I stumbled across a short article from the Resurgence called Communities of Grace vs. Communities of Performance. (Go ahead and read it right now- it will take you 2 minutes, tops.) It was written in 2009 and I’m not even sure how I found it. What I do know is that it resonated deeply with what I have observed in my own life. The author, Tim Chester, writes, “Communities of performance may talk a lot about grace, but they value performance—Christians who have it all figured out, churches that run smoothly, meetings that are accomplished. And so they communicate that what matters is that you perform well.”
Although the context Chester is writing about is the church, I think the same principles can be applied to other types of communities. Families, marriages, and friendships can also be communities of grace or communities of performance. “In performance-oriented churches [families/marriages/friendships], people pretend to be okay because their standing within the church [family/marriage/friendship] depends on it. But this is the opposite of grace. Grace acknowledges that we’re all sinners, all messed up, all struggling. And grace also affirms that in Christ we all belong, all make the grade, all are welcome.”
Michael is a lot of things- he’s friendly and warm. He’s smart and funny. He’s incredibly talented. And when I think of an example of someone who really embodies the idea of grace, Michael is the first person I think of. (I was going to say he’s graceful, but he would probably argue with my choice of words. Gracious, maybe?)
I’ve written before about my tendency to measure my worth by my accomplishments, by how I perform– it has been so hard to reprogram my thoughts to a grace-based way of thinking. There was this “Ah HA!” moment for me a few years ago that utterly changed my life. Michael and I were out somewhere with friends and because a) I can be socially awkward and b) often compensate for that by trying to be “witty,” I said some things about Michael that I thought were teasing and funny, but he thought were disrespectful. When he brought them to my attention on the ride home, I completely shut down… I didn’t know how to respond, couldn’t believe I had hurt him, and was so ashamed. But, instead of saying any of that to him, I was just quiet and started to cry.
Y’all, my husband is a saint. Truly, he has put up with some crazy behavior from me.
He was patient with me and gave me some time to collect myself. But, he didn’t just let it go. With Michael, there is no sweeping things under the rug. He cannot stand relational distance and, in the nine years of our marriage, he has taught me that it is always better to bring things out into the light and work through them.
So, there we were sitting in the car– I was crying and trying to figure out what to say to him. I was so frustrated that I had been loose with my words. But, in the course of our conversation, he helped me realize that I wasn’t really upset that I had hurt him, but I was actually concerned because I had messed up. And as I struggled to help him understand how devastating it felt– how hard it was to admit my mistake and move on– he said something I will never forget.
With all the warmth and kindness you would expect from him, he said, “Of course you are going to make mistakes. That’s what we do! And there will always, always be grace for you.”
I know this probably seems silly– like a parent telling a child it’s okay that he knocked over his cup of milk. We all make mistakes. Everyone gets that, right? How could this little scene change my life?
Because at least a dozen times a day I remind myself that there is grace for me.
My mind plays tricks on me and it doesn’t take very long before I can go from thinking about a conversation I had with a friend to being convinced that I didn’t listen well and am a terrible person. And the thought that I messed up and now my friend may not think well of me is too much. It’s debilitating and crushing. I end up spiraling down and down until I am a wet, slobbery ball of anxiety and guilt.
In the past, the only way I could pull myself out of that crazy thought-tailspin was by telling myself that I was fine. Of course I’m a good listener. I’m probably just making a big deal about this. There’s nothing to see here, folks… move along. But the thing is, there are definitely times where I mess up. I may not, in fact, have listened well. Let’s be honest, we can all get wrapped up in our own lives and forget to listen deeply to others. The solution to my problem is not to continue to perpetuate the lie that I am actually perfect. Instead, that knowledge– seeing myself accurately, without being either too hard or too easy on myself– is only possible when I rest in the grace of Christ. I can acknowledge that I’m not perfect, I often make mistakes (some of them quite big and embarrassing), and yet there is grace for me. Instead of being absorbed with my actions, I can actually think about the person I wronged. I can go to them and ask for forgiveness and pursue reconciliation, instead of pretending that everything is fine.
Cultivating a community of grace means that not only do I remind myself of the grace I need to rest in when I mess up, but it also means that I extend grace to others when they mess up. Believing the best about someone, giving them the benefit of the doubt, remembering that their real sin isn’t again me, but against the Lord… these are ways to offer grace to someone else. Grace (like humility) is beautiful when it is directed at you, but when you are the one offering grace to someone else it is often uncomfortable. Offering grace to others doesn’t just happen, instead it is a choice. It goes against our nature, and so we must fight to be gracious people.
One of the ways Chester contrasts communities of grace with communities of performance is by talking about failure. He says that in a community of performance, “Failure is devastating, because identity is found in ministry” but in a community of grace, “Failure is disappointing but not devastating, because identity is found in Christ.” That’s really it, isn’t it? I can reach out and grab hold of grace because I’m found in Christ– my identity is in his actions, not mine. I can trust in the One who never messed up to provide the grace for all my mistakes.
My identity cannot be in what I do, achieve, or even how well I love others. Because I am going to fail. I am going to fail to love my husband well even though I cannot think of anything else I want to do perfectly more than that. I am going to fail to always know what the right decision is, or worse, I’m going to fail to choose the right thing even when I do know what is right. At some point, I know I am going to fail my family, my friends, and my church. I’m even going to fail as I strive to offer grace to others.
But there will always, always be grace for me. And for you.