Is God’s Grace Sufficient?

It’s curious what we remember about our childhoods. What stands out is usually the really bad stuff or the really good stuff. But scattered here and there amongst the memories are some poignant stories that just have a category of their own. One of these stories for me started out as an innocent adolescent’s question but has taken on more theological significance to me now than when it happened.

I was in junior high, probably about confirmation age, experiencing a fabulous week of summer Bible camp, something I looked forward to all year. The week was jammed with sports, swimming, boating, ping pong and hiking, in addition to the mornings of Bible study and Missionary teaching. And then there were the boys. One of the reasons we loved camp was that we developed crushes on boys at camp. Maybe there were just more opportunities to be together there but it always seemed special to go out in a boat together or to sit holding hands at campfires. It seemed magical. Actually the whole experience seemed magical.

But this particular year during the teaching time in the morning the pastor said that the definition of sin was “anything contrary to the will of God.” That confused me and, being the curious girl I was, I started wondering just how we would know what the will of God was. This was an exceptionally important question because at the church of my childhood, sin was a mighty big concept. We were taught to take it very seriously. If you accumulated a lot of sins you could potentially be damned. And being damned had serious consequences; an eternity in you-know-where.

I knew what the big sins were for teenagers; dancing, SEX, smoking, gambling (including Bingo), card playing and movies. Then there were the really big sins which seemed more for adults; adultery, murder, wanting other people’s stuff, and working on Sunday. But this idea of sin being anything contrary to the will of God troubled me.

After thinking about this all week at camp, I went to ask my cabin counselor a confusing question. “Does God will us to fall into big holes?”  She said “Of course not,” and tried to reassure me. “So,” I asked, “Why isn’t falling into a big hole sin if it’s against God’s will?” She got a troubled look on her face, almost a panicky look as I recall, and took me immediately to the pastor so he could counsel me. I told him my question and his response was simple; God’s grace is sufficient.

That may have solved the problem for him but it did nothing for me. He didn’t ask me to elaborate on my question so he could find out what was behind it. I may have not even known what was behind it but I’d guess it was something about an arbitrary and sometimes mean-spirited God who felt a lot like my father. My pastor’s answer wasn’t wrong theologically, it was just too abstract for my junior high mind to grasp, and I got no further explanation, so I went away bewildered.

But that phrase “God’s grace is sufficient” has hovered around the periphery of my life ever since. I must have assumed there was something positive about this grace, yet it remained pretty abstract.

Then I went through a multi-year period in my life in which everything I thought I needed to be happy disintegrated, leaving me with just the bare core of who I am. During those years I came into contact with a powerful women, an intelligent, funny and theologically deep woman from the 16th Century who became my spiritual mentor and friend. Teresa of Avila, saint, mystic, reformer. She had many of the same struggles I did and she developed a keen and rich intimacy with God as a result. She taught me to trust that God was involved in everything because all of life was meant to teach us more about ourselves and about God. Her theological stance was “all is gift.” She even wrote a treatise on intimacy with God called The Interior Castle. Her life and writings really spoke to my heart about the journey to intimacy with God. The more I went to God with all of my fear and anguish, the closer I felt to God.

It took years for me to really grasp this intimacy, not to be afraid of it, but once I owned its truth, God transformed my life. In my darkest hours I still felt like I was mysteriously on the right track. But the most important thing she taught me was not to rely on myself for anything but to rely on God alone. Her favorite phrase, one she used as her motto was “Solo Dios basta,” meaning “only God suffices” or “God is enough.” Her shortened version, the words she muttered as she walked the convent halls was “Basta, basta, basta.” What caught my attention was the word suffices, meaning enough. There was that word again. It felt like I had returned to a journey I began in 8th grade.

Teresa, a feisty wonderful woman of the 16th Century brought home to me, in practical and concrete ways, the true meaning of the phrase “God’s grace is sufficient.” Now I know in my soul that it is true. God’s grace IS sufficient. And now, when I think of that junior high school girl within me who was already seeking God’s compassion and unconditional love with her questions about God’s will and deep holes, I just whisper “Basta, basta, basta.”

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2009. All rights reserved.


Reflections on this essay

What do you remember most about your childhood religious teaching?

Was it life giving or neutral or fear based?

How do you define sin for yourself today?

How have you found God’s grace to be sufficient?

How do you find more intimacy with God in your life?