"O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay and you the potter: We are all the work of your hands." (Isaiah 64:7) This well-known image from Scripture gives us a good idea of the way God wants to shape our lives with his grace. Just as a potter shapes a lump of clay into a vessel, so God wants to shape us into vessels of his grace—vessels that can hold his divine grace and pour that grace out to the people around us.
We are the crown of God’s creation. We are wonderfully and beautifully made. But we also have our fair share of imperfections. Wise and patient potter that he is, God is always working to make us more perfect. He is always working to shape us into the image of his Son, Jesus. While it may seem like an impossible goal, this is God’s dream, his grand plan for each and every one of us. And so he continually pours out grace to make this dream into a reality.
Abnormally Born. By the grace of God I am what I am. (1 Corinthians 15:10)
Paul wrote these words as a response to some people in Corinth who felt that he was a lesser apostle, not worthy of the same respect that Peter or John deserved. Paul told them that, because of the way he was before his conversion, he probably was most undeserving and most unworthy of being an apostle: “I persecuted the church of God.” But then he went on to say: “By the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:9,10). His encounter with God changed him from what he was—a persecutor—to what he is now—an apostle.
The other apostles knew Jesus when he walked the earth. They lived with him; they heard him preach; they saw him heal people and drive out demons. They even saw him as the risen Lord on Easter Sunday! Paul, on the other hand, was “born abnormally” (1 Corinthians 15:8). He didn’t have a three-year apprenticeship with Jesus. He didn’t hear the Sermon on the Mount or sit at the Last Supper or witness Jesus’ Ascension. Quite the opposite: He persecuted the people who did these things!
And so Paul’s message is clear: God can touch anyone with his grace—even people who persecute and kill. We don’t have to be scholars or saints to be touched by God. We don’t have to be perfect. We might be overly zealous or violent like Paul. We might be a dishonest tax collector, like Zacchaeus. We might be in an improper sexual relationship like the Samaritan woman in John 4. It doesn’t matter. God can still touch us with his grace. He can change anyone’s life!
A Noble, Godly Character. After his conversion—after he was “born abnormally”—Paul found his life beginning to change. The most obvious change was that he stopped persecuting Christians! But beyond that, Paul found his whole character undergoing a shift. Jesus had shown him that in persecuting Christians, he was really persecuting the Lord (Acts 9:4-5). Imagine the shock that must have been! All this time, Paul thought he was serving God by arresting these people, and it turns out he was hurting God instead! That realization must have been painfully humiliating and personally devasting.
How did this change Paul’s character? It taught him not to trust his instincts but to examine his thoughts, his motives, and his assumptions (2 Corinthians 10:5). It turned him into a servant of God instead of a defender of his earlier convictions. Now, rather than trying to protect what he considered to be the purity of Judaism, Paul devoted himself to learning from the Lord and serving God’s plans. He discovered the joy of being led by God rather than by his ideas about God. He saw the pride and self-centeredness that were behind his old approach, and he knew he needed to live a different way.
While it may sound like all this happened overnight, that’s not really accurate. And neither did it happen automatically. No, Paul had an important part to play, and he had to work at it over time. He had to choose to walk away from his former life as a Pharisee and persecutor of the church. He had to learn how to read the Hebrew Scriptures in the light of Jesus’ resurrection. He began to pray in a new way. He had to examine his heart and his motives in a new light. He began to put away the pride, self-righteousness, and violence that were part of his old way of thinking and put on the mind of Christ, the model of humble self-sacrifice.
In short, Paul cooperated with God’s grace.
God’s Grace and Our Work. Brothers and sisters, we all need God’s grace if we want to see our character become more like Christ. At the same time, we also need to practice our faith every day, relying on the power of God’s grace to change us in ways that we simply can’t change ourselves.
Medical students become doctors because they study, learn, and pass their exams. From the moment they begin medical school, they are expected to take on a doctor’s mindset. They are expected to think and act like doctors. The harder they work at it, the more their character is shaped, and the more they become real doctors. The same is true for us, but with one major difference: We have God’s grace lifting us up, inspiring us, and filling us with hope and confidence.
Before his conversion, Paul was a passionate Pharisee. He loved his Jewish upbringing and he treasured the Law of Moses above all else. In his attempt to be faithful to God, he knew he was living a demanding but rewarding life. But once he experienced the grace of God, Paul put all his skill and training to work for the sake of the gospel. He used his understanding of theology, logic, and philosophy to form his arguments about Jesus and the new way of Christianity. He used his innate determination to spread the good news of the kingdom. And his skill, talent, and determination were all magnified by the power of divine grace!
Just as he did for Paul, God wants to give us his own dreams and desires—the dream of seeing people brought to the Lord, the desire to change the world. If Paul were with us today, he would tell us that a noble, Christlike character comes as we allow God’s overflowing grace to fi ll us—in prayer, through the sacraments, and through the Scripture—and as we work hard at building our character and serving the Lord. If we do this, we too will be able to say with Paul: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective. Indeed, I have toiled harder than all of them; not I, however, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).
It’s a Mystery. Grace is a free gift that we have to cooperate with. We can’t earn it, but we must embrace it. Grace is God’s work in us, but at the same time we have to work with that grace if we want it to have an effect on us. It can sound confusing, can’t it?
In the end, the best word to describe grace is probably “mystery.” Somehow, God pours his grace into us, and somehow this grace moves us to change our lives. Somehow, often when we least expect it, we come face-to-face with God, and this encounter changes our lives dramatically. This is the real mystery behind God’s gift of grace.
Think about St. Paul. He wasn’t looking for grace. He was actually fighting against the Lord. But then one day, as he was walking down a road, a fl ash of light appeared to him out of nowhere, and Jesus asked: “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). Paul didn’t just have a vision that day. Along with that vision came a flood of grace, mysteriously changing Paul’s heart.
It’s not just the great saints of the past whose lives were changed by grace. Think about the last retreat you went on. That retreat wasn’t just a nice time away from your everyday routine. It was an encounter with God’s grace. It was Jesus reaching out to you and offering you a deeper experience of his love—an experience that helped you become more like him. The same can happen during Mass, at Adoration, as you are caring for a sick child, or even as you are taking a walk. God never stops reaching out to us!
As we said in our first article, grace is all around us. It flows around us like a river, lifting us up and carrying us to the Lord. Most of the time that river flows quietly and gently, but there are times when it rushes over us and engulfs us in God’s love and mercy. Those are the moments when God is offering us something special. We can’t control them. We can’t predict them. We can only welcome them when they come, and try our best to cooperate with them.
We hope that this month’s articles have helped show you how gracious God is. We hope they will help you embrace the moments of grace that God offers to you. If you remember nothing else from these articles, just remember this one promise: God’s grace—his free, unmerited, gift of his own life and love—never fails!