As a college student, I get a lot of free stuff—concert tickets, t-shirts, water bottles, pens, pizza, stickers, jackets, pennants, books, bike patching kits, samples, tote bags, and even a customized license BU license plate to hang on my wall. Granted, I have to sign up for email lists to get some of these items and others are probably paid for by my undergraduate student fee, but for all intents and purposes, these items are completely free for me in the moment. I don’t need any of these items, but when it’s offered with apparently no strings attached, I shrug and say, “I might as well—it’s free.”
The problem is, nothing is truly free. Yes, I don’t have to exchange tattered pieces of paper for these items, but they all have a cost. The materials to make all of these things were taken from the earth and shipped to a factory somewhere, probably on the other side of the world, where someone labored to create the item. Then, it was loaded into containers full of thousands of identical items and shipped all the way across the world where it was purchased and then given to me.
That pen I picked up off a table and slipped into my bag without a second thought cost me nothing, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t cost anything at all. It was paid for by the earth that relinquished the resources needed to make it, by the underpaid workers who assembled it, by all of us who will be affected by the greenhouse gases released in its transport, and by whoever actually purchased it in the hopes that it would attract some students to their organization or cause. All of this went into making a cheap plastic pen that I will use for a while until it runs out of ink or breaks and then it will go into the landfill where it will stay for the rest of eternity. It’s a very long-term cost for something that might be useful in the immediate future, but will not play a very significant role in my life.
This tendency to only see the short-term gain without any of the long-term implications also arises when I think about grace. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer talks about the difference between “cheap” grace and “costly” grace. According to the idea of cheap grace, “the essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing.” In other words, we don’t have to think about all the hidden costs of that plastic pen—it’s already been paid for and we can take it now for free without thinking about any of the costs. On the other hand, costly grace recognizes that this grace, this amazing, beautiful gift of God that is completely free to us came at the great cost of the life of God’s son. We can never hope to truly pay the cost of this grace and God does not ask us to, but in gratitude for this grace, we can answer God’s call to follow. We may still take the pen, but when we use it, we remember exactly what this pen represents, we try to be conscious of what we throw away, to think about where everything comes from and where it ends up, to think about what we truly need.
For me, the difference between cheap and costly grace is not in the actual cost, but in our perception of and reaction to it. God’s grace for us will always have the same cost, but when it is offered to us and we shrug, saying, “might as well—it’s free,” then we cheapen that grace. But when we truly understand everything that made it possible for this grace to be given to us and everything that this grace, this forgiveness, this salvation means for our lives, we cannot possibly accept it lightly. For Bonhoeffer, the only reaction to such a gift is to dedicate his life to following, to suffering for, and to loving God.
There are a lot of days where answering the call feels impossible, when I can’t figure out where I’m going or what I’m doing or how in the world I could ever be worthy of God’s love and grace. But the point is that I’m not worthy and God chose to pay the cost anyway. God looks down on our broken world, on the pain we cause each other, on the people we’ve forgotten, and on the messes we’ve made of everything we’ve been freely given and loves us anyway. When I think of that, I can’t shrug it away or tuck it away in the back of my desk drawer. No. With a love like that, with a gift like that, there’s truly nothing else I can do but try to give something back. There’s nothing I can do but follow.