05 July 2018

Merited favor.

One of the more popular definitions of grace is “unmerited favor.” Which is one of grace’s definitions; I tend to go with “God’s generous, forgiving, kind, favorable attitude towards his people.” The unmerited-favor idea isn’t bad though.

Problem is, we humans very, very seldom practice unmerited favor. We always demand some form of merit.

I used to watch a home-makeover TV show. The producers probably got thousands of applications from people who’d love a free home makeover. But it’s clear they always preferred to grant ’em to needy families. And not just any needy families; not just any family who couldn’t possibly afford home improvements. They singled out deserving needy families.

What made them “deserving”? The family had gone through some exceptional hardship, like dead relatives, disease, a disabled kid, a tornado, something that made ’em suffer. Or the family had done something heroic or honorable, like parents who seriously contributed to their community. Something that’d make viewers say, “The universe owes them something grand. Like maybe a home makeover.”

Because karma.

Karma is deeply ingrained in human nature. It’s what makes all the difference between the needy, and the deserving needy. The undeserving needy would be people who are needy, but kinda should be needy—they refuse to work for a living, or they’re dishonest or criminal and kinda deserve a little hardship in their lives. Or maybe they were deserving at one time, but after receiving 10 home makeovers it’s about time someone else got one.

That’s the mindset humans bring with us whenever we help the needy: We don’t wanna help just any needy person. The laws of karma should apply: Some people deserve to be needy, and we’re perfectly happy to leave them where they are, unhelped. They don’t just receive our favor, indiscriminately: They gotta deserve it. In other words, merited favor.

So, not grace.

In fact you’ll see a certain amount of outrage whenever somebody does practice grace. I’ve written about my tendency to overtip. I regularly get crap from certain people about it. To them, tipping is an obvious case of merited favor, and by showing my waiters unmerited favor, I’ve missed the point. Or so they claim; the real issue is how my generosity exposes their stinginess, and they rightly feel bad about it, and don’t wanna. Mammon forbid generosity catch on, and more people tip like I do; their tight-fisted behavior will be all the less justifiable.

When these same people contribute to charity—not really out of compassion, but because they’re trying to restore the karmic balance in their lives, and make sure they have more good deeds on the books than evil—again, their generosity has its limits. They only wanna give so much, and the way they justify their limits is by demanding those they help be deserving. If you work less than 40 hours a week, it’s your own fault you’re poor; get a second job! If you get government assistance, why do you need their assistance? And so on.

Whereas God, when he’s gracious to people, doesn’t differentiate between the “deserving” needy… or people who actually don’t have any needs whatsoever. He’s gracious to all.

Generosity to both good and evil.

Karma is how humans work, not God. He does grace. As Jesus described, when he instructs his followers to be gracious in the very same way.

Matthew 5.43-44 KWL
43 “You heard this said: ‘You’ll love your neighbor.’ Lv 19.18 And you’ll hate your enemy.
44 And I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.
45 Thus you can become your heavenly Father’s children,
since he raises his sun over evil and good, and rains on moral and immoral.
46 When you love those who love you, why should you be rewarded?
Don’t taxmen also do so themselves?
47 When you greet only your family, what did you do that was so great?
Don’t the foreigners also do so themselves?
48 Therefore you will be egalitarian,
like your heavenly Father is egalitarian.”

Y’notice Jesus specifically addresses those people who are thinking in terms of karma: “When you love those who love you, why should you be rewarded?… When you greet only your family, what did you do that was so great?” Mt 5.46-47 In doing these “good deeds,” how were they in any way more significant than the stuff everybody does for themselves and their own?

In comparison, God doesn’t care about what the needy do or don’t deserve. Jesus goes out of his way to point to enemies, people who are straight-up being evil towards us, and instructs us to love them regardless. Because God loves the people who hate him. He can blot out the sun for them, as he did for the ancient Egyptians, Ex 10.21-23 but he instead grants them the same common grace he does everyone. He can stop the rain for them, as he did the ancient Israelis, 1Ki 17.1 but same deal: He’s kind to all. Hey, kindness wins them over. Ro 2.4

Of course, Christians for the most part don’t bother to follow this instruction. We still put the needy on some form of karmic scale, and cut ’em off if the balances tip too far in the wrong direction. Do they earn too much money? Are they up to date on their child support payments? They’re not using drugs, are they? How do they smell? There’s always some boundary line to our grace, and it’s nearly always based on something they did or didn’t do.

The result of this limited grace? A limited kingdom of God. It’s supposed to be as unlimited as God is, but we Christians put limits on it, and won’t let it go beyond them till Jesus returns to run it directly. People wonder why Christianity isn’t living up to its infinite potential; yep, that’d be why.