Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:24-30; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

Grit, or grace?

Jesus said, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” The word that is translated here as “abide” – in Greek, meno – simply means “remain” or “stay.” The same Greek word is used throughout the New Testament, such as near the end of Mark’s gospel when at the garden of Gethsemane Jesus tells his disciples to “remain here and stay awake” while he goes a little ways off to pray.

This word meno is also related to the word for persevere – parameno, to stay beside or endure. We use parallel language in English: we say, “stay with it” if we want to encourage a friend or colleague to hang in there and keep going. Paramedics and other first responders say to those who are gravely injured and in danger of slipping away, “Stay with me. Stay with me.”

“Abide in me, as I abide in you,” says Jesus. These words come at the very center of that part of the gospel of John that is called the “Farewell Discourse” – this call to remain in and with Jesus comes at a time when Jesus knows he will soon be going away, at least in the form that his disciples have known him. Jesus knows he is going to the cross; his friends are going to watch him die and will tempted to believe that he is gone forever. The disciples are going to want to give up.

Those who come after them in years to come are also going to want to give up, as they try to keep their communities going in the face of Roman persecution. The whole gospel of John is essentially a pep talk, and chapter 15 is the center of that pep talk. The message: stay with it. Stay with me. Remain. Abide. Hang in there. Don’t let go.

It’s easy enough to give a pep talk. Easy enough to be lifted up by inspirational speech, at least in the moment. But what keeps us going when things get tough? Where do we find what it takes to stay, remain, abide, persevere in the midst of difficulty, discouragement, pain, and failure?

A professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, Angela Lee Duckworth, thinks perhaps she has found the key: she calls it “grit.” Her book, called Grit – The Power of Passion and Perseverance, asserts that the determining factor in success, whether in school or sports or work, is not innate talent or intelligence, but that “ferocious determination” to keep going despite setbacks or struggle. Duckworth drew her data from groups like cadets at West Point, players with the Seattle Seahawks. She studied other high achievers like the founder of Amazon, and determined that grit is the key to success – those who have it will make it through, and those who don’t have grit will not get very far. At least, not as far as those who have grit.

There’s some wisdom in all of this, to be sure. If grit is as important as Duckworth says it is, then we can imagine a world in which it’s not just those with high IQ scores and privilege that succeed. It reminds us that so much more is possible than we think, and that failure is not, as Duckworth says, “a permanent condition,” but an opportunity to learn, and try again.

I appreciate the insight here. But I find myself wondering, is grit the key to remaining in Jesus? Is Christian discipleship about that “ferocious determination” that Duckworth talks about? When Jesus says to his friends, “Abide in me, as I abide in you,” is this really the same as saying, “Get yourselves some grit”?

There are some parallels between what it takes to abide in Jesus and having “grit.” What they have in common is that they make it possible to persevere in difficult circumstances. They both have to do in part with focusing on a goal that is far beyond the present moment and not easy to see. But ultimately, I think that these are very, very different realities.

Grit is a matter of human determination and strength. It sees a goal and strives for it. Grit is about training and training and training some more; about competing in all you do, and never being satisfied. Grit is what it takes to run the Boston Marathon in the rain.

Abiding in Jesus is something very different. Although it does take practice – practice in prayer and worship, in listening, in compassion and service – it is not about succeeding or making something happen. Remaining in Jesus has nothing to do with powering through the pain or drilling one last time with your flash cards. Our capacity to abide is just that: a “capaciousness” – allowing Jesus to dwell in us and letting that place open up more and more.

Grit is about cultivating and maximizing your own strength; abiding in Jesus is about learning to receive grace. Grit is about going after what you want; abiding in Jesus is letting Jesus teach you your heart’s desire. Grit is driven by your passion in life; abiding in Jesus is rooted in God’s passion – the Paschal Mystery that through love, death leads to resurrection and new possibility.

It’s the difference, perhaps, between determination and desire. So often we tell ourselves that if we could just work a little harder or a little longer we could get to where we want – lose some weight, get that promotion, write that book, pray more, finish that quilt that’s been laying in a trunk for thirteen years (that last one is hypothetical, of course!). With enough determination – grit – we can do anything.

Determination can get us a lot of places, I suppose. But what I have come to understand is that God works not through our willpower, but through our longing – through our desire. When we abide in Jesus, when we are connected to the vine of grace, our longing for what is true, good, and beautiful is fed and blossoms. And it is when our longing overcomes our fear and our lethargy that we are free to become who we are created to be.

Consider the Ethiopian eunuch in the first reading from Acts. He has come all the way from Africa to Jerusalem to worship the God of Israel in the temple. He is reading the prophet Isaiah – chapter 53, so we know he’s been at it for a while. When Philip comes up to his chariot, the Ethiopian asks for help in understanding the scriptures, and when they pass by a body of water, he suddenly is inspired to ask for baptism. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” What, indeed?

These are the words of a man whose longing for God has been growing; when he meets Jesus (through Philip), his longing spills over. In many ways the Ethiopian has been abiding in God for a long time, as his study of scripture and his worship at the temple show us. So why bother with baptism? Because his longing has led him there, has led him to desire a deeper mystery, a deeper grace. Because he knows that Jesus is calling him.

I don’t know for sure, but I imagine that baptism did not end the Ethiopian’s longing for God. I think that it must have increased his desire. After all, this is what the sacraments do. They make us hungry for what is holy. It’s not determination that the sacraments give us, but desire. Not grit, but grace.

So listen again to Jesus’ words: “I am the vine and you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” The sap that is moving through you from Christ the Vine, what holy longing does it feed in you? Can you let it make you hungry for the fruit of love and justice and peace? Can you abide in that longing, and let it abide in you? What would happen if you let it fill you, not with grit, but with grace?

© 2018 Elise A. Feyerherm