Citizenship Confusion: Meriting Our Daily Bread
Every Monday in Citizenship Confusion, Alan Noble discusses how we confuse our heavenly citizenship with citizenship to the state, culture, and the world.
Note: In preparing for this week’s column, I realized that the topic I had chosen was too large to address in a column, so in the next week or two you should see it as a feature. For now, I’ve resurrected an old feature that seemed particularly relevant in light of the election and the recent Supreme Court Ruling on ObamaCare. I’ve revised the post slightly, but you can still read the original post and the comments it received here.
In recent months, as politicians have begun to wrestle with our nation’s serious budget crisis, it has become clear to people on both sides of the political spectrum that at least some cuts are going to have to be made on so-called “Entitlement Programs.” The most significant of these programs are Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.
What has struck me about this discussion is how this phrase “Entitlement Programs” is often used both by those on the right and the left to support an unbiblical view of what we are entitled to. Those on the Left tend to believe that those in need are truly “entitled” to the programs that the government offers them, as if the State conferred our rights and entitlements upon us. Those on the Right tend to use this phrase ironically to call into question the idea that those who have not actually earned their own healthcare and retirement benefits are actually entitled to them.
The problem with the way both sides typically conceive of “entitlements” is that they do not recognize where all good gifts come from. In a very real sense, the money I receive as payment for work is a blessing from God, an act of grace, not of my merit. I am not entitled to my job or the pay I receive, just as I’m not entitled to good health or a beautiful wife or a graduate education. In other words, language of entitlement only makes sense if we believe that we can truly and autonomously create our own destiny, accomplish our own goals, attain our own American Dream. But if we live in a world that is created and held together by a sovereign God who provides rain for the righteous and the wicked, then we can never take exclusive credit for our status in the world. In a very real sense, we are not entitled to the things we own. We can see this idea at work in Ecclesiastes:
I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man. Ecc. 3:12–13 (also see Ecc. 5:19 and 1 Tim. 6:17)
The first part of verse 13 fits nicely with our culture’s secular, capitalist view of entitlement: we are entitled to enjoy and take pleasure in the fruits of our labor because we earned those fruits. But the end of this verse is jarring, or, at least it should be if we are paying attention. Instead of saying that our motive for taking pleasure in the fruits of our labor comes from our entitlement, we are told to enjoy these fruits because they are a gift from God!
Now, this does not mean that Christians should reject the concept of private property or that it is unimportant to work hard or any such nonsense, but it does mean that as Christians we should never come to believe that we have a right to the things God has blessed us with simply because our government gives us that right.
Similarly, see this passage from the Westminster Larger Catechism’s statement on the Lord’s Prayer:
Question 193: What do we pray for in the fourth petition?
Answer: In the fourth petition (which is, Give us this day our daily bread), acknowledging, that in Adam, and by our own sin, we have forfeited our right to all the outward blessings of this life, and deserve to be wholly deprived of them by God, and to have them cursed to us in the use of them; and that neither they of themselves are able to sustain us, nor we to merit, or by our own industry to procure them; but prone to desire, get, and use them unlawfully: we pray for ourselves and others, that both they and we, waiting upon the providence of God from day to day in the use of lawful means, may, of his free gift, and as to his fatherly wisdom shall seem best, enjoy a competent portion of them; and have the same continued and blessed unto us in our holy and comfortable use of them, and contentment in them; and be kept from all things that are contrary to our temporal support and comfort.
As US citizens and consumers we are often reminded that we deserve or have the right to certain comforts or pleasures or products, but we must always remember that whatever God blesses us with is an act of Grace, not our merit.
One potential implication for understanding an economy through the lens of God’s grace is that we can no longer look down on those who take advantage of government assistance from so-called “Entitlement Programs.” We have no right to consider ourselves better than them because we have “earned” our wealth or status. Nor can we mock and scorn illegal immigrants as interlopers who have wrongly assumed our rights and entitlements. We’re all recipients of God’s grace. That is not to say that we cannot or should not promote a culture of hard work and responsibility; it does mean that we must do so fully aware that this hard work and responsibility does not make us or anyone entitled to God’s blessings, even material blessings.
