In an earlier post, Felix and I were chatting about faith, works and Eph. 2:8-10. This analogy by Father David Moser fits in quite nicely. Someone asked him:
"So are you saying that grace is not a free gift from God but rather something we must earn?"
Father David's response: You are standing in a waterfall, the water is flowing all over you and keeps coming no matter what - it is free, it is abundant. You want to drink the water and all you have is a cup. Now it seems to reason that if you just hold out the cup, the water will fill it and there's your drink.
But the cup is full of rocks and sand - so full that the water just hits it and rolls right off. If you want that drink you will have to empty all the rocks and sand out of the cup. So one by one you chip out all the old rocks and dump the sand. When the cup is finally empty, it still doesn't fill because it isn't turned right side up. You have to turn it over so that it will fill with water.
The cup is your soul. The waterfall and water is God's free and abundant grace.
It is all around you, ever flowing over you - but you can't "access" it because your soul - the cup - is full of rocks and sand - sins. You have to empty out the rocks and sand by the "works" of ascetic labor, self denial, taking up your cross, etc. Then you have to "turn the cup over" by further labor - that is those works that orient you properly to God; practicing the virtues.
The grace is free and abundant. We have everything we need to get it - we even have directions on how to go about it. We are even provided the tools we need to clean out the cup. But we still have to get rid of the sin and orient ourselves toward God. You don't earn it, you just have to reach out and take it. Its not enough to just say "I want a drink" - you have to cooperate with the grace to get the drink.
(Warning! This metaphor, like all metaphors will break when stretched beyond its original limitations).