I always told my students, “I hate the word deserve.” To me, it is a sophomoric word, one that’s grossly assumptive. When someone says, “I deserve your attention” or “I deserve respect,” all I can think is, “Where did you get that idea?” When a person uses the word, they’re basically saying, “It’s my individual merits, my snowflake-perfect uniqueness that makes me worthy of something. Give it to me.”
I do, however, like the word “earn.” I like it a lot. To “earn” something, a person must be willing to put in the time, to work hard, to plan accordingly, and to make smart choices. To “earn” something means it’s yours free and clear. You owe nothing and no one for it.
For instance, I earned my master’s degree through countless hours of study and writing. I earned my good name by doing the right things and making smart choices. I try to earn job security through consistently performing at a high level. Essentially, I want to earn my peace of mind, know where everything is coming from, and take measures to make gains and prevent losses.
But the older I get, the more I realize just how little I can actually control…and how little I actually earn on my own.
In 1 Corinthians 4:7, the apostle Paul writes, “For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?”
That one scripture undoes everything —“What do you have that you did not receive?” I might have put in the hours in the classroom, but who gave me the brains to earn the degrees? God did. Who made it economically possible for me to go to college in the first place? God did. Who gave me the job I love? God did. Who placed me in a family that taught me what it means to be kind to others? Yep, Him again. Heck, even the very desire to be kind comes from Him, which Romans 3:10-12 makes plain:
“There is none righteous, not even one. There is none who understands; there is none who seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have become useless. There is none who does good. There is not even one.”
And that’s what makes grace, something more valuable than I can explain, so amazing. There is nothing we can do to earn it; we can’t save up good deeds in some celestial piggy bank to cash in when we hit the pearly gates. It is given to us with open, eager hands by a heavenly Father who sent His Son to pay the debt that should have been ours.
Frederick Buechner, as is his way, says it with style. According to him, “Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.”
Everything I am or ever will be is a gift. I have always been right for loathing the word “deserve,” but I need to be less laudatory of “earn” as well. Neither one should hold pride of place.
Which word do you find yourself using more often? Why do you think that’s your default setting? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter as well as how you explain the meaning of grace to others. Tell me in the comments section below!