Costly Grace

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Protestant Minister at the time of Hitler who opposed him and paid with his life. In his essay, ‘Costly Grace’ he says that Divine Grace (Fadhl of Allah) is something that we must pay for. We take it for granted, we feel we are entitled to it, we don’t even stop to express gratitude to the One who blessed us with it. That is why we don’t appreciate it and so we don’t benefit from it as much as we can do. How true are his words, that speak to us today.

I seek your indulgence to change the title to ‘Valuable Grace’, instead of ‘Costly Grace’. That is because for me, ‘cost’ is something you pay and see as a net loss. You paid the price, but you didn’t get the value you paid for. You are not happy with the deal. On the other hand, when you pay, say, $10 for a Chinese bowl in a thrift shop and then get it cleaned up and discover that it is original Ming pottery from the 5th century, and Sotheby offers you $100,000 for it, do you call what you paid, ‘costly’ or do you call it a ‘bargain’, and ‘valuable’? I define costly as something that is not worth the price. And valuable as something which is a bargain and worth far more than what you paid for it. Today you are here in the house of Allahﷻ. Is this a cost or a bargain? Your answer will depend on how you experience what you are getting out of it. If I offer you bumper stickers – I would rather be fishing, golfing, whatever – would you take them? Why or why not? I submit to you that one of the biggest and most costly casualties in our modern lives is the opportunity to reflect. Most of us don’t even know what that means or how to do it. We know that we must sit in silence, switch off our ‘babies’ and then what? We have lost our connection with our Creator and so we have lost ourselves. That is why the epidemic of our times is not Covid but mental illness, depression, despair, and suicide. When you are desperate and have nowhere to go, what do you do? I ask myself and you, ‘What is the Grace of Allahﷻ worth to us? What are we willing to pay for it?’

Recently I was privy to an email from the student body of an American university to their Chaplain about their Commencement, demanding that the Invocation and Benediction must be eliminated from the ceremony and that the name of God must not be mentioned in the Commencement address. Remember this is America with ‘In God we Trust’ on the dollar bill and the 1st Amendment. So, what happened while we were not looking? When I was growing up, we were warned never to use four-letter words. Looks like it is now down to three-letters. And then it will be down to two and one – Me and I. That is what we are seeing now. I still feel the pain when I think of that email. I remember thinking to myself, ‘What must Allahﷻ be saying about people to whom even his name is not acceptable?’ These are the people whose backs are breaking under the epidemic of mental illness, yet who refuse the only solution that works – remembrance of Allahﷻ. Allahﷻ said, ‘Verily in the remembrance of Allahﷻ is peace of the Qalb.’ Do we want a cure for our troubles? So why don’t we remember Allahﷻ?

We talk about searching for Allahﷻ. The great poet Allama Iqbal said:

Khizar Kyunkar Bataye, Kya Bataye, Agar Mahi Kahe Darya Kahan Hai
Why should Khizer say and what, if the fish were to ask, “Where is the water?”

Today we live in a world that is poised on the brink of the cliff of impending disaster. There are 5 matters that are of deep concern for me.

  1. The rise of religious fundamentalism (a pan religious phenomenon)
  2. The rise of populism (seems to be worldwide)
  3. The rise of narcissism (in our leaders and their electorate)
  4. The loss of values (much worse than the clash of values)
  5. The loss of morality (amorality is much worse than immorality)

Together this has created a society that is almost devoid of compassion and justice. When justice and compassion disappear, await the end. The solution is to connect with the One to Whom is our return and to Whom we must account for the life He gave us. This is the reality and like all realities, it doesn’t depend on belief for its existence. This is the truth. Allahﷻ said, “That is the Day of Truth. Let the one who wishes make a way to his Rabb.”

We just finished Ramadan. What is the purpose of fasting? Allahﷻ told us about the purpose of Ramadan. He said:

يَـٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ كُتِبَ عَلَيْكُمُ ٱلصِّيَامُ كَمَا كُتِبَ عَلَى ٱلَّذِينَ مِن قَبْلِكُمْ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ

Baqara 2: 183    O you who believe! Fasting (Sawm) is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may become Al-Muttaqoon

What is Taqwa? Taqwa is the awareness of Allahﷻ in our lives and the desire, the constant concern to please Him because we love Him the most. It is not fear of Allahﷻ. It is the fear of displeasing the One we love the most. Anyone who loves someone will do whatever it takes to ensure that their Beloved is never displeased with them. The more the love, the more the fear of doing something that the Beloved may not like. Such a person is not thinking minimalistically. They are not saying to themselves concerning Allahﷻ and our relationship with Him, ‘Let me do the least possible, just tick the box, to make sure that I remain in the fold.’ But like all great experiences, love can’t be explained. It must be felt.

