Exploring the Meaning of "Grace"

What thoughts and images are conjured up for you when I say the word “grace?”

For me, it’s a sense of love, a warm hug, and a release from worry. It’s kindness and forgiveness that’s extended by a higher power. Maybe it doesn’t necessarily ease the pain, but it makes life a little more tolerable by reminding me that I’m fundamentally okay, my okayness is untouchable by the world. I’m not broken or irredeemable because I am in fact worthy of love. I often need these sort of reminders.

The word “grace” isn’t in my regular vernacular, but the concept isn’t totally foreign to me. It probably isn’t in yours either as people usually come to the word after much cathartic searching.  I wanted to take a deeper dive into it. I wanted to examine my own beliefs about the matter, research a ton on Christian ideas as well as Buddhist, and discuss what I learned. What I found was a whole lot of love, some difficult language, and lots of shades in between. I learned that the meaning of the word grace isn’t static, it’s constantly changing from person to person and even within an individual. Across the board, though, it’s a powerful thing.

My Roots

My own understanding stems from a combination of things. My spiritual life flows from a mix of Buddhism, a 12 step program, and a dab of Catholicism. I’ve built a higher power up in my mind to be a loving force, though I don’t know what exactly that force may be. Grace finds itself sprinkled throughout my practices.

My Buddhist background is what reminds me that I’m fundamentally okay- even good. That I’m always this way and nothing can taint, stain, or mess that up. So, when I think of grace through that lens I think of that warmness reminding me that I’m alright. I realize that no mistake I make can make me any less good because that goodness is untouchable. Similarly, the present moment is what it is. I also think of it as the gift of reality, the ability to touch into the present moment. Buddhism is big on the truth, looking at our lives for what they are. I imagine grace to be a dose of truth as we’re usually humans who are constantly living anywhere but the present.

My 12 step program helps me keep in mind that I can’t do this on my own and it’s okay to lean into both people and a higher power to let it guide and hold me. That power can be the essence of love or the strength of my ancestors. It doesn’t have to mean a big fancy God. Further on this perspective, grace is community. It’s not having to be by myself. It may take the form of a hug from a friend or a metaphorical hug from a higher power. Regardless of how it appears, I think of it as a buddy.

Lastly, Catholicism is what I practice least, but at one point it was very important to me, so it still plays a part in my spiritual life. Catholicism has taught me that this higher power I’ve been talking about loves me to pieces. I am so lovable and it’s there to remind me of that. This overlaps with both Buddhism and my 12 step program because there are the same ideas. They all kind of mesh together.

Breaking down my three origins still doesn’t quite feel like it covers my definition of grace. Further, I think it’s an energy that comes when I need it, seemingly by a little bit of magic. It’s the kindness of a stranger telling me in the grocery store that I have a beautiful dress on. It’s the love in my family members when we’re surrounding my grandfather in the hospital. It can feel like that je ne sais quoi where I can’t quite put my finger on what the power is or what exactly it’s doing. I just know that it’s done for my good.

Christianity

Inherent goodness is what I believe in, but when researching Christian beliefs on grace it almost felt as if some of them believe humans are inherently bad. Take this quote by Barry Cooper at exploreGod for example:

“When we treat the God who made us in this way [worshipping false Gods], we deserve every bit of his condemnation and judgment. Jesus is uncomfortably clear that because we sin against God in this way, we deserve hell.”

Grace is conditional in this Christian view of the world, it’s not a universal or free thing. If we’re damned to hell then grace is just out of reach. I don’t know, perhaps I don’t understand the context or these people are extremists. Either way, I’m having a hard time being nonjudgmental and neutral when looking at this quote and some teachings like it.

One of the headers from this site actually says “Never Good Enough.” I have a hard time with the idea of “badness,” as I believe so much in inherent goodness. I’m one of the crazy people that believes that every single human has inherent goodness, even dictators and people who do objectively awful things. It’s not easy to feel they’re worthy of love, but I know in my heart that all humans are. Believing that we’re inherently bad can drive us to do awful things. It can warp the mind of someone into thinking that they don’t deserve love and give them fuel to commit acts of violence. It’s so important to believe in our goodness.

