The Slow Work of Grace

Slow-Down1In the minds of many, grace is a legal concept – an expression of the kindness of God in the forgiveness of sins. As such, grace is instant and complete. This fits well within the legal conceptions of salvation. In the classical understanding of the Orthodox faith, salvation can indeed have a quality of “suddenness” – the thief on the Cross found paradise “in a single moment” according to the hymns of the Orthodox Church. But for most people – salvation is a life-long process in which we “work out our salvation from day to day in fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). That experience, like most of life, has a slow quality to it.

From Prayer by the Elder Sophrony:

At times prayer seems over-slow in bringing results, and life is so short. Instinctively we cry, “Make haste unto me.” But He does not always respond at once. Like fruit on a tree , our soul is left to scorch in the sun, to endure the cold wind, the scorching wind, to die of thirst or be drowned in the rain. But if we do not let go of the hem of His garment, all will end well.

We live in a culture of fast food, and tend to want grace to operate on the same speed track. Some versions of Christianity make grace as “quick” as walking the aisle. This, of course, is misleading.

In my experience, grace works on a level that is proper to human beings with some notable exceptions (but even then one can wonder). Grace takes time because we are not built on a fast track. Human beings don’t wean until about 2 1/2 years, properly (women you may correct me). We take 9 months of gestation, and we do not reach puberty for 13 years, traditionally. We are not instant people.

Neither does grace work on such an instant level (or is not at least noticeable on such an instant level). We should know that to be human requires years for some things, including things pertaining to God.

I am comforted, that, unlike physicists, theologians do not reach their best work until near retirement age. I’m waiting for my maturity!

But each of us would do well to slow down our expections and speed up our efforts of prayer. Pray more, but wait on God. This lesson of patience is not something God does to us to torture us, but is something He does to bring us back into line with our humanity. Let patience have her perfect work (James 1:4).

17 comments:

  1. As I like to tell the impatient engineers I work with,

    “One woman can grow a baby in nine months. But nine women can’t grow one baby in one month.”

  2. Thanks Father.
    Reminded of this. A man prayed, “Lord, give me patience and give it to me right now!”
    I tend to be impatient, so I’m probably that man. If it takes a lifetime to be a great theologian I think it also takes that long to learn how to pray.

  3. I was just pondering this these last couple days, why it is that patience and endurance seem to be important virtues God wishes us to have?

    It must have to do with the humility involved in hoping in what seems a hopeless state. If you consider the thief on the cross he embraced his own hopelessness, and yet still hoped for only a meager, humble remembrance by Christ. A long life of patient endurance, I think, can also engender this humility that the thief gained in only but a moment.

  4. Hello Father,I regularly read your articles.I must confess that there are faith seeds being sown and hopefully they will grow.This blog has been like a light gone off in me.I can witness now that Grace is indeed a long drawn out process with many fallings and equally many rising ups and then One Day it is as if it has finally arrived.Yes I fully agree with you Father, Grace is not instant.Thank you for your blogs and may the Lord continue to inspire you.

  5. A very good point Father. Salvation is like a well simmered soup or spaghetti sauce. The slower it cooks the better because the soul has a chance to really steep in the Faith and come to the fullness of the flavor of the Faith. Lasagna is always better as a left over so our salvation is better after a full life of being immersed in the Faith.
    Patience is not my strong suit by far. Like many I want my salvation Yesterday and I yell at microwaves for taking too long. I once prayed for patience so I was shown me how impatient I was. I have calmed down some, but that is only by Grace.
    The good news is that if we give ourselves over entirely to Grace and patiently await its complete work in us, He will never leave His work undone, but complete the work He has already begun. In this I trust.

  6. I agree with this idea. But yet God is so complex and simple at the same time. He can do mitacles in a blink of an eye and He can teach us through patience whst real love and grace is.

