One of the most frequent questions I’m asked goes something like this:  I know I’m supposed to show grace, but my teenage son just broke some rules in a major way; am I just supposed to let it slide?

Or… a teacher might hear this one:  I’m sorry I didn’t finish the assignment, but I ran out of time. Will you show me some grace and give me an extra day?

An employer might hear: Yeah, I’m late again, and I missed my sales goals again, but things aren’t going so well at home, so can you cut me some slack?

Or, from your alcoholic, mooching brother-in-law who wants to live in your spare bedroom: You talk about God’s love all the time, why won’t you show me some and let me move in?

The root question is this: what does grace look like in relationships when the other person blows it? Does grace-living require me to always let the other person off the hook?  How can I show grace when someone else acts irresponsibly, dangerously, or unprofessionally?

It’s not an easy question. There are competing values at stake. On one hand, we want to show the love, forgiveness, and grace of Christ. On the other hand, we want to maintain standards, excellence, and integrity in our family, classroom, or workplace.  How do we fit these values together?

The Golden Rule offers a perfect guideline: “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12, NKJV).  And, “And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise.” (Luke 6:31, NKJV).

The Golden Rule presumes that we want others to treat us well. We have an innate desire (when we’re sane) that those who deal with us will act in our best interests — especially in our best long term interests. If that’s the standard we wish others would express toward us, then it’s the standard we should express toward others. Always act in the best long-term interests of others, as best as you can figure it out.

So, that son who broke your rule; what consequence will be in his best long term interests? That employee who misses meetings or deadlines or targets: is there a true alignment between their skills and their position’s needs? That student who chronically turns in papers late: will letting them slide do them any favors? Does it help them improve in the long run?

Some years ago in Chicago, I walked a difficult journey alongside a friend whose wife was about to leave him for another man. My friend was friends with “the other man”, and felt torn between anger and, as he put it, “grace.”

I said, Can’t grace be angry? Can’t grace enforce righteous, personal boundaries? If you were messing up, wouldn’t you want someone to confront you and speak the truth in love? Then apply the Golden Rule. It is acting in love and grace when you exercise your parental, or employer, or teacher, or leadership role to design or speak-forth consequences that are in the other person’s best long term interests. Showing grace isn’t for wimps. Tough-love is not an oxymoron. (Happily, that man and his wife reconciled and are now missionaries in Asia.)

How many times did Jesus get in his disciples’ face and call them out for fear, lack of faith, and general sissy-hood?  It’s a mistake to think that grace is always soft, that grace is always nice, or that grace always lets people get away with junk. Not so. Jesus, full of grace and truth, nailed his friends to the wall when they blew it. Not always; sometimes he let it go. But he saw no contradiction between acting in grace and chewing out stupidity in people who knew better. He loved his friends too much to let them wreck their lives making self-destructive or self-indulgent choices. He would not stand by silently. He would not subsidize their self-destruction or failure.

Love does not coddle people into a life of mediocrity.

Love acts in the other person’s interests even when you have to play hardball.  Yes, there are plenty of times for the soft-touch, the gentle spirit, and the hand of help or forgiveness. Most Christians know that. What they need to hear is that grace has muscle, too.

The tricky part is deciding what’s called for. When a street-person asks for money, what’s in his or her best long term interest? Healing. Deliverance. Probably the local mission or shelter.  BUT… sometimes, what’s in their best long term interest is a gift right then and there. Sometimes, they need food, or hope, or a loving touch immediately.

So what should you do?

Prayerfully follow your gut instinct, trusting God to guide you. You can’t tell the future, so sometimes you will give; other times you won’t. Sometimes you’ll give your son back the car keys, other times, you won’t. Sometimes, you’ll let your salesperson come in late a few times, other times, you’ll have to draw a line.  It’s nuanced. It’s not cut and dried. It’s heartfelt. You have to lean on the Lord.

But it’s always doing for others what you (on your best days) would hope they would do for you: show respect and love, even if it has to be tough love.

Grace has muscle. Grace is tender and tough. Here’s loves bottom line: are people who want to better their lives (and not everyone does) better off long-term because of their relationship with you?

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