Chapter 3: The Way of Grace

The Tree of Life Theatrical Release Poster

On our quest we’ve come from a descent into the nature of sin. The bus is gasping up the hill towards what? After exploring human nature let loose on deserted islands, experimented with in laboratories, and denied in a new humanism, we will define our terms and see what fights against this powerful force.

Maybe the greatest stumbling block to understanding grace is the role of suffering. Why does God allow suffering? How could anybody create such a world where suffering is so pervasive and horrific? The movie The Tree of Life explores this. The winner of the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011, it tells the story of the O’Brien family from Texas. Each member of the family must deal with the death of the nineteen-year-old second son of three brothers.

The movie weaves back and forth in time and opens with words from the book of Job 38:4-7, in the Bible. Job has lost everything and cries out to God to help him understand what is happening. While God doesn’t give him a direct answer, Job nonetheless comes away from their conversation with a profound sense of awe. God asks him, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?… When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” These words at the beginning of the movie set the stage for the story that follows.

Mrs. O’Brien remembers what she was taught in school where the central conflict of living on the planet Earth was stated:

The nuns taught us there are two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace… Grace doesn’t try to please itself. It accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked, accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself, get others to please it too, likes to lord it over them, to have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it and love is smiling through all things. They taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.

She concludes by telling God, “I will be true to you, whatever comes.” It is then she receives the news of her son’s death.

We go back to the boys being born and see Mrs. O’Brien extending grace to them in her joy of simply being alive. Mr. O’Brien, lost in his nature, disappointed by his lack of success despite his continual striving to get ahead, treats the boys with harsh discipline. Jack, the oldest son, vacillates between these two extremes and the war of them within himself.

Grace fills Mrs. O’Brien’s words at the end of The Tree of Life when she gives her son to God after struggling to understand why he died. We see in Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien that grace challenges the way we are taught we must take to get ahead. Grace accompanies our journeys into the unknown.

Grace keeps the remembrance of the Shire in Bilbo’s mind deep in the gloom of Mordor in The Hobbit. Grace enables Pastor Stephen Kumalo and James Jarvis to work together across racial lines to stand alongside people living in poverty even after Stephen’s son kills James’s son in Alan Paton’s novel, Cry, the Beloved Country. Grace brings four very different people together into a supportive relationship in A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.

The ongoing battle between grace and nature stays with us. Bruce Cockburn’s song, In the Falling Dark, says it this way:

Light pours from a million radiant lives

Off of kids and dogs and the hard-shelled husbands and wives

All that glory shining around and we’re all caught taking a dive

And all the beasts of the hills around shout, “Such a waste!

Don’t you know that from the first to the last we’re all one in the gift of grace?”


It has always been a happy thought to me that the creek runs on all night, new every minute, whether I wish it or know it or care, as a closed book on a shelf continues to whisper to itself its own inexhaustible tale. So many things have been shown so to me on these banks, so much light has illumined me by reflection here where the water comes down, that I can hardly believe that this grace never flags, that the pouring from ever renewable sources never flags, is endless, impartial, and free.

Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek


Off the Beaten Path:

The Tree of Life movie trailer:

Overview of director Terrence Malick and The Tree of Life:

The Book of Job read aloud and dramatized:

R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit

R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit movie trailer:

Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country movie trailer:

Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country 

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry review from AbeBooks:

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Bruce Cockburn sings In the Falling Dark:

Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek book

An excerpt from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek with Carlos Rivera Fernandez: