Q: I’m struggling to understand more practically what exactly is God’s grace and how I interact with it. I mean, I heard that grace is supposed to be free, but then there are people who say that I have to earn it by my works. What’s going on here?
There’s a lot that can be said about grace, and there are lots of works written on this. I’m going to keep this succinct to the issue that you’re asking about as much as possible.
Let’s say I am an uncle and I have a nephew. I love my nephew very much. I delight in him and love playing with him and want to shower him with gifts. My nephew, however, has not earned them. He didn’t make himself my nephew or make himself cute. He is who he is and I am who I am and I love him and want to give him all sorts of gifts. As he grows and develops, my gifts might change based on my observation of where he is in life and what might be harmful at one time and helpful at another, but it is still my love that motivates me to give to him. On the same token, if he refuses the love and lives in a relationship with me that is one of fear, servitude, or even hate – then I might try and give him gifts, but he might refuse them. But if he lives in love toward me, I continue to give them. Again, all throughout, there is never a time where he earned the present, but I think this helps show God’s role and the human’s role a little more clearly.
Grace has a few meanings but is usually meant as “gift” or “help” (the word charisma is a derivate of the Greek word for grace), but it has a very important understanding — it’s always FREE. It’s a present.
It’s that latter part that we sometimes label as being not Orthodox, but there is real truth to it. Grace is free. There is absolutely no work that I can do that will earn me grace, because that would change the definition. It is no longer a gift if I earned it, it becomes wages. If we resort to that, we are actually closer to heterodoxy than we think, because we now have a salvation concept that is based on some justice system rather than being based on love. Justice is based on works!
So the Orthodox person will say, what then of works? Works are a commandment of God! But more importantly, works should be a consequence of love, not done solely for recompense. The first and second commandment are to love God above all and my neighbour as myself. Our Lord said, if you love me, keep my commandments. He said anytime we clothe someone, visit someone, do anything for anyone, it is as though we did it for God Himself. If I do an ascetic work, it has to be the consequence of love, not a means of merit. There is no righteousness in the act itself if it is not done as an act of love for God.
Works, however, may make the Spirit of God abound more within me, and hence the grace of God becomes more apparent in me. The Spirit begins to work in me more abundantly. He grants “gifts” (read: grace) that we read and sing about all the time. These are a consequence of love, and are freely given, not earned. This can be understood with a simple question, if an atheist does good deeds, reads prayers, gets baptised in a font and partakes of Eucharist but in His heart is still an atheist, will he be saved? Yes, it’s rhetorical.
So grace is the inner working of the Spirit, Who gives gifts and acts of help that are accorded in love not on account of the merit of man, lest it become wages, but given freely from the abundance of His love. Works don’t merit us the grace, but works done in love do result in more grace.
Struggling with sin because of love, not pride, also helps one acquire grace in that He is trying to please God. When a penitent is fighting himself to control his tongue, his temper, his lust or what have you, because he feels it is against the love of God, he feels more and more the work of the Spirit and its presence, Who fills him and gives him grace to distance himself from that sin, while revealing to him others. This is really a lot of what spiritual transformation and growth is all about.