Cheap grace

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
There’s a tension among Christians today between those who would extend God’s mercy everywhere, seemingly without any conditions, and those who are more reticent and discriminating in dispensing it. The tension comes out most clearly in our debates concerning who may receive the sacraments: Who should be allowed to receive the Eucharist? Who should be allowed to marry inside a church? Who should be allowed a Christian burial? When should a priest withhold absolution in confession?

However, this tension is about a lot more than who should be allowed to receive certain sacraments. Ultimately, it’s about how we understand God’s grace and mercy. A clear example of this today is the growing opposition we see in some sectors to the person and approach of Pope Francis. To his critics, Francis is soft and compromising. To them, he is dispensing cheap grace, making God and His mercy as accessible as the nearest water tap. God’s embrace to all. No conditions asked. No prior repentance called for. No demand that there first be a change in the person’s life. Grace for all. No cost.

What’s to be said about this? If we dispense God’s grace and mercy so indiscriminately doesn’t this strip Christianity of much of its salt and leaven? May we simply embrace and bless everyone without any moral conditions? Isn’t the Gospel meant to confront?

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

Well, the very phrase cheap grace is an oxymoron. There’s no such a thing as cheap grace. All grace, by definition, is unmerited just as all grace, by definition, doesn’t ask for certain preconditions to be met in order for it to be offered and received. The very essence of grace is that it is a gift, free, undeserved. And, though by its very nature grace often does evoke a response of love and a change of heart, it does not of itself demand them.

There’s no more powerful example of this than Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son and how it illustrates how grace meets waywardness. We know the story. The prodigal son abandons and rejects his father, takes his unearned inheritance, goes off to a foreign land (a place away from his father) and squanders the money in the pursuit of pleasure. When he has wasted everything, he decides to return to his father, not because he suddenly has a renewed love for him, but, selfish still, because he is hungry. And we know what happens. When he is still a long way from his father’s house, his father (no doubt longing for his return) runs out to meet him and, before his son even has an opportunity to apologize, embraces him unconditionally, takes him back into his house and prepares a special celebration for him. Talk about cheap grace!

Notice to whom this parable was spoken. It was addressed to a group of sincere religious persons who were upset precisely because they felt that by embracing and eating with sinners (without first demanding some moral preconditions) Jesus was cheapening grace, making God’s love and mercy too accessible, hence less precious. Notice as well the reaction of many of Jesus’ contemporaries when they saw him dining with sinners. For example, when he dined with Zacchaeus, the tax collector, the Gospels tell us, “All who saw it began to grumble.” Interesting how that discontent persists.

Why? Why this anxiety? What undergirds our “grumbling?” Concern for true religion? Not really. The deeper root of this anxiety is not religious but grounded rather in our nature and in our wounds. Our resistance to naked gift, to raw gratuity, to unconditional love, undeserved grace, stems rather from something inside our instinctual DNA that is hardened by our wounds. A combination of nature and wound imprints in us the belief that any gift, not least love and forgiveness, needs to be merited. In this life, no free meal! In religion, no free grace! A conspiracy between our nature and our wounds keeps forever reminding us that we are unlovable, and that love must be merited; it cannot be free because we are unworthy.

Overcoming that inner voice that is perpetually reminding us that we are unlovable is, I believe, the ultimate struggle (psychological and spiritual) in our lives. Moreover, don’t be fooled by protests to the contrary. People who glibly radiate how lovable they are and make protests to that effect are mostly trying to keep that fear at bay.

St. Paul wrote his Epistle to the Romans as his dying message. He devotes its first seven chapters to simply affirming over and over again that we cannot get our lives right. We are morally incapable. However, his repeated emphasis that we cannot get our lives right is really a set-up for what he really wants to leave with us, namely, we don’t have to get our lives right. We are loved in spite of our sin, and we are given everything freely, gratuitously, irrespective of any merit on our part.

Our uneasiness with unmerited grace is rooted more in a human insecurity than in any genuine religious concern.

(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser is a theologian, teacher and award-winning author. He can be contacted through his website