On Getting What We "Deserve"


On Getting What We “Deserve”
(Written January 20, 2006)

I wrote this some time ago – and still find it relevant. I might write it slightly differently now, but hopefully point is made. But I hear it all the time – everywhere I go; including often on this site – most recently by our own james goetz when he says this:

over on the very interesting discussion “Penal Substitution & Universalism”…

How Universalism Has Impacted my Life)

It is this idea that we don’t “deserve” X or Y or Z good things (eg God’s grace towards us) and we do “deserve” various bad things; punishment, death, etc etc.
This seems to me, quite simply, wrong: especially for a site whose uniting doctrine is Universal Reconciliation. I think that to use, and dwell in, “deserve” talk really does not convey what we intend to convey about our gracious God. Further, I would suggest that this “deserve” language we use is ours – not God’s.

Wonder if these thoughts and ruminations resonate with anyone else. It contains, I admit, some amateur psychoanalysis – or maybe psycho-babble. You be the judge… It should be obvious that reading these “Penal Substitution” conversations is what brought this essay back to my mind…


Here then the essay I wrote…

For many, a working definition of God’s grace is that he does not treat us as we deserve. (Reference to specific topic under discussion) At first glance, there is biblical warrant for this idea in places like Isaiah 53 and Romans 5. However, the limitations of this explanation are increasingly troublesome for me.

If one is said to not “deserve” certain good things (like, say, eternal life) because of his misdeeds, (or perhaps his nonperformance of good deeds), then, surely, the converse should also apply; for avoiding misdeeds and doing good ones, that person, it logically follows, “deserves” to be treated well. But this is difficult to reconcile with the Christian tenet that we cannot “earn” our salvation.

An alternative explanation of our not deserving God’s favor relies on the notion that rather than depending on our deeds, our undeserving emerges from our very nature: sinful, deep-seated, unchosen. Original sin is how Catholic tradition puts it. Thus, our undeserving status rests in our very being; our cosmic worthlessness, as it were.

But this, too, is problematic because the Bible really does seem rather insistent that we do matter; we do have value—worth. That lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son (Luke 15) make little sense apart from the value of what is sought.

Furthermore, the metaphor of family (part of the larger topic under discussion) renders this idea of deserving almost incoherent. “Son (daughter) you don’t deserve this, but I’m going to treat you nicely anyway?” Christ spoke of the ridiculousness of such thinking in Matthew 7:9, then went on to assert that God’s approach is to go beyond even our most extravagant dreams. No mention of “deserving,” just a “Dad” (Abba?) doing what love does.

Our obsession with “deserving,” it seems likely to me, is born of the myth that God cannot deal with us unless…unless our penalty is paid; unless we are “covered” by the robe of righteousness (which, if the analogy holds, results in our deceiving God—with the help of Christ—into accepting us); unless we bring Christ along to “mediate.” It needs to be relinquished. The language of “deserve” is meaningless in the face of who God is.

There is, to be sure, a force that declares our unworthiness and our worthlessness. But this force is not of God. God, so Scripture seems to hold, has gone to some extravagant lengths to tell us just the opposite. Yet we cling to the notion; cling as if the omnipotent One will thereby take pity upon us, recognize our humility—our plight—and be moved to a more positive disposition toward us.

Fortunately, the Good News revealed and heralded by Christ is that such worry is unnecessary and baseless. Created in the very image of God himself (a concept that invites, no demands, deep contemplation) we are, and have been, and remain, children of the Heavenly Father. We exist, therefore, we have value and worth. We belong to the family. This is the message of the reality of creation.

Yes, there is indeed a problem; we have given it the name “sin.” It is a problem that separates, distorts, and renders us defensive, worried, and fearful. And it causes us to imagine a God who demands sacrifice, absolution, and payment to accomplish restoration back to unity with him. But to solve this problem, entered Emmanuel; God with us. To right our misperceptions; to join us in our sufferings; to show us the Father. To show us that we might be One again.

Absent this reality are the cold calculations and exchanges of the accountant. Absent, too, the legal maneuverings of the lawyer. Instead, we find that our separation from God was a willful, chosen state. (PS added here: this conviction of mine is taking a real beating from the words and ideas presented by Tom T over on his sections!!) And, as such, our reconciliation with him also requires an act of the will; the intelligent choosing of that which was once rejected. But now our choosing has substance; it has a face—the very face of Christ.

Images of deserving might then be seen as merely an explanatory tool that speaks to the reality of cause and effect. The natural consequence of separating from God is death; life apart from God is not possible…. To actively reject the reality that one already does belong to the family of God results in separation and death. So some talk of this consequence, this natural result, as getting what we “deserve.”

Deserve language, however, deals only with the negative half of reality: the consequences of what happens when we reject God. But the will of God is clear—and demonstrated in Christ; we already are family, and this is—and has always been—God’s stance toward us. The consequences of that reality, along with our choice to live in that reality, are truly glorious. “Deserve” has nothing to do with it.

Free Will and Boasting
Penal Substitution & Universalism

I’m not sure where I can point to it on this site (how many posts have I written now…??), but for what it’s worth:

I do in fact think we deserve to be punished for our sins; and I do in fact think we deserve to be saved from sin. In that regard, if I’m making a mistake, it’s at least different from the kind you were talking about. :slight_smile:

However–and this is important: I consider the ‘desert’ in both cases (not to be confused with the word ‘desert’ meaning a wilderness or abandoned place) to be rooted ultimately in the very nature of God. The question of deservedness is very much connected with positive fulfillment of justice; and I (of all people) am not going to claim that God will act toward ultimate non-fulfillment of justice. (He may act in such a way that justice is temporarily unfulfilled, but not permanently so.)

When Christians, or other theists, become edgy about claiming ‘desert’ (not ‘dessert’ :wink: ) from God, there’s an important metaphysical reason that has to be acknowledged: we cannot be appealing to a standard or authority higher than, or aside from, or (much less!) lesser than God. Our natural habit, as creatures, is to appeal to an overarching standard among ourselves that we expect other persons to be obligated to comply with. There is no such overarching standard when appealing to God for fulfillment of just deserts, though. We can (and must) only appeal to God personally. Otherwise, we are technically denying supernaturalistic theism, and practically engaging in idolatry of one or another kind.

This is why I can say that we ‘deserve’ salvation from sin as well as ‘deserve’ punishment for sin, without meaning that we in any way merit or earn salvation. (Neither then do we merit or earn punishment, per se, strictly speaking.) The appeal to desert can and should be an appeal to final justice for fulfillment; which can (and ultimately should) be an appeal to the very interpersonal person of God Himself. But an appeal based on merit would mean that we have done something that we expect God to be obligated to act toward us in such-n-such a way regardless of His own authority as to fulfillment.