Regifting Grace: Should I Give Up What I Don’t Deserve?
Back in ’94 there was this song:
When we don’t get what we deserve
It’s a real good thing
When we get what we don’t deserve
It’s a real good thing
I’ve never found a better description of either mercy (line 1) or grace (line 3). What I have found, however, is that I occasionally (and disturbingly) participate in a growing movement to eliminate both. As crazy as such a movement sounds, there are reasons for it. We must all beware.
The motivation, you see, is justice. Injustice shouldn’t be done, of course, and very often it’s unjust for a person to have something he doesn’t deserve. Imagine a bank robber, running down the street with a $-sign bag.
But now imagine yourself in line at a store. The guy in front of you has twenty items; you’ve got one. He notices and lets you go first. You now have something you don’t deserve – a better place in line. Is this injustice?
No. It’s a gift.
Gifts happen all the time. We have holidays devoted to gift-giving. There are even culturally-customary times in a person’s life when you give them gifts. Birthdays. Weddings. Baby showers.
But you don’t give people gifts on these occasions because they deserve it. That would make what you give a reward, not a gift.
Some people can’t handle gifts, especially in the form of compliments. They refuse them because they think they’re undeserving. These are some of those who would do away with grace and mercy.
Other people won’t make requests even of friends, because they think they don’t deserve the help. Or perhaps they even think they deserve not to be helped. These are some of those who would do away with grace and mercy.
Then there are the Paris Hilton Haters. “Ms. Hilton clearly has not earned what she has,” they say. “She’s only famous because she’s rich, and only rich because of her parents. She doesn’t deserve it.” These are some of those who would do away with grace and mercy.
Every time I demand to “make it up to” someone who is offering simply to forgive, every time you feel guilty because your significant other loves you more than you deserve, every time a friend won’t apply for a job he wants because he thinks he isn’t qualified “enough” (or refuses a gift because he doesn’t want “charity”), we join those who would do away with grace and mercy.
But what if our world was such that we all got only what we deserved? Every time you deserved something good, you’d be rewarded. Every time you deserved something bad, you’d be punished. The world would be perfectly just.
But there’d be no gifts. There’d be no mercy, no grace. And there’d be no redemption. In fact these would all be impossible.
But most of all there’d be no gratitude. You wouldn’t have to thank anyone, because you’d only get what you deserved. And there’d be no forgiveness. Instead, all debts would be repaid, all wrongs punished.
I don’t mean that our world – where grace, mercy, gifts, redemption, gratitude, and forgiveness are all possible – is better than a world where everyone only gets what they deserve (whether good or bad). But I do mean that people should be careful what they wish for, and be even more careful of what they demand.
You can respond in two ways to getting something you don’t deserve: by feeling guilty or being grateful. The former is becoming more and more popular. This has to do (in part) with the fact that people are becoming more and more aware of the amount of need in the world. (And such awareness is good!)
But you don’t have to deserve something to need it. If you gave to those in need because they deserved it, you wouldn’t truly be giving. You’d be rewarding.
But you don’t “reward” oppression, sickness, hunger; you end those things with grace. You redeem situations gone wrong with a gift.
It’s clear that what is deserved should be provided, and that saying people ought to do something can be helpful for getting them to do it. But the fact that you should give something need not depend on whether the person you are giving to deserves it.
In other words, we must break the illegitimately-exclusive alliance between deserts and shoulds. And we must do this both so that what we think we should do is not limited by what we think other people deserve, and so that grace, mercy, gifts, redemption, gratitude, and forgiveness remain possible.
In other words, we must stop the advance of capitalist thinking in ethics. In capitalist economic theory, you should be given only what you deserve, and you deserve only what you earn. And yet many of the politically/socially progressive and politically/socially conservative among us (occasionally even you and I) would apply the same kind of reasoning to ethics.
The only disagreement is over how you “earn it.” Do you come to deserve help – do you “earn it” – by being oppressed and victimized? By being in power? By being born in a certain country or “world”? By simply being born?
The more we try to get needs met by framing them as deserts – the more we exchange the currency of gifts for that of rewards – the more we are in danger of misunderstanding the Redemptive Process. The less we understand redemption, the more of it we need. And the more we need, the less we have to give.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. It could be that everyone in need deserves help; but we follow a God who helps us even when we don’t deserve it (Romans 5:8). We follow a God who not only rewards but redeems (1 Samuel 26:23, Galatians 4:4-5). And in being redeemed, we become more like the God we follow.
[Song: Newsboys, “Real Good Thing,” Going Public (Star Song); Lyrics: Steve Taylor and Peter Furler]
Micah Tillman is a lecturer in the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. His blog can be found at http://micahtillman.com