Murky Water and the Means of Grace

There is an ancient story told by the Desert Fathers, early Christians who lived in the desert of Egypt that goes something like this: There were three friends, serious men, who became monks. One of them chose to make peace between men who were at odds, as it is written, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ (Matt. 5:9). The second chose to visit the sick. The third chose to go away to be quiet in solitude. Now the first, toiling among contentions, was not able to settle all quarrels and, overcome with weariness, he went to him who tended the sick, and found him also failing in spirit and unable to carry out his purpose. So the two went away to see him who had withdrawn into the desert, and they told him their troubles. They asked him to tell them how he himself had fared. He was silent for a while, and then poured water into a vessel and said, ‘Look at the water,’ and it was murky. After a little while he said again, ‘See now, how clear the water has become.’ As they looked into the water they saw their own faces, as in a mirror. Then he said to them, ‘So it is with anyone who lives in the turbulence, he does not see his sins: but when he has been quiet, above all in solitude, then he recognizes his own faults.’

Means of grace are “signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for the purpose of conveying to humanity preparing, accepting, and sustaining grace”. Any expression or action that makes clear God’s grace is an act of the means of grace.

There are interior means of grace. John Wesley called them Works of Piety and they are simply spiritual disciplines. Interior means of grace communicate God’s preparing, accepting and sustaining grace to US. Prayer, searching scripture, fasting, the sacrament of Holy Communion are the primary means by which God’s grace clearer. Prayer clears the murky waters by bringing us close to God’s heart. Scripture gives us a clarity of who God is. Fasting causes us to separate from our selfishness through self-denial and gives greater clarity to who we are and our need of God. Holy Communion is the means by which God’s grace is actually communicated in the bread and wine. These personal means of interior devotion are important in helping us to continue toward holiness and sanctification.

I love this quote of Thomas Merton. It helps me to understand why the interior means are so important. He wrote, “Every man becomes the image of the God he adores. He whose worship is directed to a dead thing becomes a dead thing. He who loves corruption rots. He who loves a shadow becomes, himself, a shadow. He who loves things that must perish lives in dread of their perishing. The contemplative also, who seeks to keep God prisoner in his heart, becomes a prisoner within the narrow limits of his own heart, so that the Lord evades him and leaves him in his imprisonment, his confinement, and his dead recollection. The man who leaves the Lord the freedom of the Lord adores the Lord in His freedom and receives the liberty of the sons of God. This man loves like God and is carried away, the captive of the Lord’s invisible freedom. A god who remains immobile within the focus of my own vision is hardly even a trace of the True God’s passing.”

There are also exterior means of grace. John Wesley called these Works of Mercy. They are works of service and action that communicate God’s preparing, accepting, and sustaining grace to OTHERS. When we help those in need, work to feed, clothe, and support the poor and needy, when we actually take physical and tangible steps to help those around us and show God’s grace – we engage in exterior means of grace.

In Acts 2, we see exterior practices of the disciples of the early church that not only helped those in need, but communicated God’s grace to those around them. So much so that everyone else spoke well of them and others were added to their numbers –they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

As we live our lives of faith, let us utilize the means of grace to help make God’s grace clearer to ourselves and to a world in need.

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