De-Serving Recognition

Deserve — origin: to devote oneself to the service of

In the past few days I have heard people use the term “deserve/deserving” in troubling and distressing ways.  In all cases, those identified either “deserved” something bad, or were “undeserving” of something good.  In no case was the thought that “those people” deserved something good.

Yesterday morning I was sitting in a diner waiting for a colleague to show up for a breakfast meeting.  A few feet away, six men sat together sharing a meal, all with Bibles open.  This is a group that meets weekly for study, prayer and fellowship.  The leader made a comment that sent chills through me — “Those gays in Orlando, got what they deserved.”  I heard rightly, because a moment later he followed this statement with, “sinners are going to get punished in direct measure to what they do.”  The horror of this statement in context is bad enough, but the principle underlying it is absolutely horrifying.  Following this train of thought, did the children at Sandy Hook “deserve” what happened to them?  Did theater-goers in Colorado “deserve” what happened to them?  Were the students at Virginia Tech or Columbine High School “deserving” to be gunned down?  I wonder if this gentleman believes that the U.S. “deserved” what happened on 9/11/2001?  And if the victims in any of these situations “deserved” what happened to them, there is an implication that the perpetrators in each instance are to be appreciated and thanked.  Too often, thoughts are spoken without clearly understanding their full implications.

Listening to some commentators discussing the Supreme Court deadlock on President Obama’s immigration orders, one claimed that immigrants do not deserve the same consideration as citizens of the United States, and another followed a few moments later by talking about “Americans are more deserving than foreigners”.  Based on what standard?  By whose reckoning?  We too often confuse blessings for rights and birthright for entitlement.

A woman I do not know wrote me a blistering email following some of my comments concerning the LGBTQ communities and our less-than-charitable positions in the church.  I defended a recent situation in our annual conference by framing it in terms of choosing “grace and forgiveness over punishment, favoring the loving God of Christian scripture to the human-framed rules and regulations of the Book of Discipline.”  She explained to me “you do not deserve to be elected bishop; you do not even deserve to be a pastor, but you certainly deserve the most severe punishment God can give.  For the trash you are writing, you deserve to burn in hell.”

Originally, the concept of “deserving” was one of making an ultimate commitment to pursue just one thing.  To “deserve God” in old writings of Christian mystics meant to unreservedly serve God.  (Unre-serve-dly).  It did not mean “to be worthy of.”  It did not mean “to earn.”  It did not mean “to receive by rights.”  It meant “to give oneself to.”  Many Christian scholars have noted that early writings speak of human beings “deserving” God’s grace and forgiveness; but that with changes in the word’s meaning and usage, modern translations are edited to say that human beings cannot be deserving of God’s grace and forgiveness.

I am not sure who “deserves” to go to hell.  On the grand scorecard of life, I am afraid we ALL deserve to go to hell.  We seem to gladly make the world hell for others.  (“Those people”).  But by our common usage and understanding, I think the Christian scriptures of our New Testament speak volumes.  No one deserves to be gunned down.  No one deserves to be denied basic human rights.  No one deserves to be attacked for their basic beliefs and values.  No one deserves to be denied their fundamental humanity.  No one deserves more than anyone else, in terms of kindness, compassion, patience or common care.  Everyone deserves to be loved, by someone.  No one deserves hate.  All deserve access to God’s love, and a basic channel of that access ought to be the church.  Christians should be the earthly, visible sign of what God’s love can be.  When we spout hate, anger, violence, punishment, insult, and arrogance we prove to the world that we really don’t understand Christ much at all.

I would offer the gentle challenge that we all seek to be deserving — in the original sense of the word.  Let us strive in all ways and in all things to serve God as agents of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)  Let us consider “others as better than ourselves”, and “do nothing from selfish ambition.” (Philippians 2:3)  “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:9-18).  Really and truly — what would our church and our world look like if we would commit to “deserve” (to devote oneself to the service of) to spend the rest of this year learning to live these three simple passages from scripture?

4 replies

  1. As your wife, I want to respond in a variety of ways to the woman who thinks you “deserve” to “burn in hell.” As your sister in Christ, I commend and embrace your gentle, non-anxious responses to those who disagree with you. You are my role model, Dan. I honor the passion with which people express their passionate views. I pray for peace in their lives and joy in your life. I hope for honor and integrity in all the ways we share our lives in Christ.

  2. The world is to much with us. Sit around long enough listening to people talking in restaurants and you’ll hear things said that are outrageous. Egregious inappropriate statements are not limited to just the groups with whom you disagree. The hatred and anger heard, the use of insult and expression of arrogance and even the condoning of violence you found objectionable in the conversation of those who you overheard talking is mirrored in the experience of others who have heard similar equally outrageous unkind things said by people/groups with which you would likely agree.

    Language is dynamic. It changes. Deserve and deserving are words that were once defined differently and used differently. It is the same with gay.

    Deserve had nothing to do with the terrorist who killed and wounded homosexuals in Orlando. That was a act of calculated political and ideological terrorism plain and simple. It mirrors similar acts by terrorists who kill, maim, wound, scare and seek to silence any and all who refuse to submit to that twisted tortured world view that reflects their understanding of Islamic ideology.

    Happily the example cited in your post is not typical of those who follow Christ. Those who follow Christ typically act with kindness, tenderness, compassion and love. At the same time, they do not embrace or affirm a lifestyle that is condemned by Scripture as sin. Rather they seek to lovingly reach out to those who are lost in sin and win them to a saving life changing faith in Christ.

    We may be in the world, but we do not have to be of the world. We do not have to let the world squeeze us into its mold. The suggestion that we apply what Paul wrote to believers in Galatia, Philippi and Rome to our daily lives is good advice well taken. It will go along way toward shaping our lives and witness for Christ.

  3. Re the comment about Americans being more deserving than immigrants: Since I did not hear the context in which that comment was made, it is hard for me to fault them or agree with them. But here is a perspective I have recently become aware of. Yes, America is a melting pot of immigrants, but there is a belief, even among Christians, that we must take care of our own first and that means keeping American citizens safe. America was founded on specific values/beliefs and to take in people who could undermine those beliefs/understandings and/or put citizens in danger is foolish. The more realistic approach is to find a balance between accepting immigrants and not jeopardizing what we already have. We are not living in a perfect world because we are not perfect people and there is much about our lives that we did not choose. And as to the rest of your thoughts, I have no doubt that I will stir up a hornet’s nest as I leave you with a quote for John Wesley’s “Sermon on the Mount Discourse Ninth”:

    Gladly suffer today for his name’s sake whatsoever he permits to come upon thee. But look not at the sufferings of tomorrow. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” Evil, it is, speaking after the manner of men; whether it be reproach or want or pain or sickness. But in the language of God, all is blessing: “It is a precious ‘balm'”, prepared by the wisdom of God, and variously dispensed among his children according to the various sicknesses of their souls…Take therefore just as much as he gives you today…Today give up yourself, your body, soul, spirit to God, through Christ Jesus; desiring nothing but that God may be glorified in all you are, all you do, all you suffer; seeking nothing but to know God, and his son Jesus Christ, through the Eternal Spirit; pursuing nothing but to love him, to serve him, and to enjoy him, at this hour and to all eternity.

    One of the best lessons I have learned over the past few years is that we should never be too sentimental about grace. There is absolutely nothing sentimental about the grace God dispensed on the cross where God himself died a violent death at the hands of a violent people.

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