There’s a meme going around Facebook about a famous football player who boasts that he doesn’t let his sons keep any sports trophies if they’re just for participation and not for winning. He says, “I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned.” It seems like a manly, responsible thing to say because it promotes hard work and discipline. And it’s also a statement that should never come out of the mouth of a Christian. Because our most basic theological conviction is that everything in life is a gift from God. The moralistic meritocracy that so many Christians today proudly espouse is exactly what the Christian doctrine of our justification by God’s grace is supposed to protect us against.
Paul summarizes the cornerstone of Christian faith very plainly in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Every evangelical Christian in youth group learns the basic truth that nobody can earn their way into heaven and that the only way to get into heaven is to trust in the grace of God revealed through Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins. But here’s the sneaky thing: many evangelicals have compartmentalized God’s grace so that it’s only about heaven. God’s grace gets me into heaven, but everything else I have to earn, which means that everything else I can take complete credit for.
That’s not what Paul says the purpose of God’s grace is. The reason that God saves us by grace is so that no one may boast. God’s grace means that there is no ranking among Christians. It is the utter abolition of meritocracy. This is what Paul says again and again throughout his letters. He rails against anything that religious zealots use to put themselves above other people. There’s nothing in the context of Ephesians 2 to suggest that Paul’s talking about where we go after we die when he uses the word “save.” It’s a much more straightforward reading of the passage to conclude that what we are saved from is meritocracy itself.
The problem with meritocracy is that it puts us in the position of continually trying to justify ourselves and measure our worth in comparison with other people. There are three possible outcomes of living under the cruel tyranny of meritocracy. There are the winners who live in the complete self-assurance that they have always done and said the right thing (which often includes being appropriately humble and calling themselves “sinners” officially). The more self-assured you become, the more impossible it is to imagine the possibility of your flaws. It’s also impossible to sympathize with people who aren’t winning because the fact that they aren’t winning is evidence that they haven’t always done and said the right thing.
For there to be winners, there have to be losers. So many people in our world who have “attitude problems” and “character flaws” are floundering under the weight of their failure to fulfill the expectations of our society’s meritocracy. They aren’t organized enough. They aren’t charming enough. They aren’t bold enough. They aren’t careful enough. And so they’ve failed. And they find unhealthy ways of self-medicating and coping with their failure so that the failure becomes a downward spiral of failures. How much sin in our world is a byproduct of the lack of grace that self-righteous people show to other people when they fail?
Jesus died on the cross to put to death our meritocracy. His blood was shed to convict the people who think they’re right all the time, to reassure the people who think that they’re always wrong, and to put them all in the same category of forgiven and redeemed sinners. The degree that I need to live in a world where things are earned is the degree that I refuse to live in a kingdom where grace is a gift. Meritocracy is the opposite of Christian salvation. This is not to say that God doesn’t want us to be beautiful and righteous. God just knows that the way to make us beautiful and righteous is to accept us unconditionally on the front end so that we aren’t tap-dancing on eggshells trying to prove our worth to him. Righteousness doesn’t turn into toxic self-righteousness when I am acutely aware at all times that every achievement I accomplish is a gift from God for which he deserves all the glory and all the trophies. Righteous people who live under grace are able to live for the sake of others’ well-being rather than their own honor. Grace makes righteousness into solidarity rather than sanctimony.
None of this is really all that profound. These are the basics of Christianity I learned in evangelical youth group. I just don’t understand why American Christians aren’t living out our belief that God’s grace is the source of all our goodness. If Christians really got God’s grace and repented of our moralistic meritocracy, then so many things would be different in our country. We would actually be taking care of people in our communities rather than engaging in occasional, feel-good, token “mission projects.” Instead of whining about our tax dollars being spent to help people we deem to be unworthy, we would make federal social service agencies irrelevant through our own grassroots support systems. Our faith is supposed to make us humble and grateful and patient and generous and merciful. If all the Christians in America actually became these things, then it wouldn’t matter who got elected president in 2016, because the most toxic aspect of our society would be addressed. But I have hope, because I truly believe that Jesus is saving the world from us, and there’s nothing we can do about it.