Do People Get What They Deserve?

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In a non-zero-sum game everyone can be a winner.  It is a non-competitive or competitive circumstance where all participants can achieve optimal results and be successful.  In an abundance of resources and opportunities and assuming equality of abilities this is the case.

zero-sum-game is a circumstance where when someone gains another loses. This is true of sports where there is a score kept and a winner and loser at the end. It can be true of the marketplace when two people desire the same property but only one can possess it. It is true of any limited resource.

The right-wing or conservatives prefer the non-zero-sum explanation.  They assume that all things are equal besides effort then they are free to look the other way at those who have not achieved what they have.  This is not always uncaring or completely cold-hearted either—these people have worked hard, often have overcome obstacles (while playing by the rules) and believe others can as well.

However, the left-wing or progressives tell us, and rightfully so, that it is not that simple.  We can certainly say “when life gives you lemons make lemonade” and yet what does one do when life gives you rocks?  I suppose then you throw the rocks at those telling you to make lemonade?

Those who argue that life is largely a non-zero-sum experience and that those who put forward an adequate effort are too quick to dismiss differences in circumstances—they often do not appreciate providence of their own advantages enough.  Sure, people reap what they sow, but can we assume that everyone has the same soil, seeds and weather to work with?

Do people get what they deserve?

We like the idea of karma, that people get what they deserve and everything we have was somehow earned.  This absolves us of responsibility to those with less and allows us to enjoy our advantages in life without guilt.  This is an explanation of things that works for those who are relatively successful and have basically gotten what they want.

Many religious people, to cover for their lack of compassion, go a step further and assume that disability and disaster is a result of sin.

That is why Job’s friends added insult to injury and accused him of having some hidden sin because of all awful things that happened to him.  They were wrong for their assumption that he deserved what he got.

People getting what they deserve is not the reality that Jesus describes.  When asked who’s sin caused a man’s blindness he answered that it was nobodies sin and used the opportunity to bring glory to God by healing the man.  He also used a couple events as a basis for a rhetorical question and answer:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?  I tell you, no!  But unless you repent, you too will all perish.  Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?  I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1‭-‬5)

His answer seems to go directly against those who try to attribute calamity to God’s judgment and see success as a sign of God’s favor.  He muddies the water for the sanctimious religious elites with their simple (and often self-congratulatory) black and white explanation.  He defies their people should get what they deserve logic:

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43‭-‬48)

It is interesting that the parallel account in the book of Luke uses “merciful” rather than perfect.  Assuming that they are both a paraphrase of the actual words of Jesus and accurate (as opposed to one being unreliable) we can probably combine the two ideas to approximate the correct message.  I believe we are to be perfect in our mercy or perfectly merciful like God.

The message that seems clear in the teachings of Jesus is that nobody gets what they deserve.  He says that unless people repent they too will perish—that neither sunshine nor rain is distributed by who deserves or does not—and with this undermines those who want to put all blame for failure on the individual.

Furthermore, there is no excuse for indifference.  Even our enemies, people who deserve our contempt for things they have done, we are told to treat as we do those who are deserving of our love.  We are to be perfectly merciful because we can do nothing to deserve God’s love and yet are loved despite that.

That is the essence of the Gospel, to do unto others, not as they deserve, but we want God to do to us.  We will be shown mercy we we show mercy and judged as we judge.  If we live by the sword then we can expect to die by it as well.  If we forgive others then we will be forgiven by God.

If nobody gets what they deserve, then what?

Truly believing in the goodness of God is not about crowing on social media when things go right.  No, that is only triumphalism covered in religion and brings no glory to God whatsoever.  Again, some good people suffer terribly for their righteousness while many evil people in the world are both materially and socially successful.

A big bank account or beautiful girlfriend is not proof God’s goodness or else Job’s friends would have been right to torment him further trying to find a hidden sin.  Success is only proof that circumstances tilted in favor of the outcome you desired and attributing it to God’s favor is only to dance on the backs of the bruised.

