What is the balance between grace and acts in our lives? In my life and cancer, I have struggled with the place of what God grants us and what I deserve in my getting sick and getting well.
We generally look at life and judge fairness on the basis of our actions. That perspective implies that we do, and ought to, get what we deserve in life. "What goes around comes around", the notion of karma, and even the Golden Rule (if stretched) are based on this principle. If you do good, you get good. On the other hand, if you don't, don't be surprised if you get a dose of your own medicine (as another saying goes). Grace, on the other hand, is an allowance - usually a positive - that we are given by God independent of whether we deserve it or not.
Since being first diagnosed, I've spent some time wondering what I did to deserve pancreatic cancer. I kept a fairly healthy diet and have been mostly veggie-eating in my adult life. I enjoyed exercise and would celebrate a beautiful day with a good run. I went for regular check-ups. Not to say that I avoided all drink and the rest but I wouldn't say that I was in any way an outlier in terms of "sins" against the body. And on the mind/emotional level, I took (what I would consider) active care of myself. I have been meditating on and off since high school. I have a few years of productive therapy under my belt. I have a wide and deep circle of supportive friends and family.
So how then is it me that is diagnosed with a relatively rare cancer (that strikes <40,000 Americans a year) at a relatively young age (further rare)? That's where the disconnect happens. What did I do to deserve this "bad" thing? Am I being punished? The "why me?" question also lingers in wondering why I am among the very few blessed to be pancreatic cancer survivors. What did I do for this second opportunity to do the good that I was intended to do?
As it turns out – life isn't fair. Nobody said it was. Least of all God. And that's exactly why we have grace. Even if you accept the premise that we can earn our way into heaven with good acts, that doesn't ensure that we'll get what we deserve (good or bad) while here on Earth. Justice in the afterlife is no assurance of a fair shake in this one.
In Christianity, the balance between the significance of grace versus acts represents a difference amongst the various denominations. It is not an insignificant distinction. Do we earn our lot in life? Does God only save those that are worthy – both in this world and the next? It is a fundamental question that we'd just as soon not have to consider.
Personally, I believe strongly in God's grace. I've always struggled with the angry and punishing God that smites sinners. God's grace is an exquisitely beautiful example of our human potential. None of us is entitled to God's grace and yet it is granted to us. It epitomizes the New Testament's compassion and hope to counterpoint the Old Testament's eye for an eye. Grace helps me to explain why I am still here.
Ultimately, I've realized that the most beautiful thing about God's grace is that it isn't on the same continuum with acts anymore. Jesus' death broke the progression. Acts are still important. Love your neighbor is still front and center. But Jesus offers us grace apart from acts, grace and love above and beyond anything we could do to deserve it. That is amazing! It challenges each of us to love unconditionally too. And…it frees me from wondering about the merits of my diseased life and cheated death.