In our quest to communicate effectively, it’s often said, “It’s not what you say – it’s exactly what you say.” In other words, leave no room for confusion or ambiguity. I wonder if the same principle might apply to prayer: It’s not what you pray – it’s exactly what you pray.
What brings this to mind is a public prayer I heard recently in which the individual very humbly and piously prayed that the hearers might strive to be “worthy of God’s grace.” At first blush this sounds noble enough, but from a theological standpoint it makes no sense.
Grace, as I’ve learned over the years, is defined as “unmerited or undeserved favor.” In other words, it’s the favor and kindness of God that we can’t earn, no matter how hard we try. We can never become “worthy” of God’s favor or approval. If we could, Jesus’ death on the cross would have been unnecessary. He died on our behalf, not because we we’re deserving, but because there’s no way we could “clean up our act.”
Stating this another way, we can contrast the biblical concepts of grace and mercy: Grace is receiving what we don’t deserve (or, what we’re not worthy of) – God’s love, forgiveness and acceptance. Mercy is not receiving what we do deserve – which is condemnation because of sinfulness and willing rebellion against Him, virtually from birth.
Of course this tends to fly against our sensibilities. We like to view ourselves as “basically good people,” offering the excuses “nobody’s perfect” and “we’re only human.” Sounds good, but according to the Bible, that’s not good enough.
We see this clearly in the candid writings of the apostle Paul, who conceded, “So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members” (Romans 7:21-23).
A few verses earlier Paul made an observation many of us can relate to: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15). Have you ever been there, knowing there was something you genuinely had no intention of doing, yet you did it anyway? At such times, did you ever feel worthy of God’s grace, His unmerited favor?
After Paul’s agonizing admission of not having done what he wanted to do, along with doing what he really didn’t want to do, he reaches this conclusion: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” But then he adds these hopeful, joyful words: “Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!... Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 7:24-8:1).
This was the apostle Paul writing this, whose letters (epistles) make up much of the New Testament, not some homeless derelict. This was the fellow who also wrote, “For it is by grace you have been saved, though faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). This grace and the faith to receive it are a gift from God, Paul declares.
So the next time you do something that you know doesn’t meet God’s approval, or you think something you know you shouldn’t be thinking, and it occurs to you that you’re unworthy of His love – and His grace – join the club. We’re all unworthy. As Paul also wrote, “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10).
And that’s why it’s called grace. So stop trying to be worthy, and don’t pray that you will be. Just try to be grateful.