I have been watching a popular but relatively old anime series, My Hero Academia. It is centred on the life of a teenage boy Izuku Midoyira who lives in a world where most people have “quirks”. Quirks are superhuman abilities such as being able to create fire and freeze things, control animals, walk through solid materials etc. Izuku unfortunately does not have a quirk even though his greatest desire is to become a hero; which is a problem because in his world all heroes have quirks.
Izuku meets his idol, who is the number one hero and the strongest hero of all, All Might, after he rescues him from a villain. All Might it turns out received his quirk from someone else; his quirk, which is called “All for One” is passed down from generation to generation. All Might meets Izuku while searching for the next worthy successor to his quirk and power. All Might decides to pass down “All for One” (his quirk) to Izuku after realising that his desire to be a hero is rooted in his selflessness and willingness to sacrifice himself to help others.
Here is where the lesson on grace comes in. Izuku receives the quirk and power from All Might. The power, All for One, has the potential to transform him into the strongest and most powerful hero. However to actualise that potential he enters a prestigious high school famous for training top heroes. Possessing All Might’s power alone is not enough, Izuku must rigorously train and prepare himself mentally and physically to be able to realise that power. We see there are two different approaches to becoming a hero that Izuku can take after being given All for One. The first approach is to rely on his willpower alone that in the moments required he will be able to use All for One perfectly; his desire and intention is enough to ensure that will he able to yield the power given correctly. The second approach is to enter a life of training and discipline, a life organized around particular practices which will prepare him to be able to use All for One perfectly when the moments required arrives. Izuku wisely takes the second approach. He knew that possessing All for One and not doing any training would not lead to him becoming a great and strong hero like All Might his idol.
Here is where the lesson on grace come in. Grace can also be thought of as the reception of power from God freely given to transform us into becoming like Christ (the ultimate and greatest hero). Our heart, affections, will, desires, actions and character are to conform to Christ through grace. Most of us today approach this vocation and calling through will power alone. We think that it is enough to rely on our will power alone to be able to cooperate with God and His power in the moments required.
Dallas Willard in his book, The Spiritual Disciplines, makes the point that we mistakenly think that grace excludes effort, training and rigorous discipline on our side. Firstly, we think that spiritual training and discipline means that we are now earning God’s grace rather than receiving it through faith. Secondly, we also think that following Christ excludes organizing our lives around practices and disciplines that he himself undertook.
If we believe this mistaken idea, we miss out on a crucial aspect of grace. If we look at Izuku, he received All for One freely as a gift, he did not earn it. And him training and engaging in disciplines and practices, is not for him to try and earn All for One; he does it to increase and strengthen his capacity to interact and cooperate with All for One. Similarly, we receive grace as a gift to enable us to become like Christ and participate in the life of God. Training, effort, and engaging in spiritual disciplines is how we increase our ability to interact and cooperate with God’s grace and Spirit in transforming us.
Paul did not see effort and training and grace as mutually exclusive. And this theme is present throughout his epistles: “train yourself unto godliness”; “work out your salvation with fear and trembling”; “I discipline my body and bring it under subjection”.
The life of grace does not and cannot exclude our own effort. We must firmly keep in mind that our efforts do not earn us grace; but our efforts, actions, and decisions are required to cooperate and interact with grace freely given. A person who falls into a deep hole and is thrown a rope by someone at the top, must grab onto the rope in order to be pulled out and rescued. Grabbing onto the rope requires great effort on his part, however he is simply cooperating with the person rescuing him. The rope is thrown in the hole precisely in order to be grabbed onto. Once the person in the hole is out, he would never say that he rescued himself, or that he somehow earned being rescued by grabbing onto the rope.
Our efforts and actions in the form of spiritual disciplines are simply how we cooperate and interact with the grace of God as he redeems and transforms us into his likeness; we are simply grabbing the rope which God has thrown into our pit to pull us out of and into the glorious light.