As everyone knows, the last leaves of autumn mean that Thanksgiving and Christmas are upon us. It’s that glorious time of year set aside for giving lots of stuff and to stuffing ourselves a lot.
But to celebrate these holidays—and every day—as God intended, one thing above all is necessary: we must grasp that all of life is grace (James 1:17). We deserve none of the good things we have, not even a little bit. They flow from the love of God himself, the wellspring of saving grace and of every blessing in life, far too many to number. (Count your blessings, name them one by one? Good luck with that!)
I have friends who grow up in a Christian denomination that recognized this truth and formed it into an unofficial slogan of sorts (long before Dave Ramsey popularized it). Whenever anyone would ask, “How are you doing?” The response often given was, “Better than I deserve!”
I’ve heard many people express frustration over this. Perhaps it was a bit annoying to hear it said so often. Or perhaps the robotic repetition of the response caused the weight of those words to diminish over time. I don’t know, and I have no intentions of defending the custom. But every Christian should be willing to fight to the death to defend the truth of its content. For people who understand the gravity of sin and the depth of grace, there could scarcely be a more accurate summary of life: Better than I deserve.
What We Actually Deserve
Charles Spurgeon (who’s been getting a lot of air time in my life recently) famously said, “As long as a man is alive and out of hell, he can’t have any cause to complain.”
As is so often the case, Spurgeon’s words are not just a matter of personal opinion. He is restating an important point that Paul the apostle makes. Paul writes, “Do everything without complaining or arguing” (Phil. 2:14). That is a command, by the way, one of those non-optional things that God tells us to do.
But why would God tell us not to complain about anything? Because no matter what is going on in your life, it’s better than what you deserve. This is conclusion is impossible to avoid for people who believe that they deserve the just judgment of God for their many sins. To believe that sinners sit under God’s wrath, as the Scriptures everywhere affirm, is to believe that when it comes to deserving anything, all that we have earned is a death that never dies. This is why Paul says, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).
As a matter of principle, the Scriptures teach that “The worker deserves his wages” (1 Tim. 5:18; cf. Luke 10:7). This is important to point out, because God is not opposed to earning in general. That is not the message of the Scriptures, and the proverbs are filled with verses that extol the virtues of hard workers who earn their keep. The problem is that what we deserve for our actions toward God, toward others, and toward God’s world is nothing less than hell.
That seems a bit much, some may object. Anselm of Canterbury would reply, “You have not yet considered what a heavy weight sin is” (Cur Deus Homo, Book I, ch. 21).
Grace Given and Received
Thankfully, this is not where the train’s final stop. Sin is great, but Christ is greater. And through him God has provided a way for us to receive grace instead of the gallows, heaven instead of hell, mercy instead of judgment (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:21-22; Romans 6:23; James 2:13).
Receiving better than we deserve is fundamentally what grace is. Grace gives what was not earned. Grace bestows what is not warranted. Grace offers what is not owed.
The Spirit uses this grace like an axe at the root of the tree of pride, which grows tall and strong in all our hearts. Sin has hardwired us to think of ourselves as valuable, deserving, worthy, and worthwhile. Sin is so deep that we can even say words of grace without grace in the heart. “The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector’” (Luke 18:11).
We could even fall prey to this same pride in the midst of a “better than I deserve.” It’s not about saying the right words; it’s about believing them. We deserve hell, but in Jesus, we have received a fullness of grace. And, “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another” (John 1:16).
The Christian who believes this has found God’s cure for calloused hearts. He removes our sense of entitlement, our self-centeredness, and our arrogance by reminding us of our sin and what we truly deserve, and by reminding of what we have received in Christ. In place of pride he gives us humility; instead of entitlement, he gives us contentment; instead of complaining, there is gratitude.
In this way, grace is the great pride killer because it reminds us that we have nothing to offer God in ourselves. We have nothing, earn nothing, and can boast of nothing before him (Eph. 2:8-9). We are but beggars at the foot of God’s door. But there, on the bottom step, he stoops to receive us. He lifts us up. He gives us better than we deserve. He fills our empty hands with grace upon grace.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.