He Shines in All That’s Fair: Why Common Grace Should Be More Common

Rachel Lynde: The murder trials in this Boston paper my niece sent me are real interesting, Marilla. Full of heathen, that place. I hope Anne will never go there again. Can you imagine that new minister going on about how he doesn’t believe that all the heathen will be eternally lost? The idea! If they won’t be, all the money we’ve been sending to the foreign missions will be completely wasted. That’s what.

Marilla Cuthbert: I wouldn’t fret if I were you, Rachel. Goodness knows, the world is full of beggars, and it’s a pretty pass if we can’t help out a fellow being in need, Christian or not. 

Anne of Green Gables, The Sequel

John Murray once raised the question, “How is it that this sin-cursed world enjoys so much favour and kindness at the hand of its holy and ever-blessed Creator?”[1] The answer to Murray’s question is found in a distinction made by theologians between God’s “special” or “saving” grace on the one hand, and his “common” or “non-saving” grace, on the other. By God’s design, this common grace is always at work in the broader reaches of human society. 

Common grace is hard to miss once we’ve thought about it for any length of time. God clearly bestows blessings on all human beings—believers and un-believers alike. For example, Jesus said his Father “causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt 5:45). That is, God doesn’t just water the crops of believers; he waters the crops of the unbelievers, too. He gives good gifts to all of humanity—whether they know him or not, believe in him or not, or thank him or not. God’s goodness extends to all his creation. 

While God’s general goodness and gifts might not always result in the final redemption of every human being on whom it is showered (after all, at some level, salvation encompasses an individual’s personal belief), common grace is still a magnanimous display of his kindness and generosity to persons made in his image. Indeed, all that is good ultimately comes from God, regardless of whose lap it falls into here on planet earth. Maltbie Babcock’s hymn captures an aspect of common grace with these lines: 

This is my Father’s world, the birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world: He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.

“He shines in all that’s fair.” That’s common grace. Both saint and sinner alike can appreciate a good sunset. Both can enjoy a breathtaking opera. Both can get a lump in their throats when their children get married. Both can enjoy a slice of hot apple pie with vanilla ice cream on top and a dollop of whipped cream dusted with cinnamon and sugar and a cup of piping hot coffee next to it right after dinner. (Yes, taste buds are a form of common grace!) Specifically, God demonstrates his common grace by:

  • Giving all humans a conscience, by which right and wrong can be known (Rom 2:15)
  • Sovereignly maintaining order in human society through government (Rom 13:1-5)
  • Enabling all people to admire beauty and goodness (Ps 50:2; Dan 2:21)
  • Setting up governments and putting leaders in power to maintain peace (1 Tim 2:2)
  • Allowing everyone (in or out of Christ) to do good (Luke 6:33)
  • Allowing all people to experience a vast array of emotions (Eccl 3:4)
  • Giving people the ability to truly love each other (1 John 4:7)
  • Allowing people to turn from evil (Job 1:1)
  • Protecting people from constant evil and torment (Job 1:8)
  • Keeping the ocean within its borders (Job 38:11)
  • Allowing everyone to rest (Deut 5:12)
  • Providing people with the necessities to live (Ps 104:14; Matt 6:30)

Tim Keller has said, “This gift of God’s grace to humanity in general demonstrates a desire on God’s part to bestow certain blessings on all human beings, believer and non-believer alike. Understanding common grace provides the basis for Christians to cooperate with and learn from non-Christians.”[2] Really? Learn from and be blessed by people outside the formal covenants enumerated in Scripture? Oh yes. God often works that way. Some biblical examples include:

  • Melchizedek blessing Abraham
  • Rahab serving the Israelites
  • Ruth accepting Yahweh and serving an Israelite family
  • The pagan sailors acting more ethically than Jonah
  • The pagan kings promoting Daniel in their realms
  • Cyrus the Persian funding the rebuilding of the temple
  • The magi worshiping Christ shortly after his birth
  • The Roman centurion acknowledging Jesus’ lordship while the disciples are hiding
  • Accurate statements made by unbelievers and cited in the Scriptures to serve the cause of truth

Without an understanding of common grace, believers wind up committing the genetic fallacy on a regular basis. (e.g., “The MBTI is untrustworthy because it’s based on Jungian psychology.” No, it’s validity and reliability must be determined independently of the original proponent.) We also marginalize people who don’t share our faith, preventing them from being a blessing to us as God may intend. But if God can use Cyrus the Persian to bless the Israelites’ journey home from exile, can I not likewise let my dentist bless me even if he’s an unbeliever, or my brain surgeon even if she’s a Muslim? Just get the job done right, thank you very much. On a related note, much of the world’s music can be raunchy, but some of it is rather pleasant or insightful. Common grace allows it to be so.

