Words are interesting entities; they ideas that evolve. For example, many people don’t know the term “nice” originally meant “ignorant,” or a “silly person.” The word “ignorant” comes from the Latin term for “not knowing.” Now many people use ignorant to mean foolish, and nice to mean kind or amiable, yet both share the same root. It’s a strange dichotomy.
On a recent visit to a friend who lives in a more affluent area of Northern Virginia, he and I got into a discussion about the word “earn.” The discussion really started with an accidental drive I took through a neighborhood of (what I would consider rather large) homes while using my phone to navigate to his house (in a different neighborhood). Because of the economic climate of the area, the visit as a whole had me contemplating wealth, lifestyle, and motivation. What started one morning as a discussion on the cost of houses in NOVA (what we Virginians call Northern Virginia) turned to a more nuanced theological discussion on wages—or more appropriately, a person’s belief about the origin of what they earn.
To be clear, when American’s talk about what they earn (if they talk about it), they usually mean to say what they deserve. I can think of few people who would say they don’t deserve what they earn (Conversely, it’s pretty common to hear someone say they don’t earn what they deserve). Getting on with the point though, I stumbled across an interesting web discussion about the origins of the word deserve, and was surprised to learn that the word has a less entitled origin than it carries today. It comes from the latin word “de” meaning “completely” and “servire” meaning “to serve.” So originally, deserve meant to “completely serve.” However, at one point the meaning shifted to refer to the rewards of serving (or not serving). In other words, what people gain from their actions—be it a reward or a punishment—is what they deserve. So when a person works hard, and employs his or her skills to earn a wage, it’s widely accepted that they deserve their wages and subsequent standard of living. This is all well and good, unless you think about the fault in the logical implications of this belief.
Each of us knows someone who works harder, gives more, is highly skilled, has higher aptitude, never complains, and yet isn’t a millionaire. Many of these people are even poor. Let’s table the argument of personal money management for a second and talk for a moment about circumstances.
Consider, for instance, two musicians who are born in a different time, country, and to different families.
One is born in the U.S.A. during the 1990’s, to a family who can afford music lessons. The second is born to a poor family in rural Bolivia in the 1930’s. Let’s assume both are equally talented (if such a measurement can be made). However, the second musician is forced by circumstances to focus on a trade which is more lucrative, say mining, but does not alleviate his subsistence living. The first is able to focus time and energy on developing her musical talent, forms relationships through this training that prove providential for her later opportunities, and eventually leads to a major record deal and stardom. The first musician is able to retire at the age of 40 and lives out her life in relative wealth. The second works hard, but is never offered managerial positions. He dies at the age of 40 in a mining accident. Have they both earned what they deserved? Who’s to say?
The point being that what a person earns in a physical sense (both in their credentials and finances) is as much, if not more-so, a product of circumstances. What if the second musician in our story was more talented than the first, and let’s pretend they came from a similar family and privilege as the first. However, because they live in Bolivia in the 1930’s, music is not an industry that pays well. The second musician works hard, touring from one venue to another all across the country, for years he pours his earnings back into his travel and equipment expenses. Never does he break the poverty barrier, and eventually forced to take another job in which he’s not nearly as talented or skilled in order to survive.
Or what if the second musician is born in the U.S., but never meets the right producer that makes him a hit? What if Donald Trump was born into extreme poverty instead of inheriting millions to start with? What if Michael Jordan started out playing Major League baseball instead of basketball, what if Andrew Carnegie was born in Africa or central Asia? In reality, these are variables which can’t be controlled. A person can only choose to use their talents and gifts, they cannot control their origins or subsequent “chance” happenings that can launch them or sink them.
There’s this corny sermon illustration I heard when I was a kid which relates to this idea. I’ll spare you the details and just summarize below:
A scientist tells God that we no longer need Him.
We’ve advanced as a species to where we can create or do essentially anything God might be able to do. As in the days of Niche, the scientist is declaring God dead; humans have outgrown Him.
In a sage attempt to correct the man, God issues a challenge: If humans are equal to God in ability, let the scientist and God both create a human in the original fashion—out of dust. The scientist confidently agrees and bends down to scoop up a handful of dirt on the ground. As he does, God quickly stops him saying: “Hold on now, get your own dirt.”
Every person is the recipient of benevolent gifts they begin with—be it talent, time, ability, family, opportunity—of which we have no control. We can only steward these gifts within the circumstances presented to us. What if the most talented sports star to ever live was born a paraplegic?
While this all sounds Fatalistic and depressing, I do believe a person can influence and change their circumstances, but only through the decisions and efforts they make. We can be faithful in our work-ethic and utilization of skills and talents, but our level of success is dependent on circumstances. A farmer can plant a seed, but can’t make it rain and he can’t make it grow. Our ability to earn anything is no different.
When Jesus tells his followers that it is difficult for a rich man to enter heaven, he’s not condemning wealth, he’s talking about ego. It would appear (Trump may be a good example again) that people who have earned wealth and been successful in profession have a hard time distinguishing their efforts from God’s providence (supplying the favorable circumstances).
For the believer in God’s grace, perhaps a more “traditional” view of deserving (to fully serve) can foster a better understanding of what we deserve (reward or punishment). Can we truly earn anything? Have we really earned what we deserve? I personally hope I never do.