Monday, January 05, 2009

The Pay-Off for the Suffering

Once upon a time, there was a boy named Anthony. Anthony attended the public high school. Anthony had never been overly fond of school. He went because his parents made him, because it was the law, and because the teachers told him how important it was that he receive an education. But school was never a thrill to Anthony. His teachers were like most teachers -- they had a lot to cover, and many students, and when it came right down to it, teaching the material took priority over teaching the students, all with their own particular needs, weaknesses, and strengths.

Anthony had some neighbors who were homeschooled. Anthony was fascinated by this -- in an odd, gawk-at-an-accident sort of way. Sometimes he expressed a wish that he could be homeschooled. But what he said most frequently about homeschooling was that those kids would never get a job. He often pointed out to the neighbors that they would never amount to anything, would never get a job, and would be failures in life ... because they didn't go to school. This sometimes amused the homeschooled teens and sometimes irritated them. But what it revealed was that Anthony endured school because he believed there was a pay-off: a job. The school and all of society had indoctrinated him with the message that he had to go to school to make anything of himself. If he dropped out, if he didn't attend school, woe and unemployment would befall him in his adult life.

These homeschooled kids -- they would have to grow up to be failures. Right? They weren't paying their dues, sitting through boring classes. So they would pay for it in the end. Right? The reality that homeschooled kids go to college and are hired for jobs -- that didn't matter. If somebody could not go to school, and still make something of himself, that totally undermined the message that school was necessary.

You get what you deserve. Put in effort and the time (and sometimes grit your teeth and suffer through it) and you get your reward: your diploma, your paycheck, your low insurance rates, your beautiful golf-course-quality lawn, whatever. That's how it works in the world ... even IF some people can put in their effort and their time and have the audacity to enjoy it while they're earning their rewards.

That's not how it works with God, though.

Lutherans know that works-righteousness is bad. We know that nobody can pay money to the church so that their sins will be forgiven. We know that doing nice deeds for the neighbors won't earn us time off purgatory. We know that you can't grease God's palm. We know that salvation is a free gift of God's grace, earned by Jesus, and given to us entirely apart from our merit.

And yet ...

How often we hear people talk about growing in faith like as if they're getting better and better at their obedience, and that God is liking them better because of it. Now, it sounds crass when I put it that way, but we hear it. Of course, we don't think we earn heaven by our improved behavior. It's just that we think God is more pleased with me than He is with So-and-so because I've advanced further in my prayer life or my altruistic deeds or in stifling my anger. Maybe I know something about His will that most other people don't know because they're too caught up in our typical American ways.

What happens when someone suggests that those "not-as-far-along Christians" are entirely pleasing to the Father because they have been united to Christ in their baptism? Have you noticed that sometimes we have the same response as Anthony? "Wait a cotton-picking minute here! I have been putting up with doing these good deeds [swallowing my pride, forgiving my crabby wife, raising all these children, being honest on my tax forms, tithing, or whatever] and you mean that other guy is just as pleasing to God as I am? But but but..."

Doesn't seem fair, does it?

And that's just the point.


  1. I think I've gotten to the point in my life where I can't stand the word "growth."

    Daily life is enough of a struggle; and yet some Christians tell me I'm supposed to "grow" too? Argh!

    Dearest Lord Jesus, just let me weep at your feet! I can't do anymore than that.

  2. Hmm. That's how I feel about college, sometimes.