Grace, and what it does

what-so-amazingWhat’s So Amazing About Grace by Philip Yancey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are so many books out there that purport to teach us how to live. Every one starts from some premise, some basic assumption or other: the self-help books that insist it’s all a matter of attitude and determination; the psychological treatises; and perhaps more in America than Britain, the unashamedly biblical.

Here are two of the latter that actually do what they say on the tin. What’s So Amazing About Grace? is Philip Yancey’s 1997 classic, examining grace as “the last best word” – the one great theological word that has not been distorted and devalued over the generations. The beauty of the word is that it means something divine, but also embodies some very immediate, very human qualities, qualities which we can recognise and respond to and warm to in the people around us. It is a word which, even in that human definition, transforms everything it touches.

Yancey spends a good deal of the book discussing not just grace but “ungrace” in all its forms: within the family, the church, and not least the wider world. With unflinching candour he traces the patterns that ungrace has left in our lives, the generations of warfare and hatred. The only remedy, he says, is the unthinkable, irrational, wholly unfair one: forgiveness.ome very immediate, very human qualities, qualities which we can recognise and respond to and warm to in the people around us. It is a word which, even in that human definition, transforms everything it touches.

He is not afraid to use any of this language, either. Grace is irrational, illogical, unfair. Though he is perfectly clear about justice being necessary in many situations, he is unequivocal that justice is not good enough. He points to the moral of Les Miserables – that Valjean’s grace and mercy trump Javert’s justice; that blinkered, righteous justice is so overwhelmed by the shining wonder of grace, that it cannot survive the encounter.

Yancey is no armchair theorist, and he steers us through a hundred or more years of human history, demonstrating the very practical ways in which ungrace and a fixation on justice have obstructed human progress, where forgiveness and grace have enabled it. He writes of the Holocaust, of the civil rights struggle in the 1960s, of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Northern Ireland, South Africa, the fall of the Iron Curtain – all of our shared history and most of it our shared experience, where we can see for ourselves what has worked and what has not. (It is particularly humbling to be reminded of Gordon Wilson, who emerged from beneath five feet of collapsed concrete at the Enniskillen bombing in 1987 – the bombing that killed his 20-year-old daughter – with the words, “I bear no grudge” and “Love is the bottom line”. His words had a profound and tangible impact on the political process during the next few years, and went a long way towards making today’s relatively peaceful situation possible.)

One thing that distinguishes this book from its fellows is Yancey’s own stature: he grew up in segregated bible-belt America, but emerged from that culture with an unusually sharp understanding of where it sits in a wider religious, political and social spectrum. He makes no bones about his own background and culture, but understands and respects the fact that for many of his readers it will be somewhat alien. There is a societal maturity to his writing, which is is to be expected of the editor-at-large of Christianity Today, and which subtly reinforces the message that grace is for everyone, no matter what your background or your history or your religious and cultural trappings may be.

And that, in one respect, is the book’s great strength – because it allows Yancey, like one or two rare others such as John Eldredge, to separate and extract from the outward processes of socio-religious observance the outlook on life that really matters


What’s So Amazing About Grace? offers a new paradigm for life, one of freedom and opportunity and above all hope. Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, to Take Control of Your Life by Henry Cloud and John Townsend, on the other hand, is a how-to manual, practical and detailed and specific. It is about boundaries within relationships: boundaries with spouses, parents, children, work colleagues and friends.

By boundaries, the authors essentially mean the ability to say No. We are all asked by those around us to give time, attention, affection, money – to give of our substance, as they put it – but without the ability to say No, we will be left depleted and unable to fulfil our own needs or others. And we are conditioned not to say No – to see it as unloving, unchristian and selfish.

What nonsense, say the authors. Boundaries, they point out, exist whether or not we choose to articulate and enforce them. An inability to say No, even from the best and kindest of motives, can create long-term imbalance in our relationships.

It can make for uneasy reading at times, particularly as we identify our own behaviour in the authors’ descriptions. But their argument is persuasive, that healthy relationships, however close, need boundaries in order to thrive. Throughout the book, Cloud and Townsend insist that boundaries help us to define who we really are – our “very self” – and thus allow us to live to the full, rather than living out what another person wants or expects us to be.

They have a strong message about responsibility too. We are responsible to others for how we act towards them, but we are not responsible for their reactions or emotions. They point out the difference between not telling someone a hard message without considering their feelings and responses, and not telling them at all because we are afraid they will be hurt.

Early in the book they introduce an important distinction: citing Galatians 6, verses 2 (“Carry each other’s burdens”) and 6 (“for each one should carry their own load”), they distinguish between the outsized burden that will crush someone if carried alone, and the “rucksack” of the day-to-day load that we can each be expected to carry for ourselves – our emotions, our reactions, our baggage. (It is a distinction that may surprise those who have grown up with the King James Version, which uses “burden” in both verses.) When we are expected to carry another’s daily load, they say, it’s a sure sign that we have our boundaries in the wrong place.

Cloud and Townsend offer an interesting perspective on Yancey’s theme of forgiveness. Unforgiveness destroys boundaries, they say; forgiveness re-establishes them, for it gets other people’s bad debt off your property.

Boundaries offers a black-and-white definition of situations that in real life take on many shades of grey, but its black-and-whiteness gives much needed structure and definition to those situations. However, there is one caveat to be applied: the authors come from a school of thought where talking can solve everything. Their argument leaves no room for silence, whether as a defuser of tension, a survival technique or a means of establishing and reinforcing a boundary.

That aside, this is a book with an important and helpful message, one that can help us all to live more sanely. It empowers us to say No, and in doing so, gives us a surprising gift: for when our No is functioning properly, we are also free to say Yes – and to mean it.

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2 Responses to Grace, and what it does

  1. Pingback: Taking responsibility for our words | Things Unrespected

  2. Pingback: Falling Upward | Things Unrespected

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