[This has proven to be the most difficult post yet for me to write. It started as a series of smaller posts that I have merged into a single, larger one in the hope that it will be more approachable and easier to follow. My non-Christian readers will likely find it of little value, because it is entirely religious in nature.]
Life isn’t fair.
For most of us, this is something we are “taught” while we are young. On a surface level, we know it to be true. But deep down inside, I think that many of us still harbor a belief that life is fair. That everything will turn out alright in the end.
Because we live in a wish fulfillment culture. A culture that says that dreams do come true. A culture that tells us, from an early age, that we can have our cake and eat it too.
How so? Think of all the life scripts that we hear about. Here is one:
Study hard in school, especially high school, so that you can get into a good college. Once you are in college, study hard some more so that you graduate with good grades. Then maybe you can get a job right away, or perhaps go to graduate school for an even more impressive degree. Perhaps during grad school if you go, or more likely a few years into the work force after graduating, you find a mate of roughly equivalent SMV whom you marry. Then you have two to three kids, live in a three to four bedroom house with two and a half baths, and get involved in the community in some minor way, such as PTA or the Rotary Club. Eventually the kids all grow up and follow the same pattern as you, giving you the freedom to take those trips that you couldn’t beforehand. Then the grand-kids show up, you retire and get the chance to enjoy life.
This kind of life script is peddled to many of us from an early age. And it is far from unique. There are others longer, and others shorter. Except for those coming from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, we all get something like this. It never occurs to us to think that maybe, just maybe, it won’t happen. That something will come along and interrupt it. We have a plan for our life that we are going to live… because that is just how things work. Right?
How are these life scripts anything but wishes and dreams which provide a façade of being grounded in reality? Consciously we may not think this, but our unconscious or sub-conscious selves do appreciate them for what they are. And these messages are everywhere. Television, books, movies, magazines… all these sources spout them. We hear them at home, at school and at church. Unless parents make a concerted effort to isolate their children from all aspects of mainstream culture, this message will seep through.
And the central, and hidden, subtext of these messages is that life is fair. That hard work always pays off. That those who deserve to win always do.
I know that many around these parts like to condemn the “entitlement culture” which seems especially prevalent in some circles, especially female ones. But I think that the rot which infects our culture runs much deeper than that. It is my belief that we, in our pride, our wealth and our security, have lost sight as a people of the fundamental truth that life isn’t fair.
Not all among us are so deluded. Reality has a way of cruelly teaching us otherwise. But even still, most of us are insulated from the kind of experiences which would impart that kind of lesson. Christians, despite numerous passages in Scripture indicating otherwise, are not immune to this disease.
And I am no exception.
God as a Matchmaker
Recently it has been bothering me whenever I see or hear someone say something along the lines of “I’m sure God has someone special set aside for you.” It was not always so; I have been the recipient of such statements before and will admit that for a while they were actually a comfort to me. But as time passed I grew uneasy with such statements, and wasn’t quite sure why.
Initially I thought that my unease was because such statements seemed awfully close to the idea of a “soul-mate.” As has been pointed out many times before on this blog and others, there is no such thing. Yet such sentiments are far from unheard of in some Christian circles. But after careful thought I understood that wasn’t the reason for my distrust of such statements.
Then I wondered if it didn’t make sense in light of free will. After all, couldn’t that “someone special” decide that they weren’t interested? The only way such a scheme could work would be if God knew what choices that person would make beforehand. That is hardly beyond God’s power, of course. Yet I had trouble with the idea of God taking on the role of Yenta. But that wasn’t what was troubling me either.
It was only while I was re-reading the Gospel of Luke recently that I realized the problem with those statements is that they evinced a hidden sentiment: that a special someone had to be out there for me because I deserved it. And the thing was, I believed this too. You see, because I was a good person, someone who always did the right thing, God was sure to reward me for all my good deeds. As I read the following passage I understand just how wrong I was:
7 “Will any one of you who has a servant[c] plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? 8 Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly,[d] and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? 9 Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants;[e] we have only done what was our duty.’”
I am an unworthy servant. All I’ve done is perform my duty. Nothing more. In my mind I had turned God into some kind of cosmic Santa Claus; someone who would reward me for all of my good deeds. But there is nothing special about what I have done. All I was doing was what I was obligated to do all along. If that places me above many others, it only means that I fail less often. Hardly something worthy of distinction.
Now, Scripture does teach us that we will be rewarded for our actions… in Heaven. Not on Earth. Ostensibly I knew this, or at least, pretended like I knew it. But deep down inside I must admit that part of me believed that I would receive earthly rewards as well.
An Unpaid Debt
As I reflected on these misunderstandings, I realized to my great shame that my errors were even greater than at first glance. It wasn’t simply that I believed God was going to reward me for being a “good boy,” I believed that God owed me for being a “good boy.” In effect I was telling God:
See what carrying out your Will has cost me? Now you owe me for all of that.
Oh, I wasn’t thinking that out loud. But it was etched into my heart. Motivated by my earlier epiphany, I looked back through all of the Gospels until I found this passage from Matthew:
23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.[g] 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.[h] 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant[i] fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii,[j] and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers,[k] until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
At that time a talent was worth something like 19 or 20 years’ worth of wages. Which means that the King forgave a servant who owed him close to 200, 000 years’ worth of wages. Translated into today’s money, that total amounts to billions of US dollars of debt. In short, a debt which the servant could never hope to repay.
