People often talk about the prospect of those whom they love or respect receiving something good in their lives in terms of them "deserving it". This is a regular part of the congratulatory vernacular of most people today, including many Christians. Unfortunately it does not reflect spiritual truth. Strictly speaking, none who have walked the Earth since Adam and Eve's fall "deserve" anything good happening to them.
The idea that people do owes more to hyper-individualism and the pride that it too often engenders. In a secular culture where "self-esteem" is most often derived from man rather than God, the use of such phraseology is to be expected and should not be particularly shocking. What is a bit surprising is how often believers jump on the "deserve it" bandwagon when a blessing from God is bestowed on someone or some group.
Devout and biblically-informed Christians in earlier eras of the Church generally had no such illusions about blessings. Rather than exclaiming how deserving the recipient was, they were far more apt to praise God for His mercy and grace when something good happened to anyone. Christians of the past knew that no sinner, even a redeemed one, had earned blessing in and of themselves. They recognized that in a Christian context, the very idea was oxymoronic. So should we.
I understand that telling someone whom we regard highly that they "deserve" a good job or spouse or a nice home comes very naturally to us and is our way of expressing personal regard and respect. But it does not do the recipient any good. It certainly does not help them to understand the grace of God and it may well hinder such an understanding. How can they grasp the idea of "unmerited favor" when we are telling them that such favor is merited by their actions? In our good intentions, we are only giving them reason for pride and an accompanying sense of entitlement.
You might object that when someone does a good job they at least deserve accolades for doing it. This may be true, but keep this in mind: no one has the power to do good in and of himself, no one. Every good thing we do in this life is made possible by God. Such things may come through common grace (in the case of unbelievers) or sanctifying grace (in the case of Christians) but, either way, they come from God not us.
I am not trying to make a case for making someone feel rotten when something nice happens to them. I am simply saying that it is untrue to say that anyone is intrinsically deserving of good. When that nice thing happens, we would do better to say something like "Praise God for blessing you with that job (wife, home, etc.). I'm so happy that He did this thing for you because I love you and it is wonderful to see how much He loves you too."
To shift from "I'm happy for you, you deserve it" to "I'm happy for you, praise God for His love" may not come easily for those of us who have taken in the colloquialisms of the world without even being consciously aware of it. Indeed I must confess that I have been among those who have said "you deserve it", but I say it less and less as time goes on and I get a better idea of how little good I deserve and how much good I am given by God anyway.
Part of the sanctification of postmodern, Western Christians is a gradual rejection of things that postmodern, Western culture tells us are justified in favor of things the Justifier would have us adopt as His children. Giving up the phrase "you deserve it" may not seem like a very important part of that process, and it may not be, but it is a part of it nonetheless.
© Shea Oakley. All Rights Reserved.
Converted from Atheism in 1990, Shea Oakley has written over 350 articles for electronic and print publications since 2002, including Disciple Magazine (and Pulpit Helps Magazine), The Christian Herald, The Christian Post, Christian Network and Crosshome.com. In 2003 he graduated from Alliance Theological Seminary with a Certificate of Theological Studies. Shea and his wife Kathleen make their home in West Milford, New Jersey.
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