If common grace is so common—both in Scripture and in the heart of God—should it not be more common in the lives of believers? Indeed, should we not make loving our neighbor more common than it probably is? Salvation belongs to the Lord (Rev 7:10), not me. I cannot make it happen it my own life let alone anybody else’s. Moreover, Jesus said we can trust him to sort out the wheat from the weeds at the end of the age (Matt 13:24-30). That’s not our job right now. Nor is it Rachel Lynde’s.

Image Credits: pexels.com; gettyimages.com.

[1] John Murray, “Common Grace,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, II:93.

[2] Tim Keller, Sermon Archives.

Still Humming: The 20th Anniversary of Enya’s ‘A Day Without Rain’

Soft. Soothing. Ethereal. Diaphonous. These are words that come to mind when I think of the music of Eithne Ni Bhraonain, more commonly known to the world as Enya. I like the style of this gifted Irish sensation, not because her tracks are lyrically sophisticated but precisely because they’re not. They don’t need to be. Her unique translucent sound often transports me to new and wonderful places. Gently and contented I go, as if floating on a cloud without a care in the cosmos.

Even when the tempo picks up with her signature cello burps, pizzicato riffs, and other rhythmic pulsations, the effect is still light, airy, and non-threatening. Amidst the noise and nonsense of this broken and complex world, it’s nice to glide somewhere rather than be shoved, musically or otherwise. The world would be a better place if all of us took a healthy dose of musical Xanax once in a while.

Enya’s fifth studio album, A Day Without Rain, was released twenty years ago this week. It was a commercial succes with its lead single, “Only Time,” a piece that found much resonance in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. How revolting to see her breezy meditation resurrected in a Kraft Mac & Cheese commercial this year. That misalignment comes close to warranting a boycott of the international food conglomerate.

My favorite Enya album is her most recent, Dark Sky Island, which was released in November 2015, fifteen years to the day after A Day Without Rain. The lyrics are more substantive, and the musical style is quintessential Enya. In it she’s both clever and clandestine. As one would expect, she’s haunting, spellbinding, and cathedralesque from start to finish. Her explorations venture from the seen to the unseen realm (e.g., from “The Humming” to “The Forge of the Angels”). Bridging the two realms is “Sancta Maria,” a devotional to the Mother of Christ. No part of the universe exceeds the reach of her curiosity and musicality.

Also finding poignant expression in Dark Sky Island are the universal themes of love, heartbreak, and a journey’s end (e.g., “So I Could Find My Way,” “Even in the Shadows,” and “I Could Never Say Goodbye”). The most delightful and adventuresome piece is “Pale Grass Blue,” named for a small butterly in southern Asia. Both the lyrics and the melody are razor sharp as they capture something of the dance and flutters of nature.

Enya is truly one of a kind. All told, her career has been steady and impressive, recluse though she may be for long periods of time. New albums from her small studio team, however, are always worth the wait. Aren’t we due for another one soon? Who can say? Only time.

Now, what’s an evangelical like me doing listening to New Age music? In short, I like some of it. Not all of it, but Enya’s version of it—yes. Sometimes it helps me relax. Sometimes it helps me reflect. Sometimes it trips me into the boundless. And not once has it ever lured me into consulting crystals for guidance. Spiritual discernment doesn’t evaporate when the music around me gets all soundscapey. 

Besides, this is my Father’s world. “All nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres,” as Maltbie Babcock put it. And that’s the theological issue here. It’s called “common grace.” More on that neglected doctrine in a future post. Until then, I’ll be listening to my favorite Enya tunes, translucent though they may be.

Image Credits: enya.sk; walpaperflare.com. 

