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Nothing is Given?

A headline on Facebook this afternoon caught my eye. It came from one of those Christian sites that’s always hunting around in popular culture (movie stars, athletes, etc.) for any whiff of a reference to God or faith. The headline in this case was “Drew Brees Gave a Moving Interview About Faith After Breaking the All-Time Passing Record Last Night.” Brees is a quarterback who plays for the New Orleans Saints. As of Monday night, he’s also apparently the all-time leading pastor in NFL history. So, he’s a pretty big deal. The headline on Facebook was accompanied by the words, “Grab the tissues.” Against my better judgment, I clicked the link.

The interview turned out to be a 27-second clip where Brees was asked what he said to his kids after the record-setting game. And it was kind of moving, even if I had no need of tissues. It was hard not to feel some of the emotion he was obviously experiencing. He’s worked a lifetime to get to where he is. He’s small, by NFL standards, yet he’s defied the odds and become one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. You’d have to be pretty hard-hearted not to at least be a little happy for the guy.

So what did Drew Brees say to his kids? What was the comment about “faith” that was seized upon by this website?

You can accomplish anything in life if you’re willing to work for it… Nothing is given, everything is earned… God has equipped us for great works.

There’s plenty to affirm in there, right? What parent wouldn’t want their kids to embrace an ethic that says that accomplishment is tied to effort? What Christian parent wouldn’t want their kids to believe that God has gifted and equipped them for a life of contribution and flourishing? But that one line kind of sat awkwardly with me: “Nothing is given, everything is earned.” Is that really true?

It seems almost beyond question that those who ascend to the pinnacle of the sporting world are often given quite a bit, whether it’s opportunities to excel or the support of parents or expensive summer training camps or good genetics or all of the above and more. I remember talking to a fellow hockey dad on Vancouver Island a few years ago. Our sons were ten years old and while they shared the same ice at the time, he was hopeful that his would make an upper level team. They were already preparing for a $15 000/year commitment if he made the cut. My jaw just about hit the floor. Put bluntly, you had to come from a rich family (or one willing to take on significant debt) to play for this team. You have to come from money to play a great many games in this world.

Yes, there are exceptions to the rule. There are the rags to riches stories, and these are rightly celebrated. But they remain just that: exceptions to the rule. At least as often as not, excellence in sports (as in many areas of life) is the result of being given all kinds of things that other kids—kids who are grow up poor, kids with disinterested or preoccupied parents, kids who don’t have decent coaching or anyone to advocate for them—were not given. One of my son’s high school football games this year was against the team from the local reserve. I think they stopped keeping score in the second half. Was that just because the team from the reserve wasn’t willing to work as hard? How much is given and how much is earned, exactly?

Standing on national television and saying, “Nothing is given, everything is earned” might reflect the truth of the story in this or that specific case. I don’t know anything about Drew Brees’ road to the top. Perhaps he came from nothing and scratched and clawed for everything he got. But it might also be the equivalent of starting the game on third base and congratulating yourself for hitting a triple. It might, in at least as many cases where it is invoked as not, be a convenient myth and not much more.

After watching the Drew Brees interview, I clicked on the Revised Common Lectionary website to have a look at the readings I’d be working with this Sunday. The gospel reading is Mark 10:17-31, one of Jesus’ famous conversations with someone wondering what they have to do with eternal life. “Follow the commandments,” Jesus says. “I’ve done all that,” the man quickly (probably too quickly, in hindsight) replies. “Oh yeah, one more thing,” Jesus says. “Go sell everything you own and give it to the poor.” The man is, understandably, shocked. He goes away “grieving, for he had many possessions.”

I’ve often interpreted this passage in a fairly straightforward way. The man was too tied to his wealth. It’s hard to be rich and enter the kingdom of heaven, as Jesus says. And this is undoubtedly true. We who have been given much struggle mightily with reorienting ourselves according to a kingdom where last are first and first are last. We have too much to lose, after all.

But I wonder if Jesus isn’t always making a larger point about what is given and what is earned. Maybe he’s pushing back against some of our cherished assumptions about the role we have played in gaining our possessions (or our accomplishments, our reputations, our status, our _____). Maybe he’s asking us to reconfigure the borders in our mental maps around words like “gifts” and “accomplishments.” Maybe one of the reasons the man in the parable trudged sadly off was because he was fond of his possessions, certainly, but even fonder of the idea that he had earned them.

Maybe, at the end of it all, that’s the eye of the needle that we struggle so mightily to walk through, the thing that prevents us from entering the kingdom of God. The idea that we’re the ones earning what can only ever be received as a gift. .

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Johnston #

    I am not sure your argument reconciles as neatly with scripture as you lead us to believe. Even in your example you are quick to note that you are making an assumption about Jesus’s intention here. Usually an unwise course of action unless other scriptural sources point all in the same direction. I fear this isn’t the case here.