A quote by Paul Zahl goes on to say that Grace actually is unconditional, but people aren’t good, “Grace is unconditional love toward a person who does not deserve it.” Who gets to decide that a human isn’t worth it? I think it’s bullshit to say that humans are inherently undeserving. No thanks! I mean, I can get down with some of it - the love and kindness part, but not the idea that we’re so messed up that we need saving.

More on Buddhism

Buddhism doesn’t believe in saving. Rather, looking outside of one’s own self to be saved is pure delusion, meaning ignorance and not being plugged into reality. The Buddha said you’re responsible for your own actions and this is called karma. This concept is that you take actions that have consequences. Some of these consequences affect you negatively and contribute to your karma in the cycle of rebirth. I think grace fits in with the concept of karma because it’s a positive guiding force. It’s a mindfulness tool to bring you to the present moment where you can try to make your best decisions.

From my research, there are potential forms of Buddhism that integrate something like this concept. Won Buddhism, for example, intentionally uses the word “grace.” Specifically, they talk about the Fourfold Grace. They refer to this as “the indispensable relationship among all things, especially the one between ourselves and other people. You could perhaps also translate the Korean term as ‘gratitude.’” The four parts are The Grace of Heaven and Earth or the universe and nature, The Grace of Parents meaning not only biological parents but those who have guided and taught us, The Grace of Fellow Beings because being connected to others is of great importance, and The Grace of Laws which means Buddhist laws as well as everyday samaritan laws. These make up the “truth.”

These examples from Won Buddhism like heaven and earth or the universe and nature are related to grace because we have to recognize our dependence on these things. Grace, according to the Fourfold Grace, is the essence of interconnectedness and interdependence around us. We need the trees to breathe, the water to sustain us, and the ground to hold us.

Another Buddhist teacher, Lama Surya Das, author of Awakening the Buddha Within, says, “Grace is the “isness’ of life. It’s the recognition that everything is connected and sacred.” Again, this idea of interconnectedness. I’m adding that to my own definition of grace, the idea that it’s just reality or the fact of the matter. It’s touching into truth.

In trying to think of moments when I felt grace, a few came to mind. One was meeting a new lover who’s a wonderful human being and a great match for me. Just as Wen Buddhism says, I have gratitude. Next, not only have I experienced grace in good times, but I’ve experienced it in challenging ones as well. Like when I was hospitalized for mental health issues and a friend came to visit. Their presence felt like a ray of sunshine beaming into my heart. I’m not sure if these are proper examples of grace, but it’s what I think of when I ponder the word’s meaning.
In thinking of what it means to me after all of the research, I’m also thinking about how I can access it. I think grace is always accessible to me at any given moment. I’ve just got to turn slightly towards the light. I want to say it’s about being extra positive, but it’s more complicated than that. It’s much more about sensing the pulse of reality- of what makes me feel alive. It’s not perfection, rather it’s experiencing the struggles as well as the joys in the living breathing humans around me. This idea reminds me much of mindfulness practice, bringing attention to the present moment and soaking everything in just as it is. In that, there’s some magic, some feelings that can’t quite be described.

In Sum

Before closing, I want to acknowledge that I did find a pretty sweet Christian definition of grace that I liked: “Because God is love, grace is a gift of love that invites us into a relationship with God, the source of our existence.” So while on the whole, I seem to disagree with what many Christians define grace as, I believe there are some Christians out there who are more on the love train.

I’ve learned a great deal in exploring the meaning of grace. I’ve grown to understand that I can never know everything, that there will always be more information to absorb. It’s a big concept, one that is defined and redefined over the course of a lifetime. There are many sources from which I can get my information from and being open to those sources will only benefit me. With this, I realized that I don’t need to have hostile views towards Christianity because most likely I don’t understand the breadth of their definitions. Their ideas may sound wrong to me at first, but there could be a beautiful definition behind there.

At the end of this, I reflect on my definition of grace. It reminds me again and again that I’m fundamentally okay, I’m part of something greater, and I’m so lovable. I’ll keep exploring the meaning of grace, letting its magic touch me, and I’ll allow my definition to adapt with each lesson I have in this precious life.