Louis C.K. and God’s Non-Reciprocal Grace

For my money, comedian Louis C.K. is the second greatest public theologian of this generation (Singer/Songwriter John Prine is the greatest). His comedic insights into the human condition on his TV shows and in his stand-up comedy unmasks much of the posing we do. He can be harsh in that unmasking, but he can also be vulnerable and remarkably insightful. In 2006-2007, he had a short-lived (unfortunately), 13-episode show called Lucky Louie. The conceit of the show was how he and his wife, Kim (played wonderfully by Pamela Adlon), navigated (or didn’t) their working-class jobs, their marriage, and parenting their young daughter. In an episode called Flowers for Kim, Louie and Kim arrange for their daughter to stay with friends for the weekend so they can rekindle their lost romance. With their daughter away, Louie comes home and bursts into the kitchen ready for romance. He tells Kim he has a present for her. She beams and then he unveils a bunch of red roses. Her face falls and the viewer can see her heart drop. She calmly reminds him that she’s never liked red roses, as she’s told him so many times before. And yet, he persists in getting her red roses. His mood now changes and he says: “Well, you can still thank me for giving you the roses. Why won’t you even thank me?” Her reply is “why should I thank you for giving me a gift you know I don’t like?” He feels he should be rewarded for having been gracious in giving her a gift. She contends he doesn’t listen to her or care about her feelings, what she likes and doesn’t like. Surely, all married persons can relate to this scene, painfully so.

The Rule of Reciprocity is a social norm we share. It basically says that when someone does something nice for us, we feel a social obligation to return the favor. Business marketers understand this social norm. They use it to convince potential customers to make purchases by offering them gifts or incentives to entice such purchases. We feel this norm on birthdays. If someone gives us a birthday gift, then we feel obligated to give them a gift on their birthday. But this Rule of Reciprocity causes havoc when we feel the other isn’t responding reciprocally. When we’re “tracking” on one another, we stay balanced emotionally in reciprocity. But when that goes awry and we “switch-track,” where we switch down a new track (“I expect to be thanked for giving you the red roses”) and the other person switches to an even newer and different track (“You don’t care about my feelings, what I like or don’t like”), then we experience a profound relationship disequilibrium. There’s a lack of reciprocity on a deep, subconscious level and a powerful, in-grained social norm is violated inside of us.

Our humanity is complex, isn’t it? The possibilities for misunderstanding, as the Bible might say, are “legion,” as we “switch-track” in our relationships leading to hurt feelings and, possibly, estrangement. Our expectation for reciprocity is so deep inside of us and when it doesn’t occur, we feel crossed and violated. That may be why we have such a hard time accepting the gift of God’s grace. Grace is the ultimate violation of the Rule of Reciprocity. With Grace, God gives us the gift of forgiveness and mercy for which we can never possibly reciprocate. God has acted non-reciprocally, and on some level, we may even be angry with God and outraged for this gift of pre-emptive Grace. This isn’t how we believe it should be. But, thank God, it’s how it is with God.



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