To Flannery O’Connor, grace was a violent thing. Not a solemn walk down a church aisle or a hushed prayer, but a bullet. A bull’s horn. A suicide.
You won’t find her in Christian book stores, though you may have read one of her stories in college. Her goal in writing fiction was clear: “My audience are the people who think God is dead. . . . To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”
Her characters are grotesque. Her religious voice is unconventional. She’s kind of my hero.
When I first hand my students an O’Connor story, their typical response is to cringe or ask incredulously: What did I just read?
I understand this reaction. It’s what good ‘ole Flannery would have wanted. Shock. But she wanted that shock to lead to understanding. So before helping my students unpack the story, I ask them a question: What must come before grace? I ask because the answer is what every Flannery O’Connor story is about: the moment when characters realize they need grace.
In A Good Man Is Hard to Find that moment arrives when a notorious convict points his gun at a grandma. Though she’s spent the majority of the story picking at others while basking in her own goodness, she has a moment of clarity. She looks at the criminal and is reminded of her own son. She realizes that the two men aren’t so different. She stops talking. Her fancy hat falls to the ground. And she sees that she isn’t so different from the murderer, either. Her epiphany ends abruptly, with three bullets to the chest:
“She would have been a good woman,” the Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
With this morbid line, O’Connor reminds her audience that grace is a wake-up call. It carries a dramatic message: You are not ok. You never will be. You need something outside of yourself.
Grace for the Guilty
When I think about the grandmother’s epiphany, I think about a song by indie artist, Sufjan Stevens. It’s about John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer known for dressing up as a clown and murdering more than 30 teenage boys in the 1970s. The last lines of the song are striking:
And in my best behavior/I am really just like him.
Before we can accept grace, we must admit that we are filthy, rotten sinners who need grace. It’s what the Pharisees of Jesus’s day couldn’t understand. In Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable aimed directly at their stubborn hearts: “He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous” (v. 9).
You know the story. Two men enter the temple to worship. The Pharisee stands tall and proud saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” while the other man can hardly lift his face (v. 11). Instead, he stays low to the ground and cries out: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (v. 13).
Until we see ourselves as sinners, we won’t recognize Christ as Savior (Luke 5:31). I remember interviewing a prostitute in Los Angeles years ago. She said that one night she saw a man murdered. Somebody threw him out a window. Everyone knew who did it, but no one told. I asked her why not, and she said that the murdered man had molested a child. “Anyone who would do something like that deserves to die,” she said.
She’s right. Anyone who would do that deserves to die. Anyone who sins against God in any way deserves death. James 2:10 puts me in the same camp as pedophiles and serial killers: “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.”
I have failed. I’m accountable for all of it. I need grace.
In another O’Connor story, The Lame Shall Enter First, a confident atheist, Shepherd, realizes that his good deeds have missed the mark. After the loss of his wife, he reaches out to a bitter, delinquent, teenage boy with a club foot. The boy, Rufus, wants nothing to do with him, but Shepherd insists. He takes him into his home, buys him a new boot, and tells him how much potential he has. He spends all his time playing savior to someone who doesn’t want his help. All the while, his son grieves alone. By the time Shepherd realizes his mistake, it’s too late. His son is gone.
Throughout this story, grace continually offends. It offends Shepherd’s pride and superior intellect. “That book is something for you to hide behind,” he says when he sees Rufus reading the Bible. “It’s for cowards, people who are afraid to stand on their own feet and figure things out for themselves.”
He assures Rufus: “You don’t believe it. You’re too intelligent.” But Rufus angrily replies, “You don’t know nothing about me. Even if I didn’t believe it, it would still be true.” Grace is what we need, whether we accept it or not. And though Shepherd dismisses the gospel at every turn, he is given insight into the depths of his own failure. He failed to save Rufus. He failed his own son. He is the one in need of a shepherd.
Grace is offensive because it points to the deficiency in each of us.
Even more offensive than our need for grace is how much it costs. Too often I forget that because God is just, my sins couldn’t just disappear. They had to be punished. And Jesus walked toward that punishment. He walked toward the hill where pain was a promise.
His death wasn’t merely symbolic. When we read about the countless slaughtered animals in the Old Testament, we must make the connection: Jesus’s body was the ultimate bloody sacrifice. It was real nails ripping through skin and muscle. His emotional agony was so intense that, before his death, he asked God if there were any other way (Matt. 26:39). None of us could die as Jesus died. Sinless. The perfect substitute. His death was gory because that is what our sins deserve.
The Pharisees wanted to know why Jesus spent so much time with unworthy people. Jesus told them it was because they were sick and needed a doctor. He saw the Pharisees’ disease as well. He knew that it ran deep but that they were unwilling to cry out for help. Witnessing people reject the medicine of grace grieved Jesus: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing” (Luke 13:34).
Flannery O’Connor may have written violent stories about strange characters from the South, but she understood grace. She knew that no man is righteous until he is clothed in Christ. This requires that we see our nakedness and recognize our need. Grace is costly. It is necessary. And God desires that we admit our problem and embrace his solution.