Near occasions of grace
1 Corinthians 1.10-18
There’s a strand of Christian belief and practice that talks a lot about ‘near occasions of sin’. For example, the Baltimore Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church says this (Question 207):
What do you mean by the near occasions of sin?
Answer: By the near occasions of sin I mean all the persons, places, and things that may easily lead us into sin.
This teaches us to avoid situations that lead us into temptation. It ranges from the obvious: I don’t go to brothels in order to give pastoral care. (I found out the whereabouts of the local brothel at a recent ministers’ fraternal meeting, of all places. Everyone else seemed to know.) But avoiding near occasions of sin may also lead to things that are less black and white than that: should I as a minister go to the local bottle shop? Some would say that’s a non-question, why worry about that, while others would tell me I just shouldn’t go there.
We can see that what for one person is a near occasion of sin is nothing for another. Personally, I find entering a book shop can be a near occasion of sin, in that I’m often tempted to spend way too much money. You might enter the same bookshop and be totally bored.
Avoiding near occasions of sin is a good teaching; why should we put ourselves in harm’s way morally, ethically or spiritually? I am happy to say that we should avoid near occasions of sin.
But if all we do is avoid sin, we’re missing out on a lot of living. If all we do is avoid sin, we may do no good. If all we do is avoid sin, we may miss God.
The spiritual writer Richard Rohr is someone I listen to closely. He writes about ‘near occasions of grace’, rather than near occasions of sin. He says:
We want to plant ourselves in near occasions of grace, yet we spend all our life avoiding near occasions of sin. Can there be situations that we allow ourselves to enter which will force us to reevaluate everything?
So a near occasion of grace may be where there are persons, places, and things that may easily lead us into further grace.
Near occasions of grace are often places and times in which we are confronted with something beyond us, perhaps way out of our control. In that place and that time we may find God’s grace waiting for us, loitering with intent, just around the corner. An ordinary day may be the time when God’s unexpected grace reveals itself to us.
Grace often surprises us, and it may not look like grace. When the fishermen Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John set out for a day’s work one morning, it probably seemed like any other. The sun might have been shining, or it may have clouded over, but my guess is that it started as an ordinary day.
Then Jesus came along.