Another implication of understanding our status and wealth as gifts from God is that we should be humbly drawn to give to those in need. Just as God is gracious to us, we must be gracious to those in need around us. In this way, it is much easier to understand how Christians in the early church shared their goods, since they would not have accepted the view that their labor entitled them to hoard their possessions. And if the government, which God has sovereignly put in authority, legally demands our money in order to care for the need of others (who are here legally or illegally), our response should not be defiance and disgust with the recipients of the welfare or our government as if our goods were being stolen—although we may firmly oppose such policies.
A common accusation from the Right is that these programs instill in people a belief that they are entitled to things simply because they are in America, an ideology which the Right views as unjust and dangerous, and I am inclined to agree. But don’t we fall into the same prideful and arrogant trap when we, like Nebuchadnezzar, look out over what God has blessed us with and say, “Is not this great [fill in your possessions/wealth/status], which I have built by my mighty power as a [symbol of my achievement of the American Dream] and for the glory of my majesty?” (Dan. 4:30).
Our heavenly citizenship challenges the views of entitlement presented both by the Left and the Right and instead calls us to always give thanks to the One who blesses us, to hold lightly to our blessings, and to eagerly mimic God’s gratuitous giving by gratuitously giving to others and accepting their reliance on God’s gratuity, whether it comes in the form of government assistance or seasonal rain. All good gifts come from above.
I understand where you’re going with this, Alan, and I agree somewhat. I think gratitude and humble dependence on God is the fundamental attitude that should characterize us as created beings.
Still, I wonder if there is some category confusion going on in your article. The Scriptures are very clear on the concept that workers deserve their wages and, conversely, that lazy people – those who could work but refuse to – don’t deserve them. See, inter alia, Deut. 25:4, 1 Cor. 9, 1 Tim. 5, 2 Thess. 3.
I agree with you that, on the ultimate level, even the wages we earn are gifts from God, and not grounds for boasting and pride. This reality should color how we see the world, even the economy. However, in another sense, I really do deserve my wages and it would be unjust for my employer to withold them. A lazy man who won’t work doesn’t deserve support, and it would be unjust for the government to require me to support him.
I guess I’m not ultimately disagreeing with the substance of your post, but I do think it’s important to distinguish between the proximate and ultimate senses of entitlement, and realize that while the latter tempers the former, it doesn’t invalidate it.
Thanks. That’s an important distinction that I should have made.
As Alan notes, you do raise an important distinction. However, I wonder if underlying your concern there is also perhaps a problematic generalization. You state, rightly, the many cases in which Scripture commends industry and condemns sloth. However, from that you conclude, “A lazy man who won’t work doesn’t deserve support, and it would be unjust for the government to require me to support him.” To me, this implies that you might be suggesting that anyone who currently qualifies for government entitlement programs qualifies because he (or she) is lazy and will not work. If so, you would be right to recognize that many such people exist in America (and other countries), people who abuse government-funded support; however, to apply that to every individual who qualifies would be, simply put, very wrong. In difficult economic times, there are many, many Americans who qualify for government assistance because they have been downsized; and there are many, many Americans who work hard at jobs but still qualify for assistance because their employers can’t (or won’t) pay them an appropriate wage (a wage they are worth). In theory, anyway, those are exactly the people entitlement programs are designed for, and in those senses such programs are reflective of many of the provisions in Old Testament law designed to care for “the alien, the fatherless, and the widow”: i.e. those people in the society who were in most need of support.
In short, I share your frustration with those who abuse a system of programs designed for the needy, and if that is your only concern, then we are in agreement. But I do not think that concern needs to entail the wholesale dismantlement of such systems, because that would follow only from the assumption that people in need are only in need because of their laziness and not because of factors outside their control…and that is exactly the kind of thinking that Alan’s article, with its reminder that our preservation depends on God’s grace, is designed to address.
I agree with you. That’s why I made the distinction regarding those who can work but refuse to.
As a matter of policy, I think we need to beware doing too much damage in an effort to make sure our social safety net doesn’t support the merely lazy. If we have to err on one side or another, I’d rather some lazy people get unneeded support than some genuinely needy folks be destitute. Which is not to say the current system doesn’t need reform.
Looks like we are totally on the same page!
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