I used to build enormous towers out of blocks when I was four years old. My mom’s fridge still has a picture of me standing next to one of my towers beaming with pride. I built it. It’s a phrase that embodies the essence of human pride. Building something permanent was the ancient pagan form of immortality — to leave a legacy, hopefully with an engraving or a statue, so that no one would ever forget you. This is why the people of Babel decided to build their tower: “so that we may make a name for ourselves“ (Gen 11:4). For the ancient pagans, pride was a virtue, because pride was the anchor upon which good social behavior was built. To some degree, this is still the case today; people who want to be known as respectable try not to behave unseemly because of their pride. However, there is also a very pernicious side to pride. It can very easily mutate from dignified self-confidence into a neurotic neediness that makes us unsympathetic to others and dishonest about our flaws. Pride becomes a very lonely prison in which our ambitious agenda of self-promotion keeps us from having authentic, vulnerable relationships with other people. That is why one of the greatest gifts God gives us is to teach us to say, “God built it; we didn’t.”
I do not come from humble beginnings. It would be disingenuous for me to narrate my life as a rags to riches story as so many political candidates try to do. One of my grandfathers was a world-famous physician and author; the other was a very successful entrepreneur in the oil and banking industry of south Texas. My father has become a renowned physician and medical researcher in his own right. My parents and grandparents provided me with a nest egg that has meant I have never known what it’s like to run out of money. It has also meant that I did not face the pressure to go into a lucrative financial industry job straight out of college like so many of my friends did to pay off their student loan debts. I have never had a job that paid more than $35,000 a year. I have had the privilege of doing very meaningful work: serving a farm-worker union, teaching tenth grade English in a low-income school, and working as a volunteer inner city youth pastor.
Because of my nest egg, I have a unique advantage when it comes to understanding the nature of divine providence. It’s very obvious to me that I didn’t “make my own destiny.” I do not need for Paul to ask me the rhetorical question that he asks to the Corinthians: “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). I don’t have anything that I did not receive from someone else.
For a time, the privilege that I was born into was something that filled me with deep shame, because I live in a culture where your worth as a human being is measured by the degree to which you can say, “I built that.” I tried to run away from my privilege by seeking the company of social outsiders — kids with dreadlocks who traveled by hopping freight trains, got their food from dumpsters, and squatted in abandoned buildings. Their freedom was so fascinating and alluring to me, but I could never fully leap into their world.
I spent a lot of the last decade pondering why I flinched at the opportunity to leave the world of career ladders and respectability entirely behind. I think I felt like I would be betraying those who had invested in me. It made me sick to spend their money wastefully, and I didn’t feel like I could just give it all away as Jesus told the rich young man to do, because that seemed like too much of a cop-out. Instead, I want very badly to honor God and the people through whom He blessed me with how I use the resources I have been given. It may be that one day I will be able to start a non-profit or help somebody else to start theirs. It may be that I will be able to do mission work without pay for a period of time. I do not know what God will show me about how to spend His money; I just know that He built it and I didn’t.
So I went to seminary and came across the writings of John Wesley from the mid-1700’s when Europe was in the late stages of a multi-century transition from feudalism to capitalism in which the values of the upper-class aristocracy (that day’s “conservativism”) were being replaced by the values of the middle-class bourgeoisie (that day’s “liberalism”). One of Wesley’s greatest battles that he fought in the later years of his life was against the increasing influx of bourgeois sensibilities into his Methodist movement, such as the now ubiquitous belief that you can spend 90% of your money on yourself as long as you give 10% to God (Wesley said after you provide for your family’s legitimate needs, all of the rest should go to God and the poor). In Wesley’s mind, you don’t save for retirement or an inheritance for your kids; rather you create the kind of church through your collective generosity that takes care of its old people and young people alike as a community.
Under the aristocratic ethos of feudalism, there was no concept of the rags to riches “self-made man.” Everyone received their station in life from God. Nobody with wealth had any illusion that it was something they had earned. Within this value system, Wesley hammered away at his fellow aristocrats when they refused to be generous, saying God gave you these resources not to bury them in the ground by focusing on the needs of your own immediate family, but to provide for other people. A whole lot of money passed through Wesley’s hands but he kept hardly any of it, writing famously, “If I die with more than five pounds in my pocket, you may call me a thief and a liar.”
