Cheap vs. Costly Grace in Recovery

In my last post I noted that in The Book of Joy, The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu discuss the Eight Pillars of Joy: perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity. In our School for Contemplative Living group this week, we asked “which of these eight pillars resonates most with you.” In reviewing the book, the sections on the pillars of perspective, acceptance and gratitude contained the most underlines and column notes in my copy.  This focus is consistent with how I perceive life as a recovering alcoholic with a stage 4 cancer diagnosis.  I can explain very sincerely, intentionally, and with meaning why these pillars are integral to my daily existence.

But then . . . I felt a certain whack on the side of the head on the other four pillars.  I got caught up short when weighing the pillars of forgiveness, humility, compassion, and generosity by the same sincerity, intentionality and meaning scale.  The analogy that came to mind was that of cheap vs. costly grace as explained by the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He wrote:

“Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is a baptism without the discipline of community . . . Costly grace is the hidden treasure in the field, for the sake of people go and sell with joy everything they have . . . Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which has to be asked for, the door at which one has to knock.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, pp. 44-45.

(Bonhoeffer wrote his treatise on ethics while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp for his role in a foiled attempt to assassinate Hitler.  He died shortly before Allied Forces liberated the camp.  Bonhoeffer has good street creds with me as someone who practiced what he preached.)

I found his cheap grace analogous to much of how I can live forgiveness.  For example the 9th Step of Alcoholics Anonymous offers that we “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”  Over the years I have made lists, personal visits and written amend letters.  I am careful not to include any “but” statements, only clean up my side of the street and not worry about the other person’s side.  I know that often times, those amends are rote, because I know that I need to do them – it is the forgiveness without the repentance or community of which Bonhoeffer speaks.

In the same way with compassion and generosity, I can serve in the soup kitchens, make the charitable contributions, speak out and defend the refugees, and so forth.  But these acts too can become rote responses with little personal investment of true self beyond the material and mechanical.

Again from the Book of Joy:

“One of the differences between empathy and compassion is that while empathy is simply experiencing another’s emotion, compassion is a more empowered state where we want what is best for the other person.  As the Dalai Lams has described it, if we can see a person who is being crushed by a rock, the goal is not to get under the rock and feel what they are feeling; it is to help to remove the rock.” pp. 259

I do not intend this post as an exercise in self-flagellation.  But in the same way that I view my AA recovery program as a continual process and not a single event, I find the eight pillars of joy are best approached in the same way.  I know that if I continue to work the 12 Steps of the AA program, that process enhances my recovery.  In the same way, I believe if I continue to examine and am mindful of my forgiveness, humility, compassion and the other pillars, that process enhances my joyful living and my ability to share that joy.  In the same way that I am a recovering alcoholic and not recovered, I continue to seek a life with more meaning and joy.  Everything I know about living is that if I continue to be active and seek, I will continue to find and to grow.  What an incredible blessing and opportunity!

Cheap vs. Costly Grace

three sisters

I am reasonably good at the formal end of carrying the message and practicing the principles of recovery.  I take some comfort in knowing that family, friends, and co-workers will use me as a starting point to those in need on their first steps in dealing with their own or another person’s substance abuse issues.  Yesterday I had a four-hour lunch with a co-worker facing a lung transplant after a lifelong battle with cystic fibrosis.  She has always been an inspiration to me in living life on life’s terms and living to the fullest.  Yesterday, I saw how the many principles I have learned in recovery were helpful as she goes about her important decision-making in the coming months.  I am pleased that over the years I have never said I don’t have time to work with an addict who still suffers.

Yet I also know that in my home is where I most consistently fall short in practicing the principles.  When was the last time I had a four-hour lunch with my wife to discuss important decisions she is facing in her life?  I have gone years without reaching out to some of my cousins, siblings and others who I know are in need.  I am reminded of the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s concepts of “cheap” and “costly” grace.  I get that cheap grace is the type that is easily acquired easily, set right in front of us.  We get cheap grace from helping the little old lady across the street, talking to the newcomer at a recovery meeting, sharing our story of recovery with those in active addiction.  But costly grace is digging deeper, being more mindful and intentional of living the principles of recovery in the mundane everyday aspects of my existence with all the children of this earth, regardless of relationship.  For me, that truly is a lifelong process and not a singular event.  I am blessed and grateful today that I am at least mindful of my need for costly grace.