“The decision to give Denny [Morrison] my spot was purely about performance. We wanted what was best for the team, what gave us the best chance to win.”
That was the response from Canadian speed skater Gilmore Junio when asked why he gave up his spot in the 1,000 metre final at the Sochi 2014 Olympics. Junio had every right to skate in the final – he had earned it. But he chose to gift his spot to his more accomplished teammate who had failed to qualify.
Morrison went on to win the silver medal, as Canada celebrated both Morrison and Junio with a spirit of pride that rises when someone commits a truly selfless act. Junio is a true Olympic hero because his victory is greater than any athletic accomplishment. His victory is one of heart and character.
What do we deserve in life?
I find it ironic that what we admire so highly in Junio – the act of sacrificing something he deserved – is the very thing we’re often loathe to do in our daily lives. Advertisers have built significant campaigns around our desire to attain things we feel we “deserve.” According to radio and TV commercials, we deserve a lot – the best vacations, the best food, the best technology and the best cars.
The definition of deserve is “to merit, be qualified for or have a claim to (reward, assistance, punishment, etc.) because of actions, qualities or situation.” In other words, we deserve something because we’ve earned it or are entitled to it because of a quality we possess.
What do we deserve from God?
Some people approach God with this same mindset: I do my part to serve, give, attend, pray and read, and God does his part to bless, protect and guide. Then life events distort the formula, and we cry foul.
Over the years, I’ve listened to people complain they haven’t received what they believe they “deserve” from God. After all, they did their part. God should do his part. They shake their fists at God, declaring his impotence or bemoaning his indifference, all the while ignoring his immanence.
What’s your list of what you deserve? Good health, financial success, relational wealth, personal wholeness, freedom from the sinful choices of others?
But Jesus never promised us freedom from the troubles of this world. In fact, he promised us quite the opposite: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). It’s Jesus’ bad news/good news message. And the good news far outweighs the bad!
The problem of sin
When people asked Jesus to remove hardships from their lives, he instead addressed humanity’s greatest need – the condition of our hearts caused by our separation from God. Jesus understood that entitlement is our “presenting issue,” but sin is our core issue.
We enter this world spiritually dead but physically alive, marked by sin from the womb. Our sin nature leads us to compare ourselves with those who struggle in more obvious ways when we assess our shortcomings. We extend the benefit of the doubt to ourselves while judging the motives of others.
An Easter perspective
Easter invites us to lift our eyes and focus our gaze on the one who made it possible for us to become spiritually alive, forgiven and free. Paul reminds us of God’s goodness in Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” It’s God’s initiative, driven by love, irrespective of our sinful state.
In order for Christ’s substitutionary death to be of any significance, we need to see ourselves as sinners – people separated from God with no means to bridge that separation other than through the acceptance of Jesus’ death on our behalf. Jesus offers us an outrageous act of grace.
I appreciate these popular definitions: justice is receiving what we deserve, mercy is not receiving what we deserve and grace is receiving what we do not deserve. As I accumulate life experiences, my sense of injustice grows, as does my awareness of my need for grace. I know the darkness my heart is capable of. No degree of comparison with those whose public sin is greater than mine can hide the fact that, when confronted by the blinding light of justice, I fall short.
I don’t relish facing the double-edged nature of justice; the justice I want for others also applies to me. I recognize I’m a sinner in need of a saviour, which means that mercy – while wonderful – isn’t enough. I need more than mercy. I need grace.
Grace acknowledges the depth of my sin, names the price that needs to be paid, then makes the payment on my behalf. Grace is scandalous, irrational and unnatural. Grace disarms the cries of injustice driven by entitlement because grace can only be embraced and appreciated by those who recognize they’re not entitled to anything.
Grace is counterintuitive to the human condition. Grace stops us from reaching for what we believe is rightfully ours and enables us to receive more than we ever thought we were entitled to. Thank God for grace! Thank God for Easter!
—Willy Reimer is executive director of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches and lives in Calgary with his family.