Most who read this passage understand that we are the principal servant (with the great debt), and that our fellow men and women are the second servant (who owes roughly 100 days’ worth of wages). And they correctly interpret that this passage is about the importance of forgiving one another, for unless we forgive one another we won’t be forgiven by our Master in turn. But we often overlook that initial debt which we all owe to God: 10,000 talents. A debt that we can never hope to repay.
Which makes the problem with my mindset becomes obvious: God doesn’t owe me anything. I am the one who owes God, and my debt is one that I can never hope to repay.
Or rather, my debt was one that I could never hope to repay. Because it has already been paid in full.
Despite this unwarranted generosity, I still have inwardly acted as though it was God who owed me. Once I understood the depths of my error, I sat down and tried to discern how it was that I was led astray. In time, I realized that I lacked a spirit of sacrifice.
Take Up Your Cross
This discovery was one that I made on my own, but its significance was not something that I fully appreciated until I read this comment by Sunshine Mary:
…I had two choices at the end of my first date with my husband: put out or no second date. He didn’t directly say so, but it was understood. So I put out. I wanted to anyway, so it wasn’t like it was some traumatizing thing. But the fact that I wanted to was in conjunction to the fact that I had to do so if I wanted to continue seeing him. Understand?
So, I willingly became his concubine, like 80% of other women do with their men. And I (and they) enjoyed it, but I was very much wanting his commitment, too. My choices, again, were this:
– Put out immediately. Continue to see him. Have a slim hope that he will put a ring on it.
– Do not put out. Do not see him again. Have no hope that he will put a ring on it.
(Reminder: I was a lapsed Christian and he was an atheist, so two sexually-active Christians *might* have a slightly different script, but it will probably only be a matter of how long they wait to jump in bed together).
The right choice would have been the second one: do not put out, do not see him again, do not get a ring.
But…and here is where it gets tricky…suppose I had done that? Suppose I had continued doing that? I’d be 44 and single. I would also be righteous and blessed by God…but I’d probably have no husband. As it stands, I was unrighteous and I got the prize. I have a man who committed to me.
I included most of her comment to provide context, but the part in bold is what matters. What Sunshine Mary expresses here is an admission that she might have been confronted with a scenario that placed righteousness on one side, and getting what she wanted on the other. More than that, I think that her comment betrays fear on her part. A fear that she would have been required to sacrifice something of great value to her (a chance for a husband) in order to serve God and keep His commands. I mention this not to excoriate her, but to provide an object lesson in how we all fear making sacrifices in order to serve God. This is a failing that I am just as guilty of as she.
While I never placed the idea of marriage ahead of serving God (I’ve always though that the former would be part of my efforts towards the latter), I never considered, much less acknowledged, the possibility that I might have to choose between the two. I can no longer put off that confrontation, but must instead face it head on. Because now I cannot help but conclude that my efforts to get what I want, a chaste Christian bride, would be bolstered if I were to engage in sin. Not only do women not have the qualms that men do in terms of marrying an unchaste spouse, but pre-selection means that they actually find previously unchaste men more attractive (although not necessarily undesirable). And even that last part is debatable, because I cannot say I’ve ever met a Christian woman who has insisted that she would only marry a chaste Christian man. In addition, the experiences gained from sleeping with other women would improve my skills at handling the other sex, not to mention boost my confidence. Furthermore, just as Sunshine Mary’s strategy can work for women, a male strategy of sleeping with other women to marry the chaste Christian girl you want works too.
To say that this process has been difficult for me would be something of an understatement. But it shouldn’t have been. Its not like there is a dearth of scripture to remind Christians that sacrifice is necessary:
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.
No, not in the slightest:
25 Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.
As I said earlier, I lacked a spirit of sacrifice. I suspect that the reason why is because I have never had to make any serious kind of sacrifice before as a result of my faith. It has caused me some minor inconveniences, yes. And has limited my circle of friends noticeably. But nothing truly life impacting. Because I have never really had to suffer for my faith, I have been able to maintain (at least until recently) that delusion I spoke of earlier: that life is fair. No longer.
The delusion has been shattered in my mind. I am finally starting to accept that my life may not go according to plan. That I might have to sacrifice what I want in order to follow the Lord. That I might not be able to have my cake, and eat it too.
This acceptance does not come easily. I will not lie, part of me is refusing to go along. My hamster has been spinning furiously on his wheel, trying to convince me that it won’t really come to that. You know, that. A lifetime of celibacy: no wife, no children, decades of loneliness. In a way the rodent is admirable. He is pulling out all the stops to keep the dream alive, to preserve a spark of hope.
But it is a false hope, because it is not grounded in God. No, I will put my trust in the Lord. That trust may not gain me anything in this world. In fact, it may cost me everything I want and care for. It is a reality that I will continue to struggle with. But what I lose in this world, I will gain in the next:
28 Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world,[a] when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold[b] and will inherit eternal life.
There is nothing more to do at this point other than to take up my cross. I have everything to lose, and yet, everything to gain.
Update: David Taylor II has written an excellent companion piece to this post, titled Life: Is it Fair or Not? I highly recommend it.