In August of 1996, a female gorilla housed at the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois, made international headlines after a three-year-old boy climbed the wall around the gorilla exhibit and fell more than seven metres into the enclosure. The boy suffered a broken hand and a large gash to his face. Binti, a female western lowland gorilla, slowly walked over to the injured boy as spectators screamed in panic. She picked up the child and cradled him in her arms, protecting him from the other gorillas, until zookeepers rushed into the enclosure. When she heard zoo staff opening the door to the enclosure, she gently laid the child down and backed away. The little boy spent four days in hospital, making a full recovery.
Binti, of course, was an overnight sensation. For months following the incident, she received overwhelming attention from zoo visitors and special treats from zookeepers. Experts debated whether her protective action was the result of animal altruism or zoo training. Because she had been hand-reared by humans (as opposed to being raised in the wild by other gorillas), she had been specially trained by people to care for her own child. Some speculated that she probably recalled this training when the boy fell into the enclosure. Other researchers suspected that it was simply an act of empathy, much like the incident ten years earlier when Jambo, a male gorilla in a Channel Islands zoo, who had been raised in the wild, instinctively protected a five-year-old boy who had similarly fallen into an enclosure.
As the debate between researchers raged, one thing never happened: No one suggested routinely dropping three-year-old children into the enclosure as an experiment to see how consistently she would protectively treat them. Binti was a wild animal, and human children are not generally thought to be safe with wild animals. Her action was unusual, and it was therefore not considered wise to replicate the experiment. It is not a gorilla’s way to be tender and protective to human toddlers.
As Christians, we can be guilty of treating God’s kindness toward us in much the same way that researchers treated Binti’s protective action. Her act of kindness was understood to be an unusual act, and was therefore the subject of much scrutiny. Sadly, Christians sometimes consider God’s kindness to his people to likewise be an act of unusual benevolence, to be grateful for, but with little expectation of it being repeated consistently.
The writer of Psalm 119 had a different theology. For him, God’s kindness toward his people was not a strange act, but was the norm. “Turn to me and be gracious to me,” he prayed, “as is your way with those who love your name” (v. 137). God’s custom is to be gracious to his people, to regularly and consistently show them his favour. He does not give us what is just, but what is merciful.
How did the psalmist know that God is customarily gracious toward his people? No doubt, he knew it from his own experience, but he also knew it because he knew the history of God’s people. He could look to the example of many old covenant saints to whom God had shown his grace and conclude that grace is God’s custom to those who love him. He took courage that, if God was gracious to Abraham, and to Lot, and to Moses, he would likewise be gracious to him. God is faithful, and his customs can be counted on. We can rest confidently with the same assurance.
In what ways is God always gracious to those who love his name? The ways are myriad. Every breath we take, every beat of our heart, is evidence of God’s grace. Every time you pull your council bin onto the pavement, God’s gracious provision to you is evident in the packets and containers that comprise your trash. Signs of God’s grace to us abound if we will but open our eyes and look around.
But we must realise that God is gracious to us even when we don’t immediately see it in favourable circumstances. How did God answer Paul when he asked the Lord to remove his thorn in the flesh? He did not remove the thorn, but encouraged Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Grace doesn’t always remove our problems, but gives us the ability to joyfully persevere in them.
Of course, the greatest evidence of God’s grace—and, in many ways, the foundation of God’s grace—is the gospel. In the gospel, God sacrificially gave himself to save sinners who would believe in him. The gospel is so foundational an act of God’s grace that someone once used the word “grace” as an acronym for the gospel message.
G is for God—the holy, yet loving, Creator of all we see (Genesis 1:1). He alone is worthy of our praise (Revelation 14:11). He created humans to be in eternal, perfect fellowship with him.
R is for rebellion—humanity’s rebellion against a gracious God. God created human beings to reflect his glory, but humans chose to rebel against him. Humanity’s rebellion earned death (Romans 5:12; 6:23). Everyone has sinned, and our sin has separated us from God (Isaiah 59:2). Because of our rebellion, we are all destined for eternal death.
A stands for atonement—God’s work to repair a broken relationship. Because of his love for his people, God sent his son to die a substitutionary death on the cross of Calvary (John 3:16). Sinners were destined to die as God’s enemies, but the atonement secured by Christ made peace with God possible (Romans 5:21). He died in our place so that we might live forever in his presence.
C stands for conversion—the moment that God draws a repentant sinner to himself and forgives his sins. Jesus made it clear that conversion is only possible through him (John 14:6). To be converted—saved from our sins—we must believe that “there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Conversion happens when we repent of our sins and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ to be our Saviour.
E stands for eternal life—the gift promised to those who will believe in Christ (John 3:16; 5:24; 1 John 5:12). Jesus gives abundant, eternal life to all who trust in him for the forgiveness of their sins. Eternal life does not promise freedom from all troubles in this life (John 16:33), but it does promise peace from (and with) God (John 14:27) and the ability to persevere joyfully in the face of trials. The divine promise to believing sinners is peace with God in this world and eternal life in the world to come.
It is to those who have experienced this transforming grace, and who love God’s name for it, that he is customarily gracious. If you are one who loves God’s name, be encouraged that his graciousness is not the erratic, instinctive empathy of a wild animal, or the rote, learned kindness of a trained beast. It is the faithful, persevering, sustaining grace of a sovereign God to those whom he loves. Then be encouraged to pray much for God to turn to you and be gracious to you, as is his custom with all who love his name.