One theme that has recurred in my Sunday reflections over the past few months is the idea that we receive grace as a gift from God, but inasmuch as that grace is at work in us, we will also give grace to others. As I wrote in November:
Grace is a gift but it isn’t a gift that we open and stash away in a vault. Those of us who have genuinely received God’s grace will share it with others. Not because we’re special or because we have to, but because that’s how grace works.
We can think about this like a kind of engine. A car’s motor, for example, converts the energy potential in gasoline into the energy of the car’s motion. Without that output, it isn’t functioning as an engine at all, and is little more than a fancy holding tank. In the same way, as we take in the grace of God, we will naturally transform it into grace-filled action in the world. Without that output, we simply aren’t doing what we were designed to do. (This is why the Reformation-era debates about ‘grace vs. works’ seem to me to miss the point; expecting that a person’s faith will be lived out in concrete acts is not saying that they have to ‘earn’ their salvation; it’s simply expecting them to be what they were made to be: As the Scriptures say, we are “created in Christ for good works” (Ephesians 2.10). A motor turns fuel into motion; a tree turns sunlight into sugar; a human heart turns grace into action. It’s simply what they do.)
Steve McIntosh, in his book The Presence of the Infinite, refers to this sort of system as “value metabolism,” and it’s another one of the tools we can use to grow with intention. He writes:
[Spirituality is] “more than simply ‘receiving an experience.’ To experience spirit in its fullness, we also have to express or share our experiences and thus reproduce them in the minds and hearts of our fellows. Ideally, we need to ‘take in’ the inspiration afforded by spiritual experiences and also ‘give out’ the energy of these experiences creatively in our work” (69).
One interesting consequence of this idea is that it is through this process of working with our transcendent values that we truly come to understand and experience them; that is, we haven’t truly experienced and understood love or grace or beauty until we have gotten our hands dirty and worked them into something we can give to others. It reminds me of when I taught New Testament Greek for a few months; there was nothing like the expectation of teaching things to others to make sure I really understood how it all worked!
This creates a mutually-reinforcing cycle. For example, if I see a beautiful sunset and am inspired to draw it, this will in turn inspire me to look at the sunset more closely, and so on. McIntosh concludes, “Thus, when we have an outlet for the creation of beauty … we find that the act of expressing beauty opens the aperture of our minds to receive the light of more beauty of every kind” (70). Experiencing beauty leads to creating beauty, which leads to experiencing more beauty, and on and on.
McIntosh talks about value metabolism in terms of the three classic transcendental values of goodness, truth, and beauty: we respond to receiving goodness by offering goodness to others; we learn truth in order to share it with others; and we experience beauty and are inspired to create beauty. But, as the example of grace with which I began this post demonstrates, it works with all manner of values. Another biblical example is Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness: The parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18 shows that forgiveness of others is the natural consequence of having been forgiven ourselves; but elsewhere (e.g., Matthew 6) Jesus links God’s forgiveness of our sins to our forgiveness of others. It doesn’t really matter what started the process; what matters is that the process reinforces itself, leading to more and more forgiveness.
One thing I appreciate about the idea of value metabolism is that it emphasizes the fact that these things are transformed as they work in and through us and as we work in and through them. There may not be a one-to-one correspondence for how we receive something and how we give it. The analogy that comes to mind is what we might do with a bag of flour; maybe what a neighbour needs is flour and we can give it directly, but maybe their oven is broken and so what would truly benefit them is a loaf of bread, or maybe they’re starting a long journey and so hard biscuits are what they need. This adds a helpful nuance to this practice reminiscent of the so-called ‘Platinum Rule’, not just doing unto others as we would want them to do to us, but doing unto others as they would want us to do to them.
To summarize, the spiritual practice of value metabolism is about creating a circuit in which we pay forward what we have received. This process in turn opens us up to even more experience, and the cycle continues. It is how spirituality is embodied. And it’s a great way we can lean into our spiritual growth.
Here are some concrete ways you can encourage growth through value metabolism:
- The next time you see something beautiful, turn it into an opportunity to create something of your own (this can be as simple as taking a photo of the beautiful thing and tinkering with the settings and filters on your phone to heighten the beauty, or as complicated as painting it or writing a song about it — whatever creative outlet works best for you)
- The next time someone does something kind for you, pay it forward. (You don’t need to wait until someone does something for you; you can start the chain too!)
- Make a list of your core values and think of ways you express them in your life, and one or two ways you could express them more.