May 20, 2016 by Rik Bokelman

Philip Yancey's Struggle With Grace And The Donald Trump Phenomenon

If Philip Yancey has to mention two words that define his life and writings they would be suffering and grace. “The title of my latest book is 'Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News?' It came out just before the least grace-full presidential election I can remember. I’m sure you have seen clips of the disgraceful way some candidates have acted.” 

HelloChristian.com spoke with Philip Yancey - one of the best-selling evangelical Christian authors all-time - on grace in life, church and politics. Referring to Donald Trump he says: “Nowadays you win in politics by bullying, by defaming the opponent, by underhanded methods.”

The first time he heard about grace was probably in church, tells Philip Yancey. “We had rules against everything: makeup, shorts, bowling, movies, roller skating, swimming with the opposite sex, you name it. We felt we had to earn God’s approval by keeping all those rules, and I emerged from that church with a concept of God as a cosmic policeman, and of the Christian life as a way of avoiding any possible contamination.”

“We used the word grace in that church, but I never truly felt it. We had constructed an airtight ladder of morality, like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, and in the process I had missed the whole point of the gospel. It’s interesting to me now that Jesus only uses the term born again in a conversation with Nicodemus, an upright Pharisee who studied the Bible and kept the Old Testament laws. As if to say, ‘Man, you have to start all over again. You’ve missed the entire point.’”

"i had missed the essence of the gospel too, that christ died for sinners."

“I had missed the essence of the gospel too, that Christ died for sinners. Every religion emphasizes that God loves good people. Jesus proclaimed something much more radical: God loves bad people. His parables almost always feature the ‘wrong’ person as the hero: Lazarus the beggar not the rich man, the publican not the Pharisee, the prodigal son not his obedient older brother. Grace offers hope of transformation for anyone.”

How would you describe grace after this journey?

“Grace is God’s free gift of love, forgiveness, and acceptance. To receive a gift, all you have to do is hold out open hands. And that’s where Pharisaism starts. In Jesus’ day, the most religious people had their hand closed in tight fists because Jesus was saying something radically new. In contrast, the losers—prostitutes, those with diseases like leprosy, a Roman centurion, moral outcasts, Samaritans—recognized their need and held out open hands.”

“In so many scenes in the Gospels, the religious folks would divide the characters into two groups: good people and bad people. Jesus saw the same people, but in two different groups: people in need of grace who admitted it, people in need of grace who denied it.”

“In our own day, I think of those who struggle with addictions and go to groups based on the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program. The only way to find a cure is to admit the need for one. Grace, like water, flows to the lowest part, to those who admit a need and welcome the news that God loves even them.”

"grace, like water, flows to the lowest part, to those who admit a need and welcome the news that god loves even them."

How important is the church’s understanding of grace? What’s at stake?
“The lived truth of the gospel is at stake. Ephesians 2 puts it clearly, ‘For by grace you are saved through faith.’ Already in the New Testament letters you can see Paul pleading for unity in the church—which was, after all, Jesus’ urgent prayer in John 17. In letters to the Corinthians and Galatians, the apostle shows how fractiousness ruins the reputation of the church in the eyes of the watching world. Surely the history of religious wars in Europe contributed to making modern Europeans wary of Christians today.”

“Then, of course, ‘outsiders’ to the church judge Christians by how they respond to people unlike themselves. It takes no grace to be around someone who looks like you, smells like you, thinks like you, votes like you. Church history shows how badly the church has failed to show grace toward others. I grew up in a church that refused to admit anyone from another race. No doubt you’ve heard some of the vicious rhetoric that prominent evangelicals have directed against homosexuals. And, of course, we face a major challenge in how we respond to migrants.”

“I have asked people I meet, ‘When I say the word Christian, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?’ I’ve received answers such as ‘hypocrite’, ‘uptight’, ‘judgmental,' as well as a liberal use of the prefix anti-. Each of these indicates that we’re coming across as Pharisees: high moral standards, yes, but looking down on those who don’t meet them.”

“To me, the most damning response is self-righteousness. Of all people in the world, Christians should know we have no self-righteousness. All our righteousness comes as a free gift of God’s grace. We are “jolly beggars,” to borrow a phrase. Like the addicts and alcoholics, we know we can’t make it on our own and desperately need a Higher Power to transform us from the inside out.”

"a person who's a moral failure doesn't automatically think, 'i'll go to church.' no! they would feel threatened, judged, unwanted, out of place."

“When I wrote a book called 'The Jesus I Never Knew,' I made a graph of all the people who interacted with Jesus. You can draw a line through the Gospels revealing a clear trend. The more responsible, good-citizen, high class, Bible-believing, devout a person was, the more threatened they were by Jesus. The more low class, unreliable, irresponsible a person was, the more attracted they were to Jesus. But hasn’t the church almost reversed that pattern? A person who’s a moral failure doesn’t automatically think, ‘I’ll go to church.’ No! They would feel threatened, judged, unwanted, out of place. And yet these are the very people who flocked to Jesus.”