What does it mean to know – I don’t simply mean the words – but to know as in deep in my heart – that Allahﷻ is with me. When Allahﷻ is with me, His light illuminates every corner of my heart and being and all darkness of sadness, regret, fear, despair, hatred, and anger, are driven out. I march through life with a smile on my face to a tune that only I can hear in my heart. Others may wonder why I look so happy when on the surface of it, they and I are in the same boat. But you know, experience can’t be explained. It must be lived, tasted, felt. Because it is experience, not explanation that changes us. It is experience, not explanation that leaves behind memories that console and support us and illuminate the path on the cold, dark nights when we think we are alone. Learn to love.

We fast because Allahﷻ ordered us to do it and said that it would make us people that He loves – Muttaqoon – people of Taqwa. People who love Him and are concerned about living their lives so that He loves them. What is the reward of that? He told us two amazing things. He said:

إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ مَعَ ٱلَّذِينَ ٱتَّقَوا۟ وَّٱلَّذِينَ هُم مُّحْسِنُونَ

Nahl 16: 128. Truly, Allah is with those who have Taqwa and those who are Muhsinoon (those who do more than what is necessary to please Allah).

And He said:

وَمَن يَتَّقِ ٱللَّهَ يَجْعَل لَّهُۥ مَخْرَجًا

وَيَرْزُقْهُ مِنْ حَيْثُ لَا يَحْتَسِبُ وَمَن يَتَوَكَّلْ عَلَى ٱللَّهِ فَهُوَ حَسْبُهُۥٓ

Talaq 65: 2   And whosoever has Taqwa of Allah, He will make a way out for him (from every difficulty). 3. And He will provide him from (sources) he could never imagine. And whosoever puts his trust in Allah, then He will suffice him. 

But how can you love someone you don’t know? I don’t mean ‘know about’. I mean ‘know’. There is a difference. It may begin with knowing about, but it must grow to knowing, deep in the core of our beings. It means being connected in a way that only you can understand. This is what creates peace and confidence in the heart which is the real cure for loneliness, depression, and despair. Who is our Creator? Who is Allahﷻ?

Nobody can introduce Allahﷻ the way He introduced Himself. He said:

2: 255   Allah! La ilaha illa Huwa (none has the right to be worshipped but He), the Ever Living, the Established, One who sustains and protects all that exists. Neither dozing, nor sleep overcome Him. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on earth. Who is it that can intercede with Him except with His Permission? He knows what happens to them (His creatures) in this world, and what will happen to them in the Hereafter. And they will never possess anything of His Knowledge except that which He wills. His Kursi extends over the heavens and the earth, and He feels no fatigue in guarding and preserving them. And He is the Most High, the Most Great.

We recognize Allahﷻ through His creation. He created the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. When I first saw one in the Amazonian rainforest on the bank of the Berbice River in Guyana, I thought it was a moth. The male weighs around 3 grams while the female is a bit heavier, about 4 grams. To give you perspective, a teaspoon of sugar weighs 5 grams. This little creature flies from South America to the bank of the Mississippi River. Part of this route is across the Gulf of Mexico, 500 miles and takes around 26 hours. What does that mean? We know Him through His signs.

أَوَلَمْ يَرَوْا۟ إِلَى ٱلطَّيْرِ فَوْقَهُمْ صَـٰٓفَّـٰتٍ وَيَقْبِضْنَ مَا يُمْسِكُهُنَّ إِلَّا ٱلرَّحْمَـٰنُ إِنَّهُۥ بِكُلِّ شَىْءٍۭ بَصِيرٌ

Mulk 67: 19    Do they not see the birds above them, spreading out their wings and folding them in? None upholds them except the Most Beneficent (Allah). Verily, He is the All-Seer of everything.

Fasting is prescribed for us to know our Rabb and reiterate that to connect with Him, we must obey Him. We fast, not because of any worldly benefits, though there are many, but because that is the order of our Creator who we love more than anyone or anything else. It is this submission to His Will, because we trust Him, love Him, and know that whatever He commanded us to do is best for us, that is Taqwa. That is why we fast. The questions to ask is: Do we want Allahﷻ to be with us or not? Do we need Allahﷻ or not? Is Allahﷻ sufficient for us or not? We have the time now. Let’s reflect. Fasting reiterates the Supreme position of Allahﷻ in our lives and underlines for us the importance of obeying Him. We stop ourselves during Ramadan from that which is otherwise permissible; food, water, and relations with our spouses during the hours of the fast, for no reason other than that it is the command of Allahﷻ. This is to rejuvenate in our lives the importance of obeying Allahﷻ at all times and staying away from what He prohibited throughout our lives.

That is because we know that whatever He permitted, is good for us and what He prohibited is bad for us. We know Him. We trust Him. We love Him and so we obey Him. Let us reflect and decide once and for all and change our lives to reflect this. Because remember, only actions yield results. Only doing, counts. Not merely knowing. Knowing and not doing, is proof against the slave.