“Felt needs” and the desire for grace

St Thomas Aquinas

Denys Turner, in his book Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait (see previous post), has an interesting discussion on the extent to which it is possible for human beings to desire God’s grace of their own accord: for reconciliation with God to be, as it were, a “felt need” for us.

In short, Thomas’s answer to this question is: “not in the slightest.” As Turner writes:

It could not be the case that grace answers to known natural need, because what is by nature required must itself be of the natural order that requires it, and therefore not grace. For grace is the free gift of divine friendship that exceeds not only any actual human power to achieve; it exceeds any power of human imagination to conceive, attainable or unattainable. In short, grace cannot answer to natural need as naturally known; for if it did it would not be grace. (p.170)

A further problem is that, in our fallen state, we are “self-deceived” and “self-ignorant”: we do not know our need, and are therefore content to remain in it undisturbed (however discontent we may be with our earthly circumstances).

Therefore, for Thomas it takes grace to know that we are in need of grace; and it takes grace for us to know that there is a possible condition to which nature is restored, a condition far beyond the powers of nature even as they were before the Fall. (p.171)

This is what Thomas means when he says that nature is “perfected” by grace:

not as if, knowing what we want, human beings are by grace given the gift of it, but rather, not knowing what we want, the gift of grace reveals to us the depth and nature of our need, a need that, as heretofore we were, was unknown to us. (p.171)

But things go further than this for Thomas, because grace is not merely rectifying a problem, repairing a defect, that we didn’t know we had:

Grace, therefore, does not exactly answer to our desire, as if we knew what our desire is. Grace answers to desires that only it can arouse in us, showing us what it is that we really want: grace is pure gift, the gift we could not have known that we wanted until we were given it. For grace does not merely solve the problem of the gap opened up by the Fall, restoring us to where we were before Adam’s sin. It goes far beyond and above that, calling us into a friendship which is surplus by an infinite degree to the solution required. (p.171)

In short:

By grace, then, we are not only given what we want. By grace we come to want the grace that we are given.

Or, as John Newton was to put it, 500 years later:

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believed!

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