True thankfulness to God is using the means we are given to help others.  Those with loaves and fishes didn’t thank God loudly then gorge themselves in the presence of the hungry crowd.  No, they responded to the call of Jesus, gave up what many would argue they were entitled to through their foresight and by their sacrifice we have the miracle of five thousand being fed.

It is on us to be an answer to prayer using the means provided to us, being an answer to prayer—that is our thankfulness to God.  Your success or failure in an endeavor says nothing about God’s plan.  Only your willingness to step out in real faith, the faith of going outside of comfort zone and sacrificing for those who deserve judgement, is evidence of God’s goodness.

True repentance is realizing that you deserve nothing and treating others as if they deserve all of your love.  If we truly appreciate God’s grace we will show it in humble actions of service rather than pompous claims of God’s goodness to us.  It was the Pharisee who stood on the corner thankful to God at the expense of others and was condemned for his pride—he knew nothing of God’s goodness:

The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11)

Sadly many conservative Mennonites and other religious fundamentalists are like that Pharisee.  Even in their thanking God they are self-congratulatory and can barely hide their self-righteous pride under the pretense of praise—evidently they forget pride is the first sin.  In context of the passage above it was the man who prayed “God have mercy on me, a sinner” who left justified before God.

Those who know they are undeserving do not boast in God’s goodness towards them.  No, they share it with others by helping carry the burdens of others who were less fortunate than themselves.  True faith is not about bragging about things we do not deserve—it is about our self-sacrificially serving those who do not deserve.

Perhaps God is not multiplying our effort today, like he did in the Acts church, because we pretend to be thankful for His goodness in our words and yet withhold grace from those whom we feel do not deserve?

Maybe God could turn our zero-sum game into an over-abundance when we let go of our own calculations and plans to trust Him?

So, anyhow…

Shut up about your good life—people already know!  Instead, thank God by being an answer to prayer to someone who didn’t have your advantages.  

Actions speak louder than words.

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Why we give on Christmas

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In America it is easy to take our advantages for granted.  We have worked hard, we have invested our abilities and taken advantage of the opportunity to build our dreams.  Therefore, it may seem, the fruits of our labor are an entitlement and not a gift, right?

Well, yes and no…

If we had stayed in bed all day waiting for prosperity to happen we would likely be impoverished and therefore our will to get out of bed is a big part of our success.  However, was it by your own will that you were born with two good legs and are even able to contemplate getting out of bed?

If we are entitled to what we produce by will, but did not produce our legs by will, then who or what do we credit for what our legs helped us produce?  I suppose we could start by thanking our parents, we could be grateful to them for the transmittal of the genetic material that produced our legs and giving them credit for our success.

Then the fact you are able to read this, we can thank are parents and teachers who taught us language.  But, even if they seem older than the hills, they didn’t invent language and nor did the generation before them.  So can we take credit for the ideas we gained through written or spoken language?

Our lives are inexorably intertwined and interconnected like the very internet on which you read this.  The inventors mostly unknown, the contributions of many virtually forgotten and the whole maintained by a nameless mass of humanity, yet we do benefit or we would not use it.

So who or what deserves credit for our success?

We prosper to the extent that we do by ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ and our own efforts amplified by these gifts providence has bestowed upon us.  We cannot take for granted the privilege of a stable economic system and opportunities that even a grade school education provided for us.

If you travel to Haiti the contrast is clear.  In a place where government is especially corrupt and available resources few, even the most industrious person will have a difficult time getting ahead.  Oftentimes their best chance is by escaping to a better environment, yet that is not an option for all and some are stuck doing what they can to earn a meager wage.

Our success is a result of both collective and individual efforts.  Therefore, we all together (personally and all contributors to our lives big or small) deserve all, partial and no credit.  As a web of intersecting circular chains of causality of shared responsibility, deciding who actually deserves credit is actually a true paradox.  This paradox of our own will within determinism is something I chalk up to Providence.

We are created by the dust of stars…

In nature brutal violence and exploitation is normal.  A gazelle in Africa does not consider the rights of the living plants it consumes to be sacred nor does a lion that takes down a gazelle for its’ meat seem to agonize about the decision.  I doubt many would consider incarceration of a lions that killed a gazelle a moral necessity.

