For my last day of elementary school, my entire class went to Chuck E. Cheese for a pizza party. I remember saving up $20 to use in the arcade. Early in the afternoon, a red and blue light-up yo-yo caught my eye at the prize booth. By 3 p.m., after a great deal of effort, I had earned the 250 tickets necessary to secure my desired reward. Like many Americans, I enjoy the process of earning my rewards by the sweat of my brow. The pride I had in earning my yo-yo was a fruit of my work ethic and skee-ball talent.
Systems of quantified merit, like winning tickets to exchange for prizes, are quintessentially American. The American dream is hard earned, self-made, with sleeves rolled up, pulling oneself up by their bootstraps, etc. There is nothing we cannot accomplish so long as we set our minds to it. These attitudes are easily identified in the grades we earn in school and the salaries we are paid at our jobs. Through self-determination, we create our own luck.
The problem with systems of quantified merit is that they create some unfortunate side effects. What about those who are at a disadvantage to participate? Are they less worthy to thrive or be happy? Plenty of people have been trampled over or used as others pursue and achieve their dreams. On the other hand, nobody is impervious to hard luck. The cracks through which many people fall are everywhere. The vicious side effects of the American dream create casualties, e.g., the unborn child who is discarded, the single parent working three jobs to make ends meet, the minimum wage worker who can’t afford to live in the same town where he works, etc.
Quantified merit bleeds into our relationships as well. We tend to make people earn our love, which is most damaging within families where love should come first and the response to difficulty should be mercy. Too often, love has a cost; a merited quantity of “tickets.” Like everything else, it must be earned. ⊲
Grace vs. Reward
While this is causing a lot of heartache and damage on a horizontal horizon, it is also causing a great deal of damage on a vertical horizon, in our relationship with God. We tend to see God in the same light as we see authority figures who operate in our earthly systems of quantified merit. A flawed or broken understanding of God is devastating, wrecking how we live out our faith and the relationships we have with other people.
The classic error we make is to treat God like Santa Claus. Yes, he is jolly and benevolent, but he is also keeping tabs on all of us. If we are naughty, he knows it, and we will not be rewarded. We need to be on our best behavior to earn our reward. When God is nothing more than this, we fall into the mindset that we must earn his love. The error here is to think that the God of the universe — the infinite, all-powerful, all-knowing, Trinity of persons — is subject to me; he is waiting for me to act, then he is going to respond accordingly. If I “do” all the right things, I can earn his love and merit a reward from him. It starts to sound silly when we examine it more closely, but if we are honest, we recognize something rotten in our American Christian ethos, i.e., that we are trying to merit the attention and rewards of a mostly benevolent God who is annoyed with our sinful behavior.
We treat God like he is the operator of a Chuck E. Cheese franchise. He offers us a great reward, i.e., heaven. Life here on earth is a complex system of quantified merit. When we die, the tickets are counted. If we have enough tickets, we get the prize, if not, we go to hell. While this is a crude example, it is easy to see it play out in our own attitudes. God is understood as transactional and cold, something like a vending machine.
With a little effort, we can spot the errors in this approach. The truth is that God is the prime mover; he acts and we react, not the other way around. He loves us first and we are called to respond. God loves us with an unconditional love, which means that our actions do not, cannot and will not change who he is or how he acts. When there is change, we are the ones that move, not God. The degree with which we receive and reciprocate his gift of love is dependent on a variety of factors, beginning with grace, which is the very thing that allows us to know God, enjoy friendship with him and love him.
Historically, the error we are dealing with is called Pelagianism, in reference to the heretical teachings of the fourth century monk, Pelagius, whose erroneous teachings included, among other things, that there was no original sin that makes the world or men fallen, and thus mankind is morally neutral and equally capable of good or evil. Subsequently, to be virtuous is an accomplishment that is fully merited by man, by himself. If heaven is where the virtuous will spend all eternity, achieving heaven is something that must be earned. This mindset denies the necessity of Jesus dying for our sins on the cross to redeem us. For Pelagians, salvation is a reward that we can earn through our own effort without the aid of grace.
This is where it can get confusing, because we read in scripture several things that seem to point to heaven as a reward that we can merit. Specifically, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven” (Mt 5:11-12a). To clarify the differences between what Jesus and Pelagius taught, it is important to understand what each meant by “reward.” Jesus taught that we could receive God’s grace and cooperate with it. In this sense, we can act from our own free will in a meritorious manner, but only because we are cooperating with God’s grace. The blessed person who perseveres through persecution is believing and acting in response to God’s gift of grace. This manner of believing and acting is meritorious for salvation. In this sense, “your reward will be great in heaven.” Or put another way, the sanctity that I merit comes through my cooperation with God’s grace and would not have existed without it.
This is different than the errors that Pelagius taught, and what we tend to believe as Americans, i.e., that we can act spontaneously from our own will, unaffected or inspired by grace, in a manner that will earn for us a reward from God who ambivalently waits upon our action.
The pioneer spirit of the American dream, where we can accomplish anything we put our minds to, doesn’t work out as well as we think. It creates collateral damage and casualties, and it also creates cracks that people can fall through. The reality of authentic thriving on earth is reliance on a community, which requires charity and mercy. In seeking after salvation, the prevalent American attitude has become what I like to call an individualistic enlightenment mentality, i.e., “I will work on my spiritual life, you work on yours, we are not in this together (by the way, my way is the right way).” In this mindset, our neighbor becomes at best neutral and often an adversary. ⊲
An Unearned Gift
God’s plan for human existence is captured well in John 10:10, where Jesus reveals that he has come so that we can have abundant life, which is experienced both here on earth and in heaven. American Pelagianism falls short and ends up selling us fire (of hell) insurance. We are encouraged to roll up our sleeves and bootstrap our way through life, because heaven will be worth it, but we first have to earn it.
The truth of our faith is that salvation is an unearned gift that God bestows upon us as part of his unconditional love. God is not transactional; he is relational, and, in his plan, life doesn’t have to be a drudgery. It can certainly be challenging, but through cooperation with grace, every life can be abundant.
When we leave behind our understanding of salvation as a system of quantified merit, we can begin to experience authentic holiness, which is, at its core, love of God and love of neighbor. We love God in response to his unconditional love for us, then we model his love in the way we approach our neighbor, loving first and not counting the cost or keeping the score. Too often, we resemble the workers in the vineyard (Mt 20:1-16) who felt slighted by the generosity the owner showed to those who came late in the day and, in (our) their eyes, merited less.
When we cooperate with grace and grow in holiness, we are not offended by mercy shown to others, because we know that we would be lost without the mercy that is shown to us. My neighbor is not my adversary, or a random person finding their own path, but a coheir and fellow pilgrim. Both the journey and the destination of our earthly pilgrimage is made better when we cooperate with God’s grace.