What’s the most horrible way to communicate grace?
“The worst way to communicate grace is to present it as some sort of exclusive secret that an institution controls. Jesus set it free. It flows like the mountain stream outside my home in Colorado. Like water, grace flows downward. Like water, it cuts through rock. Water carved the Grand Canyon, the gravity of grace sets slaves free, heals addicts, loves enemies, liberates women. Most of the liberating forces at work in the world today—anti-sex trafficking, peace movements, human rights movements, anti-poverty, hospitals, education—have deeply Christian roots.”

How can we as Christians be more ‘Christ-like' in communicating grace?
“In my latest book ‘Vanishing Grace’ I identify three kinds of people who have taught me ways to communicate grace in an increasingly hostile culture.”

Activists demonstrate to the watching world that the gospel is not merely some private transaction between God and me. It has an impact on the injustices of the world around us. Bono of the band U2 is an example I consistently use, because he puts his faith into action. He has led the way in responding to the global AIDS crisis and to world poverty, and that urgency comes out of his Christian conviction. He has become a kind of chaplain to rock musicians, who respect him because they see him live out his beliefs.”

"Not everyone can be an activist or artist, but we're all pilgrims; not some class of superior beings, but fellow-travelers ont he road who know something of the destination."

Artists use a more indirect style of communication, less rationalistic and more emotional. Actually, they’re following Jesus’ pattern, for he very rarely gave a direct answer to a direct question. He tossed back another question or, more likely, told a story. Art is less threatening than a straightforward gospel witness. Think of the power of a book like Les Miserables, a story of grace adapted and retold, onstage and in movies, all over the world.”

“My final category includes all of us. Not everyone can be an activist or an artist, but we’re all pilgrims; not some class of superior beings, but fellow-travelers on the road who know something of the destination. I use the illustration of getting lost on my mountain climbs in Colorado. When I meet someone with a map, I’m delighted, for being lost in the mountains is a scary state. Some of Jesus’ best stories center on lostness—lost coin, lost sheep, lost son. There are many people in the world who don’t know why they’re here, what life is all about, and what’s the destination. If we live in the joyful, thriving way that Jesus invites us to, lost people will want to join us on that path.”

Do you find it easy to communicate and live grace yourself?
“I have been humbled enough so that I find it relatively easy to dispense grace to the down-and-outs. I struggle, though, to show a graceful spirit to the religious establishment. There are bloggers on the Internet who distort my words, make accusations, cast me as a heretic. Some use theology as a knife, cleaving the ‘right’ people from the ‘wrong’ people. These draw up memories from my childhood, and I want to fight.”


Donald Trump
“Or, let’s take a current example: the presidential elections. I’ll be honest: I have a hard time right now understanding how many evangelical Christians in the U.S. could support a presidential candidate like Donald Trump known for his profane language and bullying tactics, a billionaire who made his fortune from casinos."

“How do I show grace toward those people who, in my opinion, are besmirching the very name 'Christian'?”

“Martin Luther King used a wonderful phrase to describe how Christians should fight injustice and express themselves in politics. Yes we fight, he said, but we use different weapons, the ‘weapons of grace.’ He lived out that style, holding to strong convictions yet expressing them through self-sacrificing grace—which he showed even toward the sheriffs who clubbed him and threw him in jail.”

“When I look at the presidential elections, the right-wing conservatives have made a risky trade. In exchange for some power, they have entered the game of politics, which is an adversary sport. Nowadays you win in politics by bullying, by defaming the opponent, by underhanded methods. To our shame, some Christians have sold their souls for the taste of power.”

Is a graceful way of politics possible?
Philip Yancey recalls the elections in 1976, won by Jimmy Carter, just after the resignation of Richard Nixon. “I don't recall bullying or underhanded methods by either of these candidates. And I can't say the same for any presidential elections in 30 years.”


“Jimmy Carter simply said when he was running for office: ‘I will not lie to you.’ He won over media critics skeptical about his religious beliefs by humbly teaching a Sunday School class all through his presidency, a class they were welcome to attend. And then he tried to apply his faith to foreign policy, basing US foreign aid on the human rights records of the recipients, something never before done. For me that’s a great example of another way of politics.”

“Many Christian Americans long for ‘the good old days’ when a Christian consensus prevailed in the US, something that has changed recently because of diversity and rising secularism. The Donald Trump phenomenon shows such Christians' true colors. How can ‘born-again Christians’ support a candidate known for his profane speech and bullying tactics, a man who made his fortune from casino gambling, brags about his affairs, defames women and Muslims, mocks the physically disabled? Yet surveys show that many Christians do support him. Evidently, they care more about appeals to nationalism and empty boasts about ‘making America great again’ than about the qualities of Jesus.”

“Or to put it in other words: I find nothing in the New Testament that commands us to join the power structure. However, I came across the phrase in Hebrews 12:15 which says, ‘See to it that no one misses the grace of God.’ That’s a slogan we in the church should adopt.”

Buy Philip Yancey's book 'Vanishing Grace' here. Or visit his website.

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