Costly Grace

Douglas P. McManaman
Saturday of the 7th Week of Easter
Reproduced with Permission

One cannot read the Acts of the Apostles without coming to some awareness that there is a cost of discipleship. The First Reading reminds me of an article I read this past week in the Catholic Register entitled "Beware of cheap grace", by Father Raymond DeSouza. He writes (emphasis mine): "Pope Francis has declared a special jubilee to help the world encounter the awesome, awful and awe-filled mercy of God. The world prefers cheap grace, and thinks it can get it from the Holy Father. The world - represented recently by Raul Castro and Al Gore - will be disappointed. Less than a month before VE Day, the 70th anniversary of which we celebrated in early May, the Nazis executed Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great Lutheran pastor and theologian, a luminous witness in the darkness of wartime Germany. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, knew that the end was nigh, and personally ordered Bonhoeffer's hanging before the Nazi leaders started killing themselves. In one of his best known works, The Cost of Discipleship , Bonhoeffer wrote, 'Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, (it is) baptism without Church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.'"

Indeed, the world does prefer cheap grace; in fact, it prefers everything cheap, at the lowest cost possible. For some things, such as food, clothing, and housing, this is reasonable; resources are scarce. For other things, however, we best keep in mind that "you get what you pay for", as the saying goes. Information about who Pope Francis is and what he stands for is being purchased at a very low cost, and if your information about who he is cost you little labor, that is, the time and effort it takes to read a few headlines or take in some hearsay evidence, etc., then you got what you paid for, which was some cheap and highly unreliable information. What I have found lately is that those who typically make reference to Pope Francis in support of their ideas on the new direction the Church ought to be taking have not actually read Pope Francis, just as so many of those who back in the 80s and 90s made reference to Vatican II against the papacies of John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI had not actually read the documents of Vatican II at all, but relied instead on headlines and popular misconceptions. The short cut route to knowledge; only what we're left with is not knowledge at all.

Cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his bestselling book Thinking Fast and Slow illustrates throughout our tendency to intellectual laziness, especially in the area of statistical reasoning. Thinking slowly and carefully requires effort, while quick inferences on the basis of very little evidence and first impressions are much easier and more common. Students today have their iPhones and other electronic devices, and that should make life easier still, freeing up scarce resources for the more important things, such as time devoted to a genuine education. Whereas before we had to wait weeks to get our hands on a book we'd ordered and paid for, now within minutes students can download great classics for free; books by Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Charlotte Bronte, even Aquinas' Summa Theologica and The Confessions of St. Augustine , and much more. In addition, they can have some of the best articles written by the best political pundits in North America tweeted to them every morning. But it doesn't matter, because they won't read them; it is far too taxing to read a 1,500 word article, let alone The Confessions or sections of The Summa .

We want everything cheap, without effort. For example, there is and always will be only one way to lose weight, which is diet and exercise. But there's always someone trying to sell us a diet that promises weight loss without difficulty, that is, without having to give up the foods we love. Similarly, education fads are often about the false promise of purchasing an education more cheaply, that is, without the effort that an education demands. Although students have electronic devices that are fast and efficient, there's only one way to become educated, one way to become a critical thinker, and only one way to become a person who can offer meaningful solutions to complex problems, and that is years of studying, especially a particular area of thought, and those years will involve reading and more reading, writing and more writing, thinking, discussing, self-correcting, learning from the great masters of the past, like Plato, Aristotle, Rene Descartes, John Locke, Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, and so many others. Any school or new educational messiah that promises educators a revolutionary technique that will accomplish what no educator was able to accomplish before without tremendous effort - and which centuries of the best and brightest educators in the past somehow missed - , or promises young students the possibility of a good education without the hard labor that was required by those who went before us is selling snake oil.

If we read The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, a classic which has been foundational for many psychologists and psychiatrists in recent years, we see that eudaemonia , which is the good life or happiness, is difficult to achieve. It is difficult because it is a matter of cultivating habits; virtues are habits that dispose the passions to obey reason - and the emotions have an innate need to be guided by reason. But we all know that good habits are hard to acquire and bad habits are hard to break. That's why happiness is difficult and few ever achieve it. And that's the point, it is an achievement, a moral achievement, and not something one stumbles upon or discovers. It is an activity, not a passivity (i.e., something received).

But the New Age and the latest self-help books have always promised happiness and well-being without the need for moral reform, without the difficult effort involved in changing our ways, renouncing evil, making sacrifices, restraining the passions, etc. And that's why these authors continue to make money: that is precisely what people want to hear, that's what they want to believe, and they choose to believe it , despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

And the same is found in the Church. Although Christ says: "Anyone who wishes to be a follower of mine, let him take up his cross and follow me", many are willing to follow as long as that cross is made of light material, like Styrofoam. To us, Ten Invitations sound much better than Ten Commandments; some even believe that when we die and stand before God, He will ask us whether we enjoyed the gift of life - as if that is all that's required for salvation - , instead of what he actually said he is going to say: "Depart from me; for I never knew you". And worst of all, we love those priests who preach cheap grace and despise those who remind us of the cost.

A priest friend of mine recently visited an SS officer in his 90s. He was a low ranking officer, and so he was not charged with crimes against humanity. However, he did cooperate with the Nazis, because he loved his life more than he loved those whom the Nazis sought to exterminate. Two things struck me about what he said to my friend. First, he pointed out that many SS officers refused to cooperate with Hitler, once they discovered what the Nazis were up to; they refused to go along, and these soldiers were taken away and killed for their decision. He emphasized that history is absolutely silent about that fact; there are no records of these heroes. The second thing that struck me is that the prospects of purgatory were delightful to this man. He is very grateful that the mercy of God freed him of the sins that have weighed him down all these years, but he knows in his heart that this wasn't cheap, but has a cost, that he has to make up for what he has done and what he failed to do, and the thought of the justice and pain of purgatory fills him with delight.

Lovers of cheap grace need to ask themselves whether or not they are on the road to salvation; for the way to eternal life is narrow and few find it, says Jesus, and the road to perdition is broad and many take it. It is very possible to attend Mass every Sunday in order to "pray our way away from God"; indeed, there are people whose coming to Church is their way of keeping God at a distance. These people know who they are, for they recoil when the raw word of God is preached; they delight in the light and "happy" message that God demands of us nothing more than a high five and a big smile. Grace, however, is not cheap, but very costly. Bonhoeffer continues: "Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock . Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ . It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: 'ye were bought at a price', and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God."