"I just want what I deserve."
That is the simplest plea for fairness. There is a debt. The debt must be paid. I am owed something.
And while this is true of many circumstances in life, this is not true of life itself.
Imagine you are over a friend's house and they find out that your favorite dinner is Teriyaki Chicken and they surprise you with this meal. You feel a sense of gratitude and happiness for the food.
But when you are at a resturant and order Teriyaki Chicken, you don't get those same warm and fuzzy feelings about the chef in the back kitchen or the server who brings it to you. Sure you show courtesy by giving thanks, but that feeling doesn't go very deep.
What is the difference? One is a gift. The other is what you are owed.
When I go into a restaurant, I pay my money for services rendered. If my food is late or my order is done incorrectly, I may get upset because I am paying for this meal and I am owed it by the chef. But none of my friends owe me food. I wouldn't expect them to cook for me. But because it is unexpected, it is gratuitous.
I've been thinking about how much we think we are owed in life. Surely there is a thing called justice and that it's scales should balance. Am I not owed life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Am I not owed due process under the law, the right bear arms, the right to freedom of religion, the right to free speech?
And am I not owed for the extra work I give at my job, all of the hundreds of hours I have volunteered to help? And when I see my friends and family raising their children, am I not entitled to ask, "Where is mine? I've said my prayers and I've waited patiently? Where is mine?" Doesn't life owe me at least that?
The answer to all of these questions is, of course, is no.
I don't mean this in the classic "life is unfair" sense, although that is still true. What I mean is that if I think these things then that tells me I really haven't thought enough about what I deserve from life. Life owes me nothing. Life promises nothing. It doesn't even promise itself. I don't know how much longer I will be on this earth. Just because I've been alive for over 30 years doesn't mean I'm owed another 30.
But I think many of us think life owes us. We see what others have and the putrid feeling of envy festers. How often do we see people who thumb their noses at goodness and God revel in their excess and luxury? How often does it appear that the wicked get ahead, while we struggle? Why should they get a piece of the pie and not me?
I once saw a girl on a news program who stole an iPod. Her reasoning was that she had an iPod stolen from her, so life owed her. Many of you may have seen the youtube video of the girl who robed the bank and then bragged about it on the internet. When asked why she stole the money, she said that the government owed her (though it doesn't explain why she decided to rob a private bank). In both cases, life was unfair to them and life owed them something in return. At least that was their attitude.
My observation of people who think that they have it coming is that they tend to be pretty miserable. They think that the government, their job, even their friends and family owe them money, attention, and recognition. When they don't get it or see someone else getting it, they turn sour. Here's the thing: this attitude makes perfect sense if they are owed these things.
Just as you would get upset if you ordered Teriyaki Chicken and were given grape leaves instead, you would be upset if you thought you were owed money and health and love and were given poverty and sickness and solitude. It isn't just that you didn't get what you wanted. You would feel cheated, cheated out of life. You cannot be happy if you think that life owes you because you will always feel let down.
But as I said earlier, we are not owed anything. Many things are of my own choosing. If I donate more time at work, I do it because I choose to, not because I want credit. Something are not of my making. If I don't have children, I haven't been cheated. Life never promised this to me. I am owed nothing.
This is not a sad thing. This is a freeing thought. Because if life owes me nothing, then everything is a gift. I am not owed material security, but I have that at all it is a gift. I'm not owed more life, so every day I am alive is a gift. I am not owed a child, but if I have one, that child will be a gift.
If I think of everything in life as a gift then I can be filled with gratitude. Every day becomes a little more filled with wonder and possibility. I often feel that way when I look at my beautiful bride. I cannot, for the life of me, fathom what she sees in me sometimes. Every day she stays with me is a gift. And I am so filled with joy because of it.
We've talked about how life doesn't owe us. But now comes the scarier question: what do we owe? There is a beautiful line in the 1998 version of the movie Les Miserables, where Jean Valjean is about to be taken away in chains from the girl he raised, Cosette. He says, "I stole something. I did. I stole happiness with you. I don't mind paying."
I think of all the good things life has given to me and how little I have given back. How many wasted hours have I spent in selfish pursuits? Every day is a gift. What am I doing with that gift? What a just deserts?
Hamlet said "Treat every man after his desert and who shall 'scape whipping?" God has given me gifts that I have not deserved or can ever repay. Like the servants in the Parable of the Talents, I will have to stand before Him and make an accounting of the gifts.
I don't know how I will stack up under the piercing eye of His Godly gaze. But I think the key is to begin with an attitude of gratitude and to remember that He has already given me more than I deserve.