I have always been mesmerized by ballet dancers. I remember our family’s annual visit to McCormick Place in Chicago to see the Nutcracker. The fluid movement, the spinning on toes, arms floating around as if in flight, their movement told the story. The dancers made the most difficult technical movements seem natural and easy. I remember one friend speaking of the dancers’ expertise as being filled with grace. These artists had taken complicated and physically demanding choreography and infused it with simple elegance and refinement.
The concept of grace has a long history within the Christian tradition. In theological terms, grace is described as God’s unmerited favor toward human beings far beyond what we deserve—both in terms of our own failing, and in terms of the abundance of God’s blessing towards us. Grace is also understood as a way of life towards others. Since God gives grace freely, humans ought to extend grace towards one another. Like the experienced dancer, the grace extended toward others should be characterized with an elegance and refinement.
Easier said than done. For one like me, who is by nature clumsy and lacking in balance, extending grace to another can often feel like the most excruciating physical practice. What often results is not a refined and elegant performance, but the proverbial dancer with two left feet. So how does one, like the dancers in the Bolshoi Ballet, live in ways that are full of grace?
I asked this question to a friend as we conversed about living in ways that were permeated with graciousness. He shared a story with me about his children’s karate instructor. The instructor was a black-belt in karate and very skilled in his movements and technique. Like the dancers I saw in the Nutcracker, my friend marveled at both the fluidity and gracefulness of the instructor’s movements as he demonstrated karate. Afterwards, my friend asked the instructor if he always moved with such grace and ease—was that something that just came naturally and that one had to possess inherently in order to succeed at karate? The instructor laughed and took him into his office. He took out a video tape. The tape was recorded when the instructor was a student. My friend was amazed by what he saw: jerky, clumsy kicks and punches, falling down as he missed his target, defeat against one opponent after another. Was it really the same person he saw before him? Indeed, it was. So what was the instructor’s secret?
Becoming a black-belt in karate or a seasoned dancer doesn’t happen instantaneously. Instead, each day offers multiple opportunities to practice whatever it is we want to become. Those dancers who move with an elegance that would almost seem commonplace were it not so extraordinary generally spend over ten years practicing and then several more years laboring in the ranks of a company. Days are spent dancing 10 to 12 hours per day, six days a week.(1) And while fame and prestige are certainly motivators in this rigor, the grace of movement and the ability to make art with one’s body surely ground the need for this kind of disciplined practice.
If the grace-full life of Christ is the intended goal for those who claim to follow him, each day presents the opportunity to practice—to grow in the very grace Christ embodies. Each day brings circumstances and events that call for a response. Instead of fear, there can be empathy and hope. Instead of pride, there can be humility and hospitality. Instead of bitterness and resentment, there can be forgiveness or sacrificial giving. There is always a choice. And thankfully, there is always one who extends flawlessly the very grace we need ourselves.
For only those who see their own need can grow in grace themselves. In Jesus’s day, ironically, those who saw themselves as the most religious were often the very ones who missed out on grace. When a woman of questionable reputation came and anointed Jesus’s feet with perfume, the Pharisees criticized both the woman and Jesus. How could he allow this sort of woman—a sinner in their eyes—to touch him, especially as he claimed to be the Son of God? Jesus’s reply is instructive for all who seek grace: “Her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little loves little” (Luke 7:47). Without the recognition of the human need for forgiveness and the sort of grace that reaches far beyond anything we can offer, there is a failure to practice grace-full living with others.
In Jesus, whose way of life we are invited to follow after and practice in our relationships, we have a merciful and demanding grace. It is both startling and necessary as we go and do likewise.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) “Those Undulating Swan Arms? Not So Easy to Do,” by Julie Bloom. The New York Times Online, November 26, 2010.