… he [your Father who is in heaven] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. Matthew ch5 v45
In my college, the grace we used before meals was ‘Benedic nos, Domine, haec donum tuum, Per Jesum Christum, Dominum nostrum. Amen’: ‘O Lord, bless this your gift to us’. This could suggest that if you don’t believe in a God-out-there, there is no need to think of the good things that have come your way as having a gift-like character. You could then take them for granted instead, and maybe come to believe that you deserved the good things in your life, that you were entitled to them, that they are in some absolute sense ‘yours’. Greed, pride, arrogance, wastefulness, luxury, overweening ambition – most of the traditional ‘deadly sins’ in fact – arise from this one cause. Of course resolving to devote our time, energy and ability to trying to succeed in some endeavour makes it more likely that we will succeed and to that extent deserve to succeed. But the fact that we had the resolution, time, energy and ability in the first place is undeserved; these things, like life itself, come to us undeserved, like a gracious gift. In absolute terms, we deserve nothing. Understanding this is a personally and socially important corrective to the idea that what we get, we deserved.
But there is no need to believe in a God-out-there to understand that in an absolute sense none of us deserves what we get in life. What we most obviously don’t deserve is what we inherit from our ancestors or predecessors, including but not limited to life itself. And if the good things that come our way have a gift-like character, our first response to receiving them should surely have a gratitude-like character. In our everyday lives, saying Thank-you can be a handy way of encouraging a giver to give again, and more; but such cynicism, as well as implying a giver we can manipulate, misses the subjective value of gratitude: expressing gratitude makes us more aware of how fortunate we are and how wonderful are the things we have received, and that in itself enhances the value of those things. Whatever we take for granted is thereby devalued for us, which is only one reason why the old suggestion that we ‘Count our blessings’ is such good advice. The challenge is to find ways of counting our blessings that does not imply beliefs we do not have: systematically reviewing each day’s satisfactions at the day’s end might be one way; another might be to note down the good things in our lives as they come to us.
Our proper response to this understanding is to feel that the good things that have come our way are to be shared as well as enjoyed, to be employed in the service of others as well as of ourselves. We have no absolute right to withhold our gifts from others – hence Jesus’s encouragement to ‘go the second mile’. But the Jesus teaching does not say we have a duty to not enjoy what we have been given. Sometimes people who understand that they do not deserve what they have, come to think that they ought to give it all up. This is a mistake, not least because, short of suicide, we cannot give up everything that we do not deserve. It’s also a mistake because it suggests the idea of a duty to obey a rule, and so comes dangerously close to a surrender to a legalistic outlook. Maybe Jesus’s challenge to the Rich Young Ruler to sell all that he had (presumably) inherited and give the proceeds to the poor was a way of reminding him that he no more deserved his great wealth than the poor deserved their poverty, and reminding him too that that understanding had implications he needed to think about rather than just ask for instructions.
Religion is sometimes accused of promoting pious quiescence among society’s have-nots: be grateful for what you have and don’t try to get more from the rich and powerful. Certainly religion has sometimes done that, whether deliberately or accidentally. But to recall that the good things that have come our way are in essence gracious gifts not just our desserts is implicitly to claim that the wealth and power of the rich and powerful have the same character. To demand a reasonably equitable distribution of wealth and power is simply to demand that the rich and powerful acknowledge the same truth. But it can turn out to be an awkward truth: any successful demand for a more equitable distribution on these grounds must, if it is not to look like a tawdry excuse for simple envy, be followed by a continuing commitment to distribution that takes account of the gracious-gift character of the good things we enjoy. It has to be said that in practice political revolutionaries often forget this.
You might say that the Jesus teaching asks us to strike a balance between using the gifts that have come our way for our own benefit and using them for the benefit of others, but that’s not quite right. We can enjoy what we have been given, and enjoy it all the more if we remember, or, even better, want, to share it with others. So it’s not a zero-sum game or even a 50:50 deal. If we invest what we have been given in our relationships with other people, particularly those with whom we interact directly, the reward will be greater than the investment. Taking this completely seriously takes a lot of faith; most of us, I guess, hedge our bets to a greater or lesser extent. But to the extent that we can dare, and can be bothered, to make this investment we do in fact benefit from doing so on the only scale that in the end really matters: we become more makarios, more blessed, happier.