Americans pride ourselves on our system of meritocracy. We believe that if you work hard, you can achieve anything. We affirm that we got where we are because of our own skills and dedication. We accept the implication that anyone who has not achieved such heights simply did not put in as much effort.
But much of what we love about meritocracy is fundamentally opposed to the grace of the Cross. There is none among us who can claim that we deserve what has been given to us, none who can say we have earned our reward. “For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (Corinthians 4:7)
Indeed, Christ grants us freedom from meritocracy. We no longer have to earn our reward. We can let go of our obsession with ‘fairness’ that simply does not exist in scripture. We are no longer slaves to the rat race of achievement. We can rest in the promise that “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith —and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Every breath we draw in is a moment of grace. So too is every meal we eat, every paycheck we receive, every new idea we have. Each minute we live is every bit of an undeserved gift as is our ultimate eternal salvation. So why do we create an idol out of this ‘meritocracy’?
Certainly, it makes sense to offer rewards in order to motivate good behavior. But to think that we deserve this reinforcement belies our witness as sheep of His flock. We become self-reliant, even prideful in our own making. We determine that we have worked hard, and then demand our reward. This is not the model of the Cross.
Not only is meritocracy a false idol that divides us from the One who is truly responsible for our successes, but it’s not even a reality-based system in the secular world. Anyone whose parents went to collage or owned their own home received a head-start. Anyone who lives in stability or maintains consistent access to healthcare has an advantage in their daily pursuits.
Anyone that networks for a job, or can bring solid letters of recommendation to their interview has benefited from the goodwill of others. Anyone whose culture has been consistently represented in the seats of power has benefited from a tailored system of rules. No one gets where they are on merit alone.
Yet even while we accept help from others, we despise and disparage those that need help from us: people that struggle every day to make it through. Like the Pharisees we proclaim “God, I thank you that I am not like other men–robbers, evildoers, adulterers” (Luke 18:11). Walter Russell Mead asserts that God “made you smart so that you could serve — and the people he wants you to serve are exactly all those people you feel so arrogantly superior to.” Will we be like the servant who receive mercy and grace, but will not offer it to others?
Furthermore, do we honestly believe that we work harder than those struggling for their daily survival? Do we put in more effort that the student who is also maintains two jobs to help pay the rent? Are we more tired at the end of the day than the mom that put in a double shift in order to put food on the table?
When we achieve success, might it be because our hard work went toward getting us ahead, rather just than surviving? If it takes every effort for someone to keep from falling behind, how do we expect that they will move forward? If we are secure in our basic survival, our skills and talents can propel us to great heights. But if adversity creates struggle for basic need, how can one’s gifts ever reach their full potential? And then we all miss out in witnessing the splendor of God’s blessings that might have been realized.
We bristle at giving aid to people that ‘don’t deserve our help.’ But what have we ever deserved? And what if someone happens to be ‘undeserving’? So what? Is this not the very definition of grace?
There are indeed those elite few that have achieved great things in the face of adversity–bone fide ‘rags-to-riches’ achievement. But we love their stories precisely because they are so rare. The reality is that for millions of people, overcoming systemic disadvantage is exhausting to the point of hopelessness and even resignation.
But we rigorously maintain the idea that merit is our only currency for success. And in our world, rewarding effort and good work is important for the advancement of society. But it is not want’s important for the advancement of Christ’s Kingdom.
We know that we aught to work hard because it brings glory to god, not because we’ll get stuff. God didn’t give you a good education, stable family, safe neighborhood so that you could boast in your own greatness. He didn’t make you rich so you could buy a nice car. Every blessing we have is a gift, and it comes with responsibility: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). Or do we believe it is better to store up our treasures on earth?
Katelin (@strngefruit) is the editor of By Their Strange Fruit (BTSF), an online ministry facilitating justice and understanding across racial divides for the sake of the Gospel. BTSF explores how Christianity’s often-bungled relationship with race and racism affects modern ministry and justice. Recognizing that racial brokenness hinders our witness to the world, BTSF strives to increase the visibly of healthy and holy racial discussion by approaching justice and reconciliation from a Christ-minded perspective.