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!
It seems like the news has been a veritable cornucopia of awful lately. Everything from the IRS targeting certain groups claiming tax exempt status and spying on reporters to the whomperjawed situation surrounding Benghazi leave me wondering if a move to Bora Bora wouldn’t be advisable. Add the Jodi Arias and Kermit Gosnell trials, and I’m left wondering why God has any patience with us at all.
But it’s the Gosnell verdict—and the reaction to it—that most piques my interest. I am glad he is being brought to justice for his crimes and that another pro-life legal precedent has been added to the books. However, I can’t help but feel that Christians, by and large, missed an opportunity to witness to the world when his guilty verdict was announced.
I don’t read the comments and discussion threads that follow articles because they’re usually a cesspool of hatred and vitriol. (And yes, the purple prose is merited. Go read a few threads sometime. You’ll see. It makes me lose faith in humanity.)
While I wish I could say believers fare better in this department, when it comes to hot button issues like this, we’re just as bad as non-Christians.
The comments ranged from those who were glad justice had been done to folks who were more than a little happy to “gouge out the other eye” themselves. Comments like, “There’s a special place in hell for this dog of a devil. I hope they vote to send him there soon” and “I hope they snip his spinal cord with scissors” just left me shaking my head.
I’m glad that abortion is being addressed in a new light and that this trial (and the awful details that were revealed during it) made many women considering abortion change their minds. I’m glad a man like Kermit Gosnell is no longer practicing “medicine,” if that term can be applied at all. But the thought that has stuck with me, that has resonated longer than my disgust is this—God’s grace will always be greater than sin. It is great enough to cover this man who has done things most of us find unspeakably horrifying, and if Mr. Gosnell truly accepts Christ as his Savior today, tomorrow, or the day of his death, I will see him in heaven along with my family and friends. He, like the vineyard laborer hired in the eleventh hour, can expect the same rewards I do because God’s grace is His to do with as He sees fit.
The thought humbles me, but apparently, some folks don’t agree. Over dinner a week or so ago, I discussed this revelation with a friend, and she recoiled from me like Kuato had grown out of my abdomen.
“I don’t agree with that at all,” she told me. “I can’t imagine that THAT man can go to heaven the same way I can…especially after all he’s done.”
The debate went back and forth and finally ended with, “We’ll just have to agree to disagree on this point.” And her refusal, I think, stems from two sources. The first is that she believes, like many people, in hierarchically arranged sins. Some, like little white lies or envy, are minor infractions. After all, don’t we all commit them? So that makes them hardly worth confessing in prayer. Yet the whammer sins—murder, adultery, theft, and the like—are somehow beyond the pale. What we forget oftentimes is that sin is sin is sin.
Dante wrote entire books detailing a very elaborate system involving the levels of the inferno, purgatory, and paradise, but none of it is biblical. Truth is, there is no sliding scale, no ranking system, no way for us to justify our judgment of one another. We want to believe that if we only commit minor ones, we’re good on our own and don’t need grace, but that’s not true. James 2:8-10 tells us, “If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” Yeah, one sin is just as great as another. And all of them separate us from the Lord.
But that’s where grace comes in.
For those who accept Christ as Savior, there is no reason to worry about the law. Yes, we should always strive to do those things that are pleasing to God and avoid those things He hates. But the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross wiped the record books clean and made it possible for us to be truly free and enjoy a relationship with the only One who is worthy of praise. We had nothing to do with it.
The second reason she couldn’t understand the idea of grace applying to Gosnell is the allure of work-based salvation. She said more than once, “I’m a good person. He is not a good person.” She listed all the right things she had done as well as all the wrong ones she had avoided. In her mind, her faith was more valuable because of what she did (or didn’t) do when the truth is the only reason we have value is because of who Christ is and what He has done. None of us is innocent. None of us can hurl stones at a fellow sinner because, if we’re willing to look closely enough, we’ll see that we’ve done something just as awful as far as God’s law is concerned (John 8:1-11). That’s why we should fall down on our faces before Him and thank Him for the grace and mercy He’s shown us rather than point fingers at one another. He gives us hope and purpose in a world that can offer us neither, and that’s what we should be shouting about.
Before we parted ways, my friend told me that I was foolish for thinking that a man like Gosnell would ever be saved. He was a murder. He was evil. He had done unspeakable things, and God wouldn’t dare use such a wretched human being to do His work here on earth.
But all I could think about was the apostle Paul—a man who, when he was named Saul, was a persecutor without equal. He went after Christians, be they men, women, or children, “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). He sanctioned (and perhaps even participated in) Stephen’s stoning. But God saw fit to smack him down on the road to Damascus and change him forever (Acts 9:1-31). And what did He use Paul to do? To preach to the Gentiles, to plant churches in cities across Europe and the Middle East, and to write over half of the books in the New Testament.
God took a murderer of Christians and turned him into one of the most powerful and persuasive warriors of the faith. Millions upon millions have come to salvation because of Paul’s writings, and we continue to study and learn from them today. If God can change the world to such a degree with one man, who are we to say he can’t do it again with one who is just as feared, just as reviled, and just as lost in his own incorrect beliefs? That’s the story we should be telling on those message boards. That’s what people need to know about.
I’d be interested on hearing your thoughts on this topic. Do you agree with my friend or me….or have another opinion entirely? Please share your questions and ideas in the comments section below. I always look forward to discussions!
Here is my first article for 2013 in In Touch Magazine. This was one of those fun pieces to write. It allowed me the time and space to dig into Scripture and to tie what I found to a relevant historical detail. Seriously, if you’ve never heard of the Red Ball Express, do yourself a huge favor and go learn about them. Don’t watch the 1952 movie; it’s not accurate and doesn’t do justice to the brave men who drove the routes. Instead, I recommend reading The Road to Victory: The Untold Story of World War II’s Red Ball Express by David P. Colley.
This article is also available on the new and improved In Touch Ministries website, and you can a free subscription of the print magazine by visiting here.