The Horror of Grace

In Lee Chang-dong’s film Secret Sunshine (2007), there’s a scene that absolutely floors me, because it captures something so true about the way humanity deals with grace. The scene takes place in a prison, as protagonist Shin-ae (whose son was recently kidnapped and murdered) goes to visit her son’s murderer, in prison for life. Shin-ae, a new convert to Christianity, wants to forgive her son’s killer. Her friends tell her she doesn’t have to see him face-to-face in order to forgive him. But she insists. She wants to see him in person and (truth be told) wants to witness the look on his face when she offers him the gift of forgiveness.

And yet when she sits down to confront the prisoner on the other side of the glass from her, Shin-ae finds him unexpectedly happy, peaceful, even joyful. “You look better than I expected,” she tells him. She goes on to tell him that she’s found peace, love, and a “new life” in God, and that that’s why she’s here. She’s “so happy to feel God’s love and grace” that she wanted to spread his love by coming to visit him. But then the shocker. The prisoner has also come to faith in Christ.

“Since I came here, I have accepted God in my heart. The Lord has reached out to this sinner,” he says.

“Is that so?” replies Shin-ae, crestfallen and shaken. “It’s good you have found God…” she says, very tentatively.

The convicted murderer continues: “Yes, I am so grateful. God reached out to a sinner like me. He made me kneel to repent my sins. And God has absolved me of them.”

And this is where Shin-ae begins to wilt, as she’s confronted by something she didn’t see coming.

“God… has forgiven your sins?” she mutters in disbelief.

“Yes,” he replies. “And I have found inner peace… My repentance and absolution have brought me peace. Now I start and end each day with prayer. I always pray for you, Ms. Lee. I’ll pray for you until I die.”

This hits Shin-ae hard. When she leaves the prison, she collapses, overcome by the horror of an idea she had not considered: that even the killer of her own son could be saved by God’s grace, and that God could beat her to the punch in forgiving the killer, offering him the only real absolving he needed. Unfortunately, Shin-ae can’t accept this seeming injustice–how can a law-abiding, good citizen like her and a convicted child-killer be on the same leveled playing field in terms of God’s grace? She can’t take that, and abandons God because of it.

This, I think, is the greatest, most mind-blowing quality of God’s grace, while at the same time being the hardest for humanity to swallow: His grace is sufficient for all, and it saves unconditionally, based not on our merits or relative levels of moral stature. We’re all sinners, fallen short of the glory of God and alienated from him, and thus we all need exactly the same grace from Him to repair the breach.

I need the same grace as anyone who has ever wronged me.

Trayvon Martin needs the same grace as George Zimmerman.

Jason Russell needs the same grace as Joseph Kony.

Barack Obama needs the same grace as Osama bin Laden.

Mother Theresa needs the same grace as Hitler.

Charlie Sheen, Tim Tebow, Whitney Houston, Joe the Plumber, Kim Kardashian,  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Benjamin Netanyahu, the pepper spray cop, Susan Boyle, Madonna, Jerry Sandusky and the boys he molested… All are hopeless and condemned without the exact same grace. That is: the grace of God, freely given through faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ, who–though perfect and undeserving–bore our sins on that dreadful but majestic cross.

It’s absolutely scandalous, and for many, a pill too hard to swallow. We’re prideful creatures, us humans. We want to believe that “right” living warrants us  a better standing in God’s eyes than, say, the killers and thieves and pedophiles. We don’t want to believe that we are in exactly the same predicament and in need of exactly the same salvation as the world’s most evil person. We want God to reward us for being good and punish others for being bad. Deep down, pride is what leads many to resist the free gift of grace… because they can’t stomach the notion that earning or deserving are not words that exist in God’s economy of grace.

But if we can just get over our pride, emptying ourselves in the same way Christ did both in how he lived and died, the “free to all” nature of grace begins to look beautiful rather than horrific (as it did to Shin-ae). Grace becomes life-transforming precisely because it takes us outside of ourselves, freeing us from our sinful chains and narcissistic self reliance, instead focusing our attention on Christ–and what HE did that Good Friday not just for me, or you, or the “good people,” but for the world.

18 responses to “The Horror of Grace

  1. Pingback: Mercy in the midst of Confession « Wild Wisteria

  2. “The only real absolving he needed”? Really? What about the second greatest commandment? Isn’t this scene shocking not simply because the killer has found God, but because he thinks his relationship with God absolves him of the need to work on his relationships with others?

  3. Offensive Grace: grace so real it makes your teeth clench. great blog!

  4. Great post and your list of quotes in the sidebar is amazing! I give thanks for your thoughtful soul.

  5. Wonderful post.

  6. The plot of this movie sounds like the plot of many Flannery O’Connor stories–good people who do not see their own need for grace suddenly being confronted by their equality with someone who they always felt was beneath them. Powerful post.

  7. Thanks Brett,
    So true. And we tend to believe that it’s been our own morals, or fortitude, or righteousness that have kept us from perpetrating what we perceive to be the more heinous crimes, when the reality is that, that also has been a grace.

  8. This reminds me of some parts of Shusaku Endo’s novels when the converts “get it” so much better than the missionaries. Great post. Thank you.

  9. WOW thought provoking!!

  10. I don’t think its that the “criminal” finds he is absolved from working on relationships, its that he understands he is forgiven. His slate is wiped clean. This is great. This is what Christianity really is. We are all on the same level and all need Him.

  11. He is forgiven by God, yes. But doesn’t the forgiveness of the person he offended matters? Should he not be showing any contrition towards *her*, instead of smugly assuming that he is now on the same level as her (or even higher, given that he intercedes for her and tells her so)? Christianity is not just about loving God, it is about loving your neighbour as yourself, and the inmate is lacking that, here. To quote what I wrote elsewhere (

    “One of this film’s more intriguing elements is the way it touches on the notion that forgiveness can be something of a power game. (Warning: there be spoilers here.) The woman in this film wants to visit the man who wronged her so that she can forgive him, and we have every reason to believe that she is devout and sincere in doing so; yet she does it not just because it is the right thing to do but also, I suspect, because it helps her to put the pieces back together, to imagine herself in a position of power over the man. So when the man reveals that he has *already* been forgiven by God — and, what’s more, has been *praying* for the woman — it is not at all hard to see how the woman might feel that the man has taken the power away from her and asserted it over her again.

    “The problem I have with this scene — after one viewing, anyway — is that a man who had truly repented of such a heinous crime would probably not be as calm and ‘in control’, in more than one sense of the term, in a situation like that. And if he was, I would not expect other Christians to back him up. Though if such a scene ever *did* play out in real life the way it does here, I would fully understand why the woman reacts to it the way she does.”

    • Insightful analysis.
      Especially agree with your last paragraph; Under the contrived circumstances, I empathize with the woman’s reaction.
      I just hope this kind of harsh disillusion would not leave one abandon the true faith.

      • In a sense the forgiveness of God is the effective absolving the convict needed. Only through repentence and the forgiveness of God he could truly ask for forgiveness from his fellow being who may not extend it.
        On the other hand, the woman was emotionally shattered by the encounter because she wanted to offer forgiveness on her own terms.

  12. Wow this is powerful. We like grace for ourselves, or on our terms, don’t we? Judgment meted out with mercy. It’s hard to handle.

    Great read today. I’m glad I stopped by.

  13. Pingback: Best of the Blog’s First Five Years | The Search

  14. It shows how difficult true forgiveness can be.
    Under the euphoria of conversion experience, we may think we can forgive until reality and inner turmoil hit us hard.
    Only by the grace of God through Jesus Christ one can truly forgive.

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