(Column appeared on February 4, 2016, in The Montclair Times)
Several years ago I had a patient named Sarah. She was nine years old and having a hard time coping with her parents’ divorce. She had had a number of problems before the divorce and was positive that she was responsible for her parents’ breakup. Nothing anyone said could dissuade her from that conviction. At nine years of age she was filled with guilt and pain. And what’s more, she didn’t have much hope that things would change or get better. Eventually, she pushed away everyone who tried to help her.
Then, one day, it was discovered that Sarah had a serious eye problem that might result in the loss of her sight. The doctor and her parents were honest with Sarah about her condition. And then we all sat back and waited for the temper tantrums, anxiety and depression she always exhibited when she had to face a very real problem or obstacle — and this little girl had had more than her share.
But then something strange happened. Through her medical ordeal, which included three operations, Sarah showed a sweetness, courage and strength of will she had never evidenced before, and which surprised everyone — most of all herself. Though Sarah was facing possible blindness, she seemed more at peace than she had ever been.
Despite our pride in Sarah, none of us could understand it. Where did this come from, particularly at such a difficult and frightening time? I had no sure answer, but it made me think of the phenomenon known as "sanctifying grace."
As I understand it, sanctifying grace is when ordinary people find themselves in extraordinary situations, and discover courage, inventiveness and dedication they never suspected they possessed. Some theologians talk about this kind of inner strength as emanating from God — a kind of divine intervention. Other people talk of a capacity that was always there but never really tested. Still others talk of a confluence of different events, or an inspiring situation or role model that enables people to act in ways that surpass their own highest expectations of themselves.
Three members of the Montclair clergy recently reflected on this concept.
Rabbi David Greenstein, of Congregation Shomrei Emunah
"The term ‘sanctifying grace’ sounds to me like an expression of the view that great achievements of human goodness or personal change or self-transcendence can only be explained as having come from an intervention from God. Some people understand ‘grace’ as a gift from God that humans, in their unworthiness, can never earn, but must hope to receive out of God’s boundless love.
"As I understand my Jewish tradition, I don’t see things that way at all. Yes, as a committed and believing Jew I affirm God’s boundless love. But I believe that God expresses that love continuously and continually in the act of Creation.
"Specifically with regard to human beings, I hear the message of my tradition to be that God’s infinite love is given to us by creating us in God’s Image. This means to me that, although we too often fail to do what is right, just and holy, we are never bereft of that potential.
"When we surprise ourselves and others by becoming kind, understanding, and ethical — even at the risk of danger, loss or death — we are really actualizing our own God-given potential. If we are surprised, it is because we have forgotten what we really are capable of being.
"A religious life is meant to recall us to that consciousness and deepen our relationship with God. But God’s sanctifying grace has been in us all the time. God’s prayer is that we bring it forth. When we live up to our God-given potential, we gift God the gift of fulfillment of all God’s hopes for us. We can be grateful for God’s love, and God is joyful and grateful in turn."
The Rev. Elizabeth Mora, of Unity Church
"In the Unity Church, we believe that there is always ‘something more’ that cannot be explained by pure reason and logic.
"The concept of sanctifying grace or, as we call it, Divine Order, describes how God works in our lives. God is "something more" than we can understand on a human level. God is all that is Divine, including love, peace, wisdom, goodness, and more.
"Because God is in all things, whether we see it or not, we are always being blessed by Divine potential. In other words, we reap more than we sow, as God always adds more goodness and love to everything.
"God’s grace is already given, because all of creation is made from the Divine, and so we are imbued with it. It is not added, but already present, and it is our job to live from that higher nature, instead of simply from our human selves.
"Our work is to express the divinity of God as best we can. That is how God’s grace sanctifies us."
The Rev. Paul Leggett, of Grace Presbyterian Church
"The term "sanctifying grace" draws on two key concepts. The first is grace. Grace is God’s mercy and favor. It cannot be earned. It is not deserved. Often it is the opposite of what is deserved.
"The prodigal son in Jesus’ famous parable (Luke 15:11-32) did not deserve to be welcomed back into his family after he had totally exploited his inheritance. By his own admission the son thinks the greatest favor he can ask is simply to be treated like a servant. Even that he didn’t deserve. Yet his father not only welcomes him, he kills the fatted calf and prepares a banquet in the son’s honor (to which his older judgmental brother objects strongly). This is grace.
"The second term comes from the word ‘sanctification’ which literally means to be set apart for some special purpose. The ultimate sanctification is holiness, being totally set apart for God.
"Sanctifying grace then is the idea of being set apart to show divine favor and mercy in a special way. This kind of grace is not humanly possible. That is why grace finally is a gift of God. The best example of sanctifying grace is forgiveness, even when the offending party hasn’t asked for it.
"In the example of Sarah you mention, it strikes me that she is given the grace to forgive herself. She is not responsible for her parents’ divorce. Nor did she deserve her medical ordeal. We have a natural tendency often to either blame ourselves or someone else when misfortune occurs. Sanctifying grace bypasses that option altogether.
"It reaches out in forgiveness and acceptance wherever there is brokenness. It refuses to play the blame game. That is sanctifying grace."
While there is a divergence of opinion regarding the origin and meaning of grace, there is virtual agreement that it does exist, whatever its source. Following are some ways parents can increase children’s awareness of this concept.
Talk with children about the concept of grace. Ask children their feelings about this. Do they believe in the concept? If not, why not?
Ask children how they feel about their personal failures. These days, many children believe failure is not acceptable, or is something to be ashamed of. They judge and label themselves within this framework, without seeing the possibilities for growth and redemption. Talk with them about how we can all learn and grow from our failures and take pride in our accomplishments.
Note: Readers can access the unedited remarks of Rabbi Greenstein, Rev. Mora and Rev. Leggett by going to the online edition of this week’s paper at www.northjersey.com/community-news/montclair-times-column-sanctifying-grace-1.1505796.