    The parable of the, “talents” clearly indicates that what is, “given” varies. We are also led to believe that the variance in numbers is related to the abilities and performances of those slaves who have been entrusted…”each according to his ability”…

    You must take what is given and increase it for the good in accordance with your abilities. In this scenario, whether or not you are born on, “third base” is neither advantage or disadvantage. What you do with what you are given, is the only measure and you are wise to point out that much will be expected of those who were given much to begin with.

    You seem to be drifting towards left wing, social justice rhetoric in some of your posts and then quickly pivot towards scripture, that in isolation, seems to support those points of view. I think you are wrong to do that here and I humbly ask you to consider that you may be inadvertently supporting a politic that is in full denial of Christ’s reality. They can’t be so fundamentally opposed to us and still be for us.

    There is much that needs to be reformed on the political right but the political left is beyond reform from the Christian perspective. They deny the Holy Spirit, they commit the one unforgivable sin, Christ’s words not mine, that reveals who their master really is.

    Their own egos. Their own sense of fairness. Their own sense of mercy. They believe that they and like minded people can and will arbitrate all things human and render justice.

    If that isn’t hell on earth and our recurring human history, I don’t know what is.

    October 10, 2018
    • Well, I’m not sure it’s an “argument” as much as a reflection, Paul. I’m kind of reading the bible alongside the news of the day and trying to make some connections, not attempting the definitive exegetical word on Mark 10. You’ll notice I used phrases like “I wonder if” and “perhaps” and “maybe.” I do that for a reason. The parable of the talents would certainly be a passage worth reading alongside this one. I don’t think it renders my thoughts about some (not all) of what might be going in Jesus’ exchange with the rich young man in Mark 10, but it’s certainly a parable that tells an important part of the story of human responsibility in the context of inequitable circumstances.

      Re: “drifting toward social justice rhetoric.” Well, I suppose there are worse places for “rhetoric” (always interesting when this word is employed and when it isn’t…) to drift than toward social justice. The bible does talk a fair bit about justice that has social implications. I don’t consider my reflections on these matters “left wing” or “right wing” or any other wing. I don’t like those categories and don’t find them helpful. Are some expressions and understandings of social justice at odds with the truth of the gospel? Sure, absolutely. Do I think that I am “supporting a politic that is in full denial of Christ’s reality” in asking us to consider how we understand what is given and what is earned in our context, and the incontrovertible reality that the playing field isn’t level? Um, no, I don’t.

      October 11, 2018
  2. Paul Johnston #

    Giving, “each according to her ability” is a profoundly inequitable framework from the modern social justice view of equality of outcome. Further it is anti ethical to Christian thought that all wealth is created through exploitation of another. Redistribution through taxation is not of the
    covenant. It is not born of love. The taxed feel no love for those who might benefit from their
    wealth and the benefactors feel no loved towards the taxed who support them. Each group views the other with a certain enmity and mistrust. Economic redistribution through the tax system is not of Christ.

    I have a personal moral accountability towards my neighbour. An accountability so true and deep that my very salvation may turn on how good a neighbour I was, or wasn’t. With particular attention being paid to how well or poorly, I treated those I encountered who required the greatest need.

    What I have earned is mine, without guilt! Thanks always be to God and to those who work with me, but there can be no true love of self unless I take pride in my own accomplishments and also partake in enjoying the fruits of my labour.

    There is no exhortation to level the playing field systemically through government anywhere in scripture. This idea is Marxist. As individual Christians, we give thanks to God for what we have, we take righteous pride in our efforts and what they have yielded and we share with others to the glory of God, paying particular attention to those with the greatest need.

    Wealth redistribution systemically, is a morally bankrupt, failed experiment that requires totalitarian atheism to effect it’s ends. It is not from God.

    October 12, 2018
  3. mike #

    “Maybe, at the end of it all, that’s the eye of the needle that we struggle so mightily to walk through, the thing that prevents us from entering the kingdom of God. The idea that we’re the ones earning what can only ever be received as a gift.”

    It’s a rare thing anymore to even hear a preacher mention this topic(Grave vs Works). Sometimes on my way to work I’LL listen to Steve Brown on the radio, he often talks about our total depravity and helplessness to save ourselves and how we want to take credit for coming to know Christ. Thanks for raising the topic….. I think 🙂

    October 12, 2018
  4. Jeff Kisner #

    Brees did uee that objectionable (to you) sentence. But he added, “God has equipped us for great works.” We make the best of what we’ve been dealt? Did he not acknowledge that it is all given, all grace? Can we not assume to bring onto the needle’s eye is what we think we have earned? Thanks for listening well and being so provocative.

    October 13, 2018
    • Thanks, Jeff. From everything I’ve read, Brees seems like a pretty solid guy and probably would concede pretty much everything I’ve said here (acknowledging that the field isn’t level, etc) and would emphasize that all is given, all is grace. It’s probably not entirely fair to subject one sentence, spoken in a pretty emotional moment, to this kind of scrutiny. But I do think that many people (in sports and beyond) think that life is a straightforward meritocracy. I think it’s a bit more complicated than that.

      October 13, 2018

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