‘Beauty and the Beast’ on Broadway (and the Bible)

“The show was dazzling and majestic in every way imaginable. The score, the voices, the lights, the scenery, the costumes, the special effects, and the sheer creativity of it all were unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a live performance. Can the stage get any better than this? With the exception of a few secondary cast members, this was as close to theatrical perfection as one can get. Love wins in the end. The curse is lifted from the castle, and happily we’re ever aftering.”

Such was my impression after seeing Broadway’s version of Beauty and the Beast about a decade ago. Superlatives failed to capture the excellence of the production and the inspiration of the moment. But what struck me most—again—was the prominence of biblical themes contained in a secular work, and the resolution of the foundational human dilemma in ways that come close to what the Bible indicates happened in Christ. These kinds of correspondences in literature are never exact, but they often come strikingly close to the biblical narrative. 

Literary Synchronisms

I see these kinds of correspondences quite often, and sometimes it gets me into trouble. When my kids were young, they laughed at me mercilessly while I sobbed my way through Finding Nemo. But I teared up because that silly cartoon is the compelling story of a loving father who will stop at nothing to find his lost son and return him safely home. Sounds a lot like Luke 15 to me, and if Disney is the one to show it to me better than the preacher, who am I to object? We believers don’t need to get nervous at such an admission, for surely the grace of God cannot be upstaged by a cartoon, even if a preacher’s sermon can be.

But here’s the question that intrigues me: How did the unbelieving author of Finding Nemo—who rejects Luke 15 as being authoritative—wind up writing his own version of it? From our theological perspective, the answer goes something like this: What fallen humanity yearns for most, as reflected in our stories, literature, poetry, and music, God has provided for us in Jesus Christ, his only Son, and it’s only spiritual blindness that prevents us from seeing it. Alas, too often we prefer our own stories to God’s, so we write him out of the script. Or so we think.

The fact is, we may go off and draft our own stories without God, but we still write as people made in the image of God, even if we refuse to acknowledge the fact. But denying God doesn’t erase the image of God inside the denier, which means, of course, that we can’t even be good skeptics without God’s help. The clenched fist we wave in his face is from the hand he gave us in the first place. Ditto the minds he gave us—with which we pen our stories. 

Writing through Rebels

The basic plot of Beauty and the Beast is well known. A curse renders the young prince and his whole castle disfigured, jaded, unkind, and less than human. But there’s an intense longing by these distorted people to have the curse reversed and become “normal” again. Significantly, the rules of the game in this fictional world insist that only a true and sacrificial love can serve as the means by which the curse is lifted and restoration can take place. As is the case in all fairy tales, this true and sacrificial love is finally realized, along with the happy resolution to which the whole plot moves. There’s even a song called “Human Again,” which talks about being reborn. Reborn? Where does that language come from?

I see this so often in good literature that I have to recognize something bigger is going on here than meets the eye. Is it possible that God can witness to himself even on Broadway during a musical production based on a fairy tale—or at least prepare people’s hearts for eventually hearing his own version of the Story? Is it possible for a believer like me to actually worship God in the theater during such a play? 

Well, I did, right there in Seat J-9 of the center section. And I worshipped because of what I’m convinced is true of the irreligious authors who wrote this show, and is true of me, too: When fallen people reject God’s story and run off to write their own, they wind up writing God’s story anyway, even if they do mangle the script a bit. Image bearers write after their own image. Broken image bearers miss the target, even if they’re firing the right arrows.

Now, that should cause us to ponder the greatness of God. Has the Almighty really made us in such a way that even our rebellion can serve to providentially boomerang us back to himself? Luke 15 would seem to suggest so. Every time that smelly pig rubbed its muddy snout against the prodigal son’s leg, it was actually pushing the boy closer to home, where a gracious father stood ready to throw a feast upon his return.

The Original Storyteller

Such a God would indeed be awesome and worthy of our worship. And such a God would vindicate Qoheleth (the Teacher) who wrote, “God has set eternity in the heart” (Eccl 3:11b). In other words, wherever we go, there we are, imago Dei and all. Surely, we can never find our way back to God’s Narrative without divine assistance, but we can yearn in the right direction for the inconceivably good climax he’s already penned. Indeed, it’s precisely because we’re made in his image that we can write something approximating his script. But because we’re also fallen, we can never get it exactly right. We need a critic or an editor who knows the original storyline to help us get it right. The prophets are God’s critics, and the priests are God’s editors. We need their voices because we tend to botch the story without them. But the underlying truth is that we as human beings tell stories because God is the original Storyteller.

