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Paul is one of my favorite, favorite blogs to read when I want to be challenged to think about the word or spirituality in a new and fresh way. We disagree on enough small things that he makes me think and wrestle more than I like to do with most bloggers, but we agree on enough that sometimes his words on grace, faith, growth, theology catch in my throat and send a resounding YES through my soul. 

I grew up in a pretty stereotypical Evangelical setting, which led to a pretty stereotypical back-and-forth between guilt and self-righteousness. That is, until I heard the Gospel of radical Grace.

Many of us have this same story, where it has been so healing to hear that how God relates to us is not, in fact, based on our performance. Instead, everything necessary for God to be pleased with us has been accomplished on our behalf by his Son.

And so, in response to this, we fall in love with God’s Grace. We pray for it, long for it, and cry for it. We read books about it, write about it, and blog about it (I even did a five-part series on it myself). We try and speak it into others’ lives while trying to figure out why we don’t apply it to our own. We joyfully build our relationship with God on the glorious foundation of His Grace. It is fundamental, primary, and essential.

In short: we love Grace.

Imagine my surprise, then, as I fell in love with liturgy and forms of worship that were centuries-old, to begin noticing the utter lack of “grace” from the prayers and worship of the earliest saints.

For example, I have used the Book of Common Prayer to guide my personal prayer and worship for a couple of years now. In 100 pages of liturgy and prayers for use at Morning, Noon, Evening, and Late-night, there are only six references to grace, and four of those are from Bible verses quoted, and only two are included as part of the liturgy. “Grace” appears in none of the collects, prayers, or songs that I looked through.

In fact, if you think about it, neither the Lord’s Prayer, the earliest Christian hymn we know of (Philippians 2:6-11), the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, nor the Athanasian Creed include any reference to grace.

So what do they focus on, if not grace? Here are some highlights from the liturgies and prayers throughout Church History:

Almighty God, Father of all mercies…we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies…

The mercy of the Lord is everlasting: Come let us adore him.

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

O Lord, have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us. O Lord, let thy mercy be upon us.

Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Kyrie Eleison… (Greek for “Lord have mercy”. In some ancient liturgies, this phrase was repeated up to 40 times in one church service)

Mercy. Lots of and lots of Mercy. It was hard to notice this. I had to face some tough questions. Why is this so lopsided from the way we usually talk about spirituality nowadays? What does “mercy” have to do with worship, prayer, and drawing near to God?  Have we stressed the wrong thing? Why are we so obsessed with grace? Is this why we suck so badly at it?

At least for me, I realized that I saw grace mainly as the “juice” God gave me to obey him; the strength God gave to grow; a gift of God that helps me please him better. In short, my spiritual life was/is still defined mainly by a desire to perform/obey/please God/“make my election sure”/etc. It seems part of me has just baptized my Pharisaism in Reformed Theology.

But what’s with this “Mercy” emphasis, and why do we not talk the same way? I think (once again, at least in my case) Mercy has more to do with God’s relating to me in spite of something in me. Mercy always assumes there’s something being looked over or forgiven.

Grace, on the other hand, is more like a little gift God gives me after he’s been merciful to me. It’s something “extra”–the blessing that comes with right relationship. It’s his enabling of my relating to him.

If I’m honest, I don’t like focusing on what God has to overlook and overcome within me. I just want to get to the benefits and the way he might help me perform better. I’ll admit my neediness in an attempt to overcome it, but not to rest secure in it. As I’ve written before, I know God loves me, but at times I doubt he really likes me.

But there is still good news that these saints of old whisper to me. They remind me that before God is gracious, he is merciful. I can’t get the grace until I get the mercy. They show me that the response I should have to my sin and shortcomings is not first and foremost to try and find more resources to overcome and conquer the darkness within me.

Rather, it’s to pray and plead that God might be merciful and still look upon me with pleasure. And then it’s to praise him that, in his mercy, he has promised he does.

And then I need to rest.

Maybe this is why, in spite of all of our beautiful theology on grace, we’re bad at it. Without the backdrop of God needing to be merciful to us in the first place, his grace doesn’t truly captivate us.

So let us fall on our knees and cry for mercy. And in his mercy, may he give us grace.

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.