I recently heard a talk radio personality talking about his love for the word “earn.” It is one of his favorite words in the English language. He didn’t go into great detail about it, but the strength of his conviction was evident by his impassioned tone. I believe many people in America share his love for that word. We are a “pick yourself up by the bootstraps” kind of nation. We root for the underdog, wanting them to succeed through hard work and perseverance. And while we value our children’s self-esteem, we are not really an “everyone gets a trophy” kind of country. We want rewards and accomplishments to have value, to really mean something because we worked hard for them.
I share a lot of the same opinions and convictions with this radio personality but I don’t share his affinity for the word “earn.” In fact, when he made that comment I was reminded of how much I dislike the word, “deserve.” The words are similar. According to Miriam Webster, the first definition for the word earn is: “to receive as return for effort and especially for work done or services rendered.” And the second definition is nearly identical to the definition for the word deserve: “to be worthy, fit, or suitable for some reward.” So, although this radio personality and myself both seem to have visceral reactions to these very similar words our reactions are in opposite directions. Why is that?
I can only speak for myself but my dislike for the word “deserve” comes from my faith. At the very core of Christianity is the concept of grace. It is the exact opposite of earn or deserve. My faith teaches me that I can do nothing to be saved. All of my good works add up to, as one prophet puts it, “filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6) I cannot earn God’s favor. I do not deserve heaven. But, I have both because of the grace given to me as a gift by Jesus Christ. He is the reason God sees me as one of His children. He is the reason I will spend eternity in heaven. It was what He did as God’s Son that makes me worthy to receive. So, even when I hear the word attributed to things like a vacation, retirement, or splurging on an unusual purchase, I cringe. Nothing I have is “deserved.” God has and continues to be gracious to me.
This concept of grace does not fit with the flag-waving, red-white-and-blue, American pride I described above. In fact, the two are quite a contrast. As far as sin is concerned, we do not have the ability to pick ourselves up by the bootstraps and save ourselves. We are completely unable to cleanse ourselves of our own sin thereby bridging the gap between ourselves and our perfect Creator. If that were possible there would be no need for a Savior.
In this context, even our love for the proverbial David vs. Goliath underdog is often misplaced. David only defeated Goliath because the Lord delivered him into his hands. He said so himself. “David said to the Philistine, ‘You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head.’ ” 1 Samuel 17:45-46 The “David’s” of the world are not to be the object of our worship and admiration, only God who was the true source of David’s victory.
And, as Christians, we believe that Christ died for all. His love, His forgiveness, His mercy, His grace, is for all who believe in Him. That means that everyone IS eligible for that trophy regardless of, and often in spite of, their performance in this world. Unlike us however, God does not award us this “trophy” of salvation to build up our self esteem. HE is our esteem. He is the very reason we came into being. We reflect Him in our uniqueness. It is in His image that we are created… not the other way around. It is not about us. Our “trophy” is a renewed and repaired relationship with the One who created us and it is absolutely undeserved.
These truths of our faith go against what has been ingrained in us as Americans. This post is not meant to be a criticism of our great American pride or our nation as a whole. Not at all! It is instead a reminder that we as believers cannot trip over this common stumbling block.
Paul says in his letter to the Romans: “What then will we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because their pursuit was not by faith, but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written: ‘See, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and the one who believes in Him will never be put to shame.’ ” (Romans 9:30-33, emphasis mine) Paul is quoting from the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 8:14; 28:16).
God knew that what He chose to do for us to reconcile man back to Himself, would be a stumbling block for us. He knew our pride. He knew it long before America existed. He knew it long before Christianity existed. He spoke about it through His prophet Isaiah in the 8th century B.C. What He asks of us, is to lay aside our desire to earn our way to heaven. It can’t be done anyway! He’s asking us to stop working as if it’s even possible.
He is also asking us to recognize and acknowledge that our salvation comes from only one source, His Son, Jesus. This too is a stumbling block for many. Not only can we not earn our salvation, we must acknowledge that salvation can only come through Jesus. Grace does not come through all religions. All religions do not lead to salvation. Jesus alone sacrificed His life, paying the price for our sin so that we could have eternal life. He is the stumbling block in our politically correct world. But this is not new.
When Paul wrote to the Corinthians in his first letter to them he said: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’ Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not know Him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks search for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)
As believers it’s important that we stay alert and don’t trip over Jesus as so many in this world do. Our faith requires us to lay down our pride and acknowledge that only by God’s grace through His Son are we saved. This is utter foolishness to the world. It always has been. But to us who know God personally, it is the power and wisdom (and grace) of God. We have to be willing to “look foolish” to the world. We have to be willing to lay aside our desire to “earn” our way. And we have to acknowledge that nothing we have done “deserves” the salvation we receive by faith in God’s Son, our Savior, Jesus.
Lord, make your church willing to look foolish to the world. Thank you for the precious gift of your Son to save us from the sin that keeps us from your perfect presence. Thank you for the fact that we cannot earn it. Give us the humility to simply receive your grace. May we be a witness to those who are stumbling over You. May they see Your light in us. Use us so that they may know with assurance that they too can have the free gift You are offering. We love you, Lord. In your Son’s most precious name, amen.