The renowned Lutheran theologian and World War II martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer is famous for presenting a number of helpful ways to look at Christian discipleship.I believe that among the most significant for those of us in religious life today, or living out our vows in any walk of life today, is that of the distinction between “cheap grace” and “costly grace,” discussed in Bonhoeffer’s book The Cost of Discipleship.
Bonhoeffer wrote that “cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” Meanwhile, “costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man [or woman] to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him.”
There is a lot of cheap grace floating around. It doesn’t always appear so clearly labeled. It seems to me that one of its most common iterations comes in the form of the not-quite-exhortative exhortation, “God wants you to be happy!”
This is a type of cheap grace, an untruth that has little to do with Christianity, the Gospel, Jesus Christ, and therefore, little to do with religious life. God does not want us to be happy any more than God wants us to be sad or nervous or tired or anxious. Happiness is fleeting; it’s ephemeral. It’s a feeling and emotion that at its core is certainly good, or at least neutral, like all human feelings—and like the full range of human emotions, happiness comes and goes. And that’s OK.
However, we’re often told, even by religious leaders, that happiness is what we should strive after in making life choices. Instead, Jesus desires for us not to be happy but to have joy, and to have it completely. I believe that we are called to live the Gospel value of joyfulness, which is an evangelical quality bolstered by Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”).
As those who have professed the evangelical counsels and prioritize the Gospel as our blueprint for life, our task is to express that quality of evangelical joyfulness within our communities so that what we encounter in our own experience of a kind of domestic church can carry over into our ministerial life with others.
Evangelical joyfulness is simply another way to call the experience of living with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, love, and thanksgiving. These are the dispositions that Pope Francis identifies throughout Evangelii Gaudium as characteristic of the true life of discipleship. Which is, of course, a lot easier said than done; a lot more comfortably discussed, than lived.
Words from Pope Francis
The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of God’s love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry, and listless.
The great danger that Pope Francis is naming here is that cheap grace, as Bonhoeffer put it, a striving after the individualistic and fleeting happiness so many think God wants us to have. When that cheap grace grows tired and cold, when that happiness is never perpetually sustained, then what?
Pope Francis anticipates this when he notes that “there are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter,” and I believe that this can so often be the case for men and women religious. So may we, in whatever we do, in word or deed, do in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God through him, and in turn, express to our brothers and sisters, in community and in the world, the evangelical quality of true joyfulness.