“God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:8.
Usually when one uses the word “merit”, they mean that someone has earned something. It is our word to describe the fact of another being a worthy recipient of some end. We give out merit scholarships to the best students, trophies for the athletes who merited first place, and promotions to employees who, by their work, merited a raise. Of course, all of these are good things. People who work really hard at what they do are rewarded. There are countless other examples of positive merit out there as well ranging all the way from schooling to profits in business.
Especially in an age still trying to claw its way out of racial and gender discrimination, rewarding merit seems the perfect way to go. No longer is someone made rich only by the wealth of their parents and their elite boarding school education, now anyone (at least supposedly) can rise to the top of the wealth bracket and live the American Dream of upward social mobility. This is good. Increasingly, people who would have been subject to poverty for their whole lives merely because of their race, or social standing, can now work their way out and merit their own success.
This phenomena doesn’t only deal with economic matters, but also concerns something normally termed opportunity. Though progress is still needed in all of these areas, the plight of everyone seems to be getting better (as long as you are a hard worker). People normally denied access to opportunity, ranging from entrance to private schools to captaining the golf team, are given the chance to succeed in those realms. Historically exclusive clubs and groups are opening their doors to a wider variety of people.
No one wants to be poor. Furthermore, people certainly don’t want to be forced into poverty without regard to their hard work or merit (something that has been the case often in the past based solely on birth). All of this discussion so far seems to be in favor of increasing the opportunity of merit to promote good. We want the rewards to be given to people who have worked hard to attain them, and not just given to those who by birthright received a place in the upper echelon of society.
The problem, especially for people who are trying to create a better world, is when we equate merit with an individual’s worth and dignity. Again, I need to stress that merited success is a good thing. For those who come out on top especially, it is a tremendous boost to their livelihood bought through hard work and diligence. But consider the scenario from the other perspective. Think of someone in poverty who lives in a society in which “anyone can succeed if they work hard.” In the past, the person in poverty was forced into their lifestyle because of overwhelming social obstacles beyond their control. In short, they were poor not because they deserved it, but because the structure set them in that place. With the rise of merit however, the poor are no longer deemed “unfortunate” due to their circumstances of birth, but are now considered the “losers” of the game of success (consider the benefits of the ancient term “unfortunate”). They had their opportunity to work hard, but didn’t. They had the same opportunity as everyone else (so it goes at least) to achieve a better life. Now, when they live in the projects, they deserve to be there. They are no longer considered unfortunate. But rather, just like the successful merited their own position in life, they merited theirs through inaction and laziness. This is a very harmful idea, adding shame onto the already negative life condition of poverty.
I’m not claiming that this idea is necessarily widespread in 100% of people. But if you probe most ordinary people, they will claim that everyone has a more or less equal opportunity for success and it is only those who don’t take those opportunities that end up in a state of failure.
Economics aside, from a theological point of view, it is extremely important not to equate one’s value with their merit both in our own mindsets and in our practices in everyday life. Regardless of how much we have bought into the idea of merit and think it now rules our society (I certainly think we have a long way to go until everything is merit based), it is important to value every human being with the dignity that God gave them as creatures. People are not worth more just because they may have merited more or less. Rich people aren’t worth more in the eyes of God. Neither are those who have succeeded in other venues and ventures. God may applaud their hard work, of course, but does not attribute more or less worth to certain people. Everyone is equally deserving of God’s love just because everyone equally needs God’s love!
When we as Christians are stingy, in regard to grace and service, with new churchgoers or people in poorer communities, we are implicitly saying that they are less worthy recipients of God’s love. The problem however is that we treat God’s grace on this same level of merit. Only the so-called “good” Christians receive grace (note: I do not want to discount the idea of rewarding good behavior), and those who are morally “bad” do not receive God’s grace. But look at Jesus’ life. He spent much more time with the morally destitute people of society. Why? In his own words it is because they were the one’s who especially needed his grace. The healthy have no need of a doctor, it is only the sick who need a doctor.
Now, in applying to our culture today, we should understand that we are all in need of grace. We all need reconciliation with our creator. We all “deserve” the spreading of that grace by other Christians. No Christian has the right to refuse grace to someone they deem “unworthy.” Simply put, grace has nothing to do with merit (unless you want to say that “the more sin abounds, grace abounds all the more”). The love of God is not limited to people who deserve it, nor only to those who have been Christians and worked hard in the Church for 30 years. The love of God is also reserved for the one whom everyone knows has a reputation for sinning. The love of God is reserved for the poor and the rich, the successful and unsuccessful.
In other language, this has been expressed through the idea of the image of God. All human beings are created in this image, just because they are what God created them to be: human beings! The Church has always at least tried to apply this idea universally to all of humanity in a way that promotes their good just as it does those within the Church made in the image of God. As Christians, believing that all are created with equal dignity and worth by God becomes the catalyst for promoting positive social change to increase the quality of life of those around us. Often times though, this is not limited to the culture’s definition of success or quality, but one defined by Jesus. It is a world, while encouraged to promote the rewarding of effort and merit, that doesn’t stop at defining someone’s worth in society to the numbers in the bank account or the trophies on their shelf.
“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” – Ephesians 2:4-9.
To conclude, don’t confuse grace and merit. Everyone should have access to grace, both the kind distributed directly by God, and the kind given by Christian benevolence all around the world. Everyone has worth regardless of whether or not they always made the right decisions or always made the wrong ones. Each person, made in the image of God, is a recipient of God’s unconditional love.