Raise your hand if you too hated group projects in school. It’s probably because you, like me, felt like you were the one who did all the work. There was always the kid who planned everything, delegated work and put the whole beautiful project together. And then there was always the kid who skipped meetings, turned in the least amount of work, and then slapped their name on the finished project, even though they barely contributed.
It drove me crazy! Why? Because it wasn’t fair! Why should the kid who did no work get the same grade as me who did so much?
As an adult I’ve been slowly growing to accept that my faith is very much a big group project. But when you come to understand who you are in the group, and who has actually done all the work, that frustration starts to turn to humility and thanksgiving.
Before we get too deep into this topic, let’s define what exactly we are talking about.
What is grace?
I’ve often heard it explained in comparison to mercy. Mercy is not getting what we do deserve. Grace is getting something we don’t deserve. Our God is both merciful and gracious to us. Romans 3:23 teaches that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But in His mercy, Christ offers us a path out of the death that we deserve.
He is also gracious in offering us eternal life. All have sinned, all are imperfect. We don’t deserve Heaven and have never done anything that can make us deserving of it. But He offers it to us anyway.
I think that’s a concept that most believers understand. Many of us are familiar with these verses in Romans and Ephesians, and we are quick to bow our heads and say “yes, I am a sinner and I don’t deserve this grace. But God offers it to me anyway!”
Then why do we get so frustrated with the following two stories?
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At the end of 1 Samuel, we find David about to lead an army of 600 men in an attack on the Philistines. As the men approach their city, they find that it has already been raided by the Philistines, who took every man, woman and child there as hostages. All of the soldier’s wives and children are gone, and 1 Samuel 30:4 says that they wept until they were exhausted.
But now, with a rescue mission to drive them forward, the soldiers continue on in search of the Philistines. At least, until they came to the Besor Valley. At that point, “two hundred of them were too exhausted to cross the valley, but David and the other four hundred continued the pursuit” (1 Samuel 30:10).
Even with a smaller fighting force, David still has the Lord on his side, and is able to defeat the Philistines and recover all the people who were taken. The Bible says that he recovered everything that was lost, including much livestock and plunder. What a haul!
But what about the 200 soldiers who were just too tired to go on? While they sat back and rested, their comrades spent hours in battle. But still feeling “gracious” themselves, some of the soldiers returning from battle told David the other men should be given their wives and children, but nothing else.
Sounds good to me! They didn’t do any work. Why should they get any plunder?
But David disagrees:
Are you thinking what I’m thinking? “Come on, David. That’s not fair.” But flip back a page in your Bible and notice how that plunder was described in verse 20: “This is David’s plunder.” Before that in verses 18 and 19: “David recovered everything…” “David brought everything back...”
David isn’t stealing from his hardworking men. It’s his plunder. He can do with it as he please, and he graciously offers to share it equally with all of his men. Not just the ones who followed him into battle.
Maybe David was just feeling extra generous that day? Let’s take a look at one of Jesus’ parables:
When we read this, it seems like our knee-jerk reaction is to be indignant. The workers who were only there an hour or so got the same payment as the ones who worked all day in the heat? That’s not fair, right? Let’s take a look at where we fall in these stories.
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Jesus is painting a wonderful picture of God’s grace here, but instead of enjoying the beauty of this freely given gift, we, like the morning workers, feel unsatisfied. We may even feel ripped off. “What, is that it?”
Why do we feel this way? Because we are putting ourselves in the shoes of the hardest workers. We see ourselves as the soldiers on the front lines with David, and we see ourselves as the workers who rose before dawn and worked until their fingers were raw. But, no matter how hard we work here on earth – whether in our jobs, our families or our ministries – that’s not who we are. And it’s not, I think, where Jesus intends for us to place ourselves in this story.
How much better do these two stories feel if you put yourself in the shoes of the others? How blessed, relieved, and joyfully unworthy would you feel if you were the solider who stayed behind, but still was given equal reward? How unmeasurably thankful if you were the worker who waited around all day, only to work for just a bit – but was given a wage vastly more than you were expecting?
That is what God’s grace looks like to us. We can’t earn our way into Heaven, no matter how hard we try. One slip up, one sinful thought or voice raised in anger, and you’re disqualified. God knows this about us, but He still graciously offers us the credit that His Son bought. Jesus did all the work, not us. But still our sins are forgiven, through nothing that we could have done.
Going back to my original example of a group project in school, it’s like you were the kid who never showed up to class, never even knew there was a project, and did zero work towards it. But still you were given an A+ and a scholarship to the best college in the country.
And that comparison falls so woefully short of the reward we are given in Christ. The two stories above are meant to help us glimpse all that God has done for us; but the gift of eternal life is more than David could ever give his men, and more than any boss could ever give to her workers. When you think of that heavenly reward, that path away from death, there is no space in our hearts and minds for dissatisfaction. We could never feel ripped off by what God has offered, because what could possibly be greater? What in all of human history was bought with a higher price?
God’s grace is not fair. And that is of the upmost importance to us.
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Bethany Pyle is the editor for Bible Study Tools.com and the design editor for Crosscards.com. She has a background in journalism and a degree in English from Christopher Newport University. When not editing for Salem, she enjoys good fiction and better coffee.