The recorded history of thousands of years of human history show a similar disregard for the life of those in the tribe across the river.  The idea of conquest or taking what you could in raids (that including enslaving members of the other tribe to labor or be concubines) was very common behavior and only very recently has become widely regarded as a morally repugnant thing.  It was kill or be killed.

From a logical, reasonable and collectively minded standpoint survival of the fittest is an obvious choice.  With the advent of modern science the idea that imbecile parents produce imbecile children, concerns about overpopulation and idea of gene selection became a basis for eugenics.  So from whence doth this ethic of protecting the weak or nonproductive person come from?

I think it is empathy.  The idea, contained in the proverb “there but for the grace of God go I” and a thought that we are fortunate for what we have been given, is that we should give to those with less because we would want to be helped.  It may be against nature and impractical thinking, but it is evidence that we can think beyond a materialistic perspective.  We see each other as spiritual beings with value just for our own existing.

I believe it is spiritual progress, awakening to more full awareness and transcending nature itself that drives our generosity.  We recognize our own success is not a simple matter of our own individual responsibility, choice and effort.  We realize we are not a product of any one person, institution or entity in this universe.  We are created from star dust, we suddenly have become awake to a reality that we somehow know is unfair and unbroken.

So where does this leave us and where do we go from there?

I turn to God.  I believe to acknowledge God is to humbly admit we cannot take credit for creating ourselves, that we cannot find answers for our existing in ourselves alone and we want to live out an ideal beyond ourselves.

Jesus prayed: “Thy kingdom co me on earth as it is in heaven,” which is literally asking for heaven on earth, and ultimately what faith is supposed to be about.  With this my prayer, I cannot be content to hoard what gifts I have been given for myself only, my family only or my own people only.  If I pray for heaven, I must be willing to create heaven and by that I must be willing to sacrifice myself to see this reality in my own life.

Love for God in the Christian Bible is always defined as giving of our abundance to those in need and commitment to self-sacrificial living.  It is a message to each of us personally to do our part in bringing the ‘good news’ to the world of God’s love for humanity.  It can be misconstrued as religion, as a guilt trip, as a means to judge others, and a tool of oppression, but the true calling of Jesus is for us to give what we have to give.  Rich or poor, male or female, American or other, we all have something to give other and, in our giving to each other, giving to God.

God has given us the ability to create a better world and many squander the opportunity by their immorality, their selfishness, greed, envy, etc.  But faith is acting despite what others do, faith is the only way we will fearlessly lead in bringing heaven to earth and faith is what is required of us.  It is our job, as people of faith, to be the healing hands, the feet ready to carry a load for those struggling and the loving voice.  With faith we can be the hands, feet and voice of God.

I am not talking about strictly charity either.  In fact, I think most of our giving is by our careers, our talents and time.  And, I will go further to say that there is nothing bad about profiting from your efforts, receiving without guilt and enjoying life.  However, I would caution against an entitled attitude that fails to recognize all you have been given that amplifies your own willing effort.  The investments of the blood, sweat and tears of many is what has made the American lifestyle possible.

“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48b)

Those who think their security, prosperity and confidence is something they earned—rather than a gift from God—have no need to help those who are without and assume those without have done something to deserve being without.  However, those who know their affirmation and acceptance is only by the grace of God, who understand the very opportunities they have were by divine providence, they will give to those in need with a humble heart.  An ungiving person is an ungrateful person.

So, why do we give gifts on Christmas?

We give because, the Christ child, Jesus was given as a gift by God and we are grateful.  To those of Christian faith, Jesus is the living symbol of God’s ideal, his life the ultimate example and his laying down of his own life so we could know how to live the ultimate hope of humanity.  Our giving on the holiday is symbolic of the gift of the grace of God.

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  (John 15:13)

To give as much as we have been given is our expression of fullness of gratitude and that is our reasonable service to God.  If everyone had will to give their all then nobody would be without and in need.  Be a friend to all people of all nations, give your all and bring heaven to earth for someone this holiday besides you or your own kin.

Merry Christmas and God bless!