Because I share John Wesley’s “renegade aristocrat” perspective, it is self-evident to me that I don’t earn anything; it is all a gift from God. The fact that I have an education and a job is a gift from God, having something productive to do with my time is a gift from God, so nobody owes me anything — I am simply blessed to get paid for what I do. I will always be an aristocrat in this sense even though I will probably never live in a large house or earn more than half of the median household income of Fairfax County where I live or send my kids to private school.
I realize that I am not sufficiently humble in how I talk about the bourgeois middle-class ethos that Mitt Romney captured perfectly in his Republican National Convention speech last night: “I am an American. I make my own destiny.” I guess I don’t understand it because I could never say that with any integrity. I haven’t lived it. That’s not to say that God hasn’t given me the opportunity to accomplish things and make a difference in the world. But everything I have become is what God has made me through the people and circumstances He put in my life. To me, recognizing that I am nothing without God is the heart of the gospel. To live openly in the knowledge that I have built nothing because God has built everything is the essence of worship. The best thing about knowing that you’re a spoiled brat is that you can’t have any pride. And I really believe that freedom from pride, however you get there, is a huge part of what salvation is.
So I’m not sure what to say to people whose self-identity depends so critically on telling themselves and others how they have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. Maybe it is a true story and not a template they feel like they have to cram their past into. This way of telling your story becomes a problem when it turns into the basis for rationalizing an ungenerous attitude towards other people who are struggling in life for an impossible to untangle combination of reasons including their own mistakes, social injustice, and bad luck. The hideous thing that spiritual pride does is to make us people who have an easier time walking past the bleeding man on the side of the road since he must have deserved what he got. To emulate the Samaritan who was “moved with mercy” (Luke 10:33) generally requires interpreting my life as a gift of God’s mercy and not the hard-earned reward for my sacrifice.
This is how I understand the meaning of the enigmatic prophecy of Hosea 6:6 Jesus told the Pharisees to ponder: “I desire mercy not sacrifice.” Jesus offered the sufficient sacrifice for us on the cross so that we would not spend our lives trying to establish our worth as people through making sacrifices. If our sacrifices are the basis for our sense of worth, then we’re going to end up just like the Pharisees Jesus battled with. (And if they aren’t the basis for our sense of worth, then we won’t talk about them in order to establish our political credibility.)
The goal instead is to let ourselves be overwhelmed by God’s mercy so that we can pour out our lives in mercy to others. People who live under mercy do not need “to practice their righteousness in front of others to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1). It absolutely involves hard work, but there’s no reason to call it hard work, since “our left hand does not know what our right hand is doing” (v. 3). The reward that we receive from our Father in secret (v. 4) for the work that we do without calling it work is not pride or any material wealth, but rather a more perfect grasp of the height, length, width, and depth of His love (Ephesians 3:18).
The more that the eyes of my heart are opened to God’s mercy, the more that I grasp the fact that I do not make my own destiny. It’s much better than that. My destiny is forged by a God who loves me, who created me for a specific purpose — not to build monuments to myself, but to be built into the body of Christ together with everyone else who realizes that they are not sufficient in themselves, but God’s grace sure is (2 Corinthians 12:9). Realize that what I’m saying here is not a veiled commentary on how we should fix our government, whether it should be big or small, or any other political particularity. I just want Christians to stay Christian when we talk about politics.
You can argue for a small government without standing on the soapbox of spiritual pride and self-justifying “hard work.” In fact, my greater concern is helping to cultivate the complete attitude change that will be required for American Christians to pick up the slack if and when our country’s social safety nets do get slashed. I suspect that the reason Americans outsourced mercy to the government in the first place is because we were too busy swaggering in our self-reliance to show mercy of our own volition. Just remember: nothing we have is something God did not give us and we should not boast as though it were not a gift. He built it; we didn’t.