Last week I started to discuss this fraught word “deserve.” I laid out the sharp contrast between the way the word is used in self-help circles and the way it’s used in the New Testament.
As we’ll discuss when we get to money, it’s interesting to see how contemporary Western culture still carries concepts from Christianity, but has developed a drastic case of amnesia about where they came from, still less the moral and philosophical and theological framework in which they originally made sense and allowed one to live life. The process had to have begun the moment there were bodies of Christians large enough to be called communities. Once people are surrounded by others saying and doing things based on some common basis, the human tendency is to go along regardless of whether they understand why.
Interestingly, there is a lurid and terrifying story from the otherwise radically cheerful Acts of the Apostles about some of those precise people. The text leaves it implicit, but it’s pretty clear that the reason Ananias and Sapphira died was not that they sold their property, and not that they gave some of the money to Peter, and not that they kept some of it for themselves, but that they were claiming and pretending that they were giving it all away, and therefore lying. The hypocrisy was the thing being punished.
In any case, cultures and political communities grew up in which official adherence to external Christian practices became the social norm and to some degree were legally mandated. Hypocrites, and partial hypocrites, multiplied apace. Partial hypocrites are particularly close to my heart, since as I was discussing last time, I am one of them, or at any rate I was. I took the message of the Christian Scriptures, ran it through my filter or distorted lens, and tried to live the parts I could see.
If, then, I try to let the message of both the entire Bible and the experiences I have had since I turned 31 affect me, I can see that my approach to the concept of “deserve” needed to be radically rethought.
There has to be a sense in which “Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath” (Eph 2:4) must be true. This is too fundamental to Christianity to be set aside. If human beings “deserve to be happy” without Jesus, then His own teachings about Himself don’t make sense.
The thing is, human beings are completely contingent. We come into existence, and prior to that, there is not even a being to talk about “deserving” anything. We exist because the laws that govern the universe permit it, and the specific series of physical causes that operated on this particular rocky planet made it possible for the first humans to come to exist, and then human history played out in such a way that all our ancestors mated, bore offspring, and we were conceived. That existence is a gift, and God could have chosen things to come out differently. There are countless possible moral and conscious beings that could have come to exist and didn’t and never will, and it makes no sense to say that they “deserve” it and aren’t getting it. On what basis could one make that claim?
Thus, it seems to me that getting caught up in the idea that I deserve anything may be a complete waste of time.
Here I think it makes sense to point out the false dichotomy between “deserve” and “don’t deserve.” “Don’t deserve” is not a single option. Usually we use “don’t deserve” to mean “you’re guilty and you should not receive some good because of your guilt.” However, it makes equally good sense to say “don’t deserve” in the scenario that there is no particular connection between your status and whether or not you should receive or encounter something. In that sense, even if you reject the Christian claims and believe something else, of course no one deserves anything from God.
I see I will need at least a Part 3 to try to tie this all back together…