What We Deserve
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.
Undoubtedly the audience in Hebrews wanted something better. Most had converted to Christianity from Judaism, and with that conversion were messianic promises that did not find fulfillment in their former faith. They hoped for a better life than they had but many received worse. And in it all they were urged to hang on because ultimately God delivers redemption. These promises did not hinge on the efforts of the people; nowhere does the author say that if they just worked hard enough, the rewards would be rich. Those of us who have been in faith circles long enough know this reality, but the expectation for God to deliver based on our efforts can still infect even the best parts of our leadership.
So as we sweat and strive we must be aware of the underlying mantra that says with great effort comes great success. The author of Hebrews notes that God's promises are unchanging, meaning his goals will be achieved, sometimes despite our best efforts. And as the author also reminds us, we have a high priest who intercedes on our behalf, regardless of our striving.
May we lead with the peace that comes from knowing that no amount of effort will make God act on our behalf, but rather that our hope can simply rest in him. It is from this truth we can find the strength to lead with grace and peace.