“Hurry and help me; I want some wide-open space in my life.”
—Psalm 38:22, The Message
“A religion without grace will wallop you with God’s image of the perfect human life; it will condemn you for not matching it in your own life. Religion clobbers you for your failures and sends you groveling in the sawdust of defeat. [Religion] tells us that we’re forever wrong unless we measure up to God’s ideal. … May grace come to convince you at the depths of your soul that it’s all right even though a lot is wrong with you.”
—Lewis Smedes, How Can It Be All Right When Everything Is All Wrong?
“Herein lies the core of my spiritual struggle: the struggle against self-rejection, self-contempt, and self-loathing.”
—Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son
The thing about impossible standards is they take up way too much space. First, there is the space for all the lines, the exactingly detailed images of the way things should be. Then there is the space for the self-recriminations and helpless frustration when reality inevitably falls short of those ideals. And when God himself is added in the mix as one more person whose stance is one of regretful disappointment, there is no room for anything that might bring life.
It is often from closed-off places of claustrophobia that I cry out to God, much like the psalmist, for “wide-open spaces.” And the moment of grace is always the moment when something held tightly is released, when something closed off breaks open. It is a moment of realizing how completely I’ve blown it and also the moment of realizing how completely I am loved still. And the times when I really get this, I feel a deep inner sense of relief, a gratitude so deep it moves me to tears. But there are lots of times I don’t get it because I am so walled off with self-contempt there is no room to be open to grace.
Some friends and I decided that we would proclaim 2007 the “year of grace”. For us this meant we would stop endlessly blaming ourselves for things that went wrong, but would just acknowledge our failings, confess them to one another, and move on. We would give grace to ourselves as we all stood on the brink of major life changes and we would willingly embrace the moments we were most aware of our weakness.
At the start of 2008, we have just come to the end of our self-appointed “year of grace,” and right away my first thought is I need another one. And another one. And I realize it is not really about a year and it is not for any of us to proclaim. Though I still find myself crushed with self-loathing, grace is what allows me now and then to rise above it and what keeps me from being destroyed by it. Grace is God himself, come down to love me. Grace is abundant, free ... there for a year of days and all the days God grants me space to receive it.