  7. Christ has left nothing incomplete in my salvation.

    The part that is incomplete is my surrendering my will totally to Him, forfeiting my ego, abdicating myself and all of my personal agendas aside from the love of God.

    I can only do these things with the help of His grace. Obviously, grace has a lot of work to do. 🙂

    (BTW – continuing to post on “Orthodox Prayer Life” by Matthew the Poor which a small group of us began in February. Coincidentally, our current chapter is called “Struggle and Constraint” and says “We need a long, disciplined struggle.” That makes it sound kind of gloomy but it is an excellent book.)

  8. Michelle,

    “I was just pondering this these last couple days, why it is that patience and endurance seem to be important virtues God wishes us to have?”

    It’s a good question. Perhaps it’s a bit like the toddler wondering why he can’t just run and play outside by himself, or ride his bike down the middle of the road.

    In the same way I think patience helps us grow into things we were always meant to have. Even for the toddler, his body – though it grows quickly – is slow and patient in its growth compared to its motion.

    The impatient Adam and Eve reached out for what they were not ready for yet. For the thief on the cross to make such a request, either he had to grow in a huge leap all at once to get to that point, or he had to have been preparing for it all his life. Either is possible, but the fact that his heart was at least partially prepared for it is more likely.

    I also suspect our curiosity over patience is related to our inability to comprehend eternity. Eternity is much more about being who we are right now on our journey and much less about travelling at light speed to who we will become. We are being taught to relax and enjoy the ride – though admittedly it is quite painful and bumpy in parts.

  9. Way back when I was a very young, Bible-thumping Pentecostal, I figured out that one should NEVER pray for certain things – least of all – for patience!
    Why?!
    Because “TRIBULATION worketh patience” (Romans 5:3b KJV) or – as it reads in the NIV – “because we know that SUFFERING produces perseverance”!

    It may be wonderful to BE patient, but getting there; not so much!!

  10. If the work of grace were not slow, constant and unending, most would not be saved I think. It seems as if it is a bit like the Colorado River cutting the Grand Canyon.

  11. Your blessing Father Stephen! Thank you for choosing to distract yourself from all else to share the fruit of your struggle, the journey of your faith and service with us. I have lost count of the amount of times that you have taken the time to explain something you have concisely made clear in your post for many of us.

    Thank you very much indeed.

  12. Blind Guide, your astute observation reminded me of this prayer of Met. Philaret of Moscow:

    My Lord, I know now what I ought to ask of you. You and you alone know my needs. You love me more than I am able to love you. O Father, grant unto me, your servant, all which I cannot ask. For a cross I dare not ask, nor for consolation; I dare only to stand in your presence. My heart is open to you. You see my needs of which I myself am unaware. Behold and lift me up! In your presence I stand, awed and silenced by your will and your judgments, into which my mind cannot penetrate. To you I offer myself as a sacrifice. No other desire is mine but to fulfill your will. Teach me how to pray. Do yourself pray within me. Amen.

    (Boldface emphasis, if it shows up, is mine.)

  13. That a child matures slowly does not speak to the fact of who his father might be. Baptism, our historical moment of adoption into the family, names us in the Will. We have no more control over to whom we are born and, in the long arc of our salvation, not much chance at controlling how and when the Hound of Heaven finds us at the moment we find Him. A lovely mystery of Grace.

  14. Then, we have ADD and anxiety.

    It sure gets in the way of working patience, specially if you’re prideful enough to believe a good amount of your salvation ‘percentage’ depends on you. Perhaps, humility is the key. It calms down our urges for quick responses, train our souls in that treasured patience of the heart. The discipline of the saving sadness… it is really difficult.

  15. I think Appostle Paul said something similar in his epistles about patience. It is maturation of faith, it is spiritual growth, and that way it let the Litd to work. Impatient yet to push the Litd to the direction they want instead follow Him. It is very similar when comes to the gift of grace. People should wait on the Lord not push Him to work for them. I like the article. It if filled with meaning!

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