As a parent, it seems I spend the vast majority of my day telling my children "no." After consistently receiving this response, they mope and moan until eventually my four-year old reminds me that he deserves certain perks because he "has been a good boy." As a preschooler he already has a sense of entitlement that will carry over into adulthood, as did most of us.
Blame it on our parents, history, or that good old Protestant Work Ethic we inherited, but ours is a culture that believes if you work hard you will be rewarded. We participate in a system built upon incentives, praises, and bonuses. According to the UN International Labor Organization, on average Americans work 1,978 hours per year. This is 100 hours more than our Canadian and Japanese counterparts, 250 more than most Brazilians, and 500 more than Germans. Americans average two weeks of vacation per year compared with Europeans who receive four to six. At the end of this extravagant workload is the expectation that our efforts will pay off; we would be na?ve to miss the reality that our obsession with reward transfers into our spiritual lives.
So how do we lead when despite our best efforts God says "no" to the reward?
The author of Hebrews reminds us of God's steadfast promises when he preached to a group of recent converts. Despite their best efforts, they found themselves at the mercy of Nero's persecutions. The author points them to Abraham (6:13-14) and God's promises to him, followed by a reminder that God is never changing and always faithful (6:17).
With sheer joy we often cling to words like these to remind us that God will come through for us during difficult times. But what happens when God's promises means that for now, we will not achieve success? When with all of our planning a new ministry still crashes? When the best resume, preparation, and prayer yields unemployment? Or when the most prayerful among us end up at best, confused, and disheartened? We find ourselves groaning, "God, I've done everything you asked so why won't you deliver success, healing, happiness, etc.?"
I have a faithful and brilliant friend who is unemployed and unmarried. Her deepest desires include a ministry career and a partner. I once noted her efforts and unparalleled skills, sighed, and said, "You deserve better than this." To which she wisely replied, "No Tracey, no one really deserves anything."
Leadership in a culture of entitlement requires us to rise above our expectations and point to the larger reality of God's promises. Even with all our plans and preparation, we do not deserve a single blessing.