Our stories, then, consist of faded glory yearning for Eden, and the implications for outreach are profound. Maybe God is greater than we had ever imagined, and maybe the gospel is far better news than we had ever thought. Should we not be more hopeful, knowing that God is always at work? (Cf. John 5:17.) Should we not love people more, even unbelievers who don’t agree with our theology? They do have a theology; it’s just not complete yet. The boomerang hasn’t come all the way back yet to the hand that threw it. Patience is required. So is perseverance.

Lost and Found

That’s why we share the gospel in places we think it might not prevail. The Parable of the Sower teaches, among other things, the need for liberality (to the point of carelessness) in spreading the Word. Why? Because good soil—life-sustaining soil—can be found in some pretty surprising places. The cracks in my driveway bear witness to that. Surely the hearts of many in our day have been paved over by the cares of this world, but there are many cracks out there desperately waiting to be seeded.

For the most part, Jesus called people who were far from God “lost,” which invites genuine compassion, not self-righteous condemnation. To be lost implies the possibility of being found, and this dynamic is a universal tug of the heart. Miners trapped in a shaft. Hikers buried beneath an avalanche of snow. Children plunged to the bottom of an uncovered well. Astronauts locked inside a hobbled space craft. We want them back. We want them to be rescued. We want a happy ending to the story. And we want a savior who can make it happen. We want a champion who will set things right again. Such yearnings and resolutions are ubiquitous in literature.

  • Snow White
  • Sleeping Beauty
  • The Little Mermaid
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • Phantom of the Opera
  • Lord of the Rings
  • The Chronicles of Narnia
  • Dorian Gray
  • Rigaletto
  • Beowulf
  • Beauty and the Beast

Lifting the Curse

In Beauty and the Beast, all the members of the castle staff are under a spell that renders them less than human. They’ve all become “things”— household objects, dishes, kitchenware, furniture, and the like. They’ve been objectified and dehumanized, and they’re demoralized because of it. But word is out that someone has come to the castle who might be able to break the spell. They long for that moment. And as they see their day of redemption coming, they burst into jubilant song:

Human again! Think of what that means!
We’ll be dancing again, we’ll be twirling again
We’ll be whirling around with such ease
When we’re human again, only human again

We’ll go waltzing those old one-two-threes
We’ll be floating again, we’ll be gliding again
Stepping, striding as fine as you please
Like a real human does, I’ll be all that I was

On the glorious morn, when we’re finally re-born
And we’re—all of us—human again

Re-born? That’s our word. A Christian word. A Jesus word (John 3:3). And to that I can only say, God is beautifully sneaky. He’ll give a whole theatre audience an echo of his gospel in a dazzling, captivating production. It’s not the gospel, but it’s a half-decent echo of the gospel. Are we listening? God is always speaking. History (“his story”) is the stage. We might mess up our lines from time to time, but the playwright gets his way in the end. So, the tales are true after all. The God of Scripture is the God who lifts curses, turning beasts into humans, even today. 

Tale as old as time
Song as old as rhyme
Beauty and the Beast

The True Myth

The gospel according to Broadway. They almost get it right, but they’re far enough away from it to be dangerous. That’s why they need a prophet and a priest to connect the dots and finish the story. Christ is the beauty, and I am the beast. The spiritual spell I’m under needs to be broken, and by the sacrificial love of Christ crucified, it is. Moreover, by his resurrection from the dead, the curse is finally lifted, and I can be reborn.

C. S. Lewis was on to something when he considered the possibility that all our stories, myths, and aspirations down through history came to fullest expression in the actual Christ of history. (And for that insight, we have J. R. R. Tolkien to thank; see below.)

If that’s the case, then let the Church continue to sing—on behalf of others as well as herself—“Come, Desire of nations come, fix in us thy humble home.”

VIDEO: “Lewis and Tolkien Debate Myths and Lies” on Addison’s Walk, a footpath around a small island in the River Cherwell on the grounds of Magdalen College, Oxford, England. I watched this video clip on my phone while walking the same path in the spring of 2019. Knowing the far-reaching impact this conversation has had, I prayed a simple prayer of thanksgiving—through tears, of course—for the lives of these two men.

Image Credits: wall.alphacoders.com.