Recently I read the blog of an atheist (to which I’m not linking to avoid its becoming personal), who had the following to say about Christians: They deny that life has meaning to those who aren’t Christian; they deny that one can be moral without being Christian; and they “steal” goodness and humanity from people and lock them up in a vault to which they alone have the key.
I believe he’s referring to the idea that salvation may be found only in Jesus Christ. He also may be thinking of the commonly held Christian idea that we can do no good without grace — therefore (he reasons) non-Christians can do no good. I suspect he takes it a step further and accuses us of believing that we are in possession of the treasury of all graces, such that you can’t access grace without belonging to the Church.
Grace, in this scenario, seems to be rather like gold, and we Christians like the evil miser who says, “You can have some of my gold, but only if you promise to be subject to me.” He doesn’t take the analogy this far but this seems to be his underlying point.
Instead of gold, I would suggest that grace is more like food; and saying that people can’t live without food is not an insult to them, but is just the truth. It may be a hard truth. In a sense it’s like putting a gun to people’s heads and saying, “Eat or die!” Nevertheless, it’s true and we do no one any favors by denying it.
It would not be kind in us to say to a starving man, for the sake of his dignity and self-respect, “Who needs food anyway? Foodless people are as good as anyone else.” He may be as good, but perhaps not as well.
In fact this all may come down to the failure to make the distinction between “good” and “well”.
People generally don’t brag about health. Some do, once in a while. But for the most part, we know that our health is not something we created or earned for ourselves. We know that if we were born with a normal, healthy body, free of major diseases or defects, it was no more our doing than that we were born at all.
Now some people do things that ruin their health: playing dangerous sports or abusing their bodies through eating or drinking or drugs. But they don’t give themselves the health which was there to begin with. In short, we can destroy health but we can’t make it. Even a doctor will admit that the healing art is just a matter of working with the health that is already there.
What Christians are saying, then, is that food is to the health of the body, as grace is to the soul. Whereas food keeps you fit for your bodily existence in the physical world, grace makes you fit for the spiritual. Grace is the food of the spirit.
Christians will admit that grace is given freely, and not earned beforehand. Grace can no more be earned than a body before one’s own birth. But grace, once given, is treasured, as wholesome food to a man who has known nothing but starvation or malnourishment; and who when provided with food wants to share it with those whom he cares for. He loves how wonderful it feels to be healthy, and can’t help thanking and praising those by whom he was fed.
Now imagine our malnourished gentleman calling his family and friends to partake of this bounty: “Come, this is the place to get it, it’s over this way! And it’s free! No, not over there, over here! The big blue truck, not that garbage can!”
It can’t be helped that the food is in one place rather than another. Those who distribute it don’t just scatter it promiscuously over the ground, but do so through their local agents, who have been employed and trained for the purpose. They don’t transport food in every truck that happens to pass down the highway, but only in those that are authorized carriers. This way they coordinate distribution for the greatest benefit.
So if the Church is the place to receive grace, what of it? Surely God has the right to distribute his gifts as he pleases. And as to her being a miser, hoarding his gifts to herself, oh come now. To what nation, tongue or dialect has she not gone in her effort to give them away? Whom does she not welcome? To whom does she not say,
All you who thirst, come to the waters;
And you who have no money come, buy and eat.
Come, buy wine and milk
Without money and without cost.
Why spend money for what is not bread,
And your wages for what fails to satisfy?
Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good,
And delight yourself in abundance.
Incline your ear and come to Me.
Listen, that you may live;
And I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
According to the faithful mercies shown to David.