirit’s passionate love that inflames our love for the eternal and cools our love for the temporal. Some Christian thinkers, like Evagrius of Pontus, have called this love eros to underscore its consuming, burning, fiery presence. This is power, the power of love. Augustine likened it unto a weight to underscore its gravitational force. It is nothing less than the Spirit’s own regenerating and sanctifying presence.

Anyone who has experienced the power of attraction has a sense of this kind of love. The Spirit catches us up into the life of the triune God by simultaneously breaking the attraction to the “world” that forms the basis of our slavery and igniting our love for another world, another place, another order. We begin to perceive a richer hue, a deeper melody behind the colors and rhythms of creation. This is not to deny creation’s own beauty, but it is to recognize that, like the moon’s light, it is reflective of a brighter source. If beauty is order, harmony, or symmetry, then the Holy Spirit makes us beautiful by rightly ordering our loves so that love for God, love for neighbor, and love for the created world all take up their rightful place. In other words, to be made holy is to become beautiful–the beauty of holiness (Psalm 29:2, NKJV; Isaiah 61:10, ESV; Isaiah 62:2-3, ESV). We are made holy when our emotions and desires are re-directed toward God as their proper end and thus brought back into balance, harmony, and wholeness. Once again, we see that love, justice, and righteousness have no distance between them.

So what is the connection between grace and beauty? Does it have something to do with the rich textures of grace? By exploring those textures, maybe we can glimpse how grace enables us to see ourselves as beautiful and, more than that, refashions us so that we become beautiful. As the two hands of the Father, the Son and the Spirit embrace us by painting afresh on the canvas of our lives so that, like the colors of a butterfly, they reflect the beauty, symmetry, and order of the triune life. This happens when we become caught up in the harmonious movement of that triune dance between Father, Son, and Spirit as we learn to move to the rhythms of God’s grace. Here is love vast as the ocean. . . .

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Dale M. Coulter
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2 Responses to “The Textures of Grace”

  1. Sally Jo Shelton says:

    What a beautiful post, Dr. C! I like the way you’ve ended it: “Love as vast as the ocean.” This reminds me of a hymn based on John 15:9: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.” (We sang it today at Mass.) We may try to imagine the depth of love the Father has for the Son, and the depth of love Christ, in turn, has for us, but our human ability to conceive it is so very limited.

    How can we grasp the idea of infinite love? It’s like we can feel the waves lapping at our feet, but we cannot begin to comprehend the vastness of the ocean of God’s love for us. All we can do is kneel in awe and gratitude at the feet of our Savior. But Romans 5:5 reminds us that this love is not just lapping at our feet. It is being poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. No wonder Augustine quoted this Scripture so often.

    The question that remains is, how can the human heart be a fit container for God’s love? It is made worthy only by the sanctifying, transforming power of God’s love itself as it is poured into us by his Spirit. It is only in experiencing the presence of God by the Spirit that we are transformed and empowered, in our own turn, to love one another even as Christ has loved us (John 13:34).