In life, all of us tend to measure ourselves by how we compare with the other people in our lives. Do we have as much as they have? Do we look as good as they look? Are we as successful as they are? We do a lot of comparing and although it can spur us to make positive changes in our lives, it more often makes us just feel worse about our circumstances. The truth is if we never saw or knew what someone else has or did, we’d be much happier with what WE have. Right now I wish I could remember that truth more strongly than I do.
My husband and I have a good life. We have a great marriage, a great (though imperfect) family, amazing friends, a wonderful church, good jobs, two awesome dogs and a home to call our own. However, like most middle class families, we sometimes (or often) struggle to make ends meet. We’ve been blessed to, on certain occasions, be able to save a little extra to buy something frivolous that we want or maybe even go on a short vacation. We don’t have the luxury of taking extended time off or going on glamorous or exotic trips. We don’t drive glamorous vehicles, but our old vehicles are paid for and they still run decently. In another year and a half, if we stay on track, we will be debt free with the exception of our home. I don’t think we will ever be anything but upside down on that! Welcome to middle class America where you make just enough to get by, but never enough to get ahead. I know we are not the only ones in this boat!
It’s easy for all of us to sometimes look at the people around us and wonder why it seems that others are blessed with the things we want. It’s easy to question why we work ourselves to the bone and try to be decent people when there never seems to be any payoff in comparison to what we see others getting. We see people who are mean, manipulative or even dishonest, being rewarded at every turn while we feel as though we get kicked over and over, no matter how hard we try. As people of faith, we can even question, like in the 73rd psalm, “Why do the evil prosper?” It seems that doing the right things, being good to others even when we don’t agree with them, or living by the “golden rule,” will do nothing but wear you out. We’ve all been there and we’ve all thought it at one point or another. The interesting thing is that if we didn’t ever have to see or listen to what others are getting, we would be much more content with our own situation.
It is an interesting thing to consider that when we actually look at someone who is less fortunate than we are, we suddenly feel better about our own situation. For example, when you pass a homeless person shivering in the night, or drive through a run-down and even dangerous area of town, it puts things in perspective. We find ourselves suddenly grateful that we have a roof over our heads, a warm bed in which to sleep, clothes to wear and food on the table. But you see, normally we aren’t taking time to consider those who have less than us. We only consider and look at people who have more. When you pay attention only on those who have more or are getting the things you want (or have even prayed for) it can be tough to swallow. And if you believe God is in control, it can be even worse because it can sometimes lead to you feeling like God is mad at you or somehow he doesn’t see or maybe he just doesn’t care. Psalm 37:4 says, “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.” If that’s true, then what’s the problem?
First of all, we take a lot of verses and twist them to make it sound like God is some kind of cosmic cash-cow with which we just pull the lever and get what we want. I’ve heard a lot of people (and preachers) who often quote the last phrase of James 4:3 and say, “You have not because you ask not,” and leave it at that. Is that a truth? Yes, but we must continue and read the next verse that says, “You ask and do not receive because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your own lusts and pleasures.” You see, this isn’t just “Ask God and you’ll get what you want.” The reality is very simple if we go back to Psalm 37:4. If you truly delight yourself in the Lord, it means you will come into agreement with His will. You will seek Him first, and when that happens, the desires of your heart will change. You won’t be concerned with keeping up with the neighbors, but instead will be concerned with living as Christ lived and being obedient to His principles. Your desires will be aligned with God’s will. You will want what He wants because you delight in Him above all else. And when that happens, you will find the desires of your heart granted. You will ask and receive because you are NOT asking with the wrong motives. It isn’t rocket science, but no one wants to talk about this aspect of God’s word.
So back to this issue of feeling unfulfilled as a person of faith. It really is all in your perspective. It all comes back to God’s grace and mercy, and how we view it. God’s grace and mercy are things that are freely given to us. Grace is getting what we don’t deserve, and mercy is NOT getting what we DO deserve. For example, even though I’m saved, I still sin. I don’t deserve for God to forgive me time and time again for doing or thinking the same thing, and yet he has promised to forgive us EVERY time we ask and wipe the slate clean so He can bless us. That is grace – I don’t deserve it but He blesses me anyway. On the flip side, I deserve to have to feel miserable and condemned because of the things I think or do, yet God promises to not only forgive us but to forget it completely and then helps us move forward and live abundantly with all kinds of blessings. More practically speaking, it could also look something like this:
- Grace – Maybe you don’t always do the right thing financially, but God looks for the areas in which He can still bless you. You end up with nice things, in spite of how you behave at times.
- Mercy – Maybe you are oblivious or selfish and often make other people feel worse about themselves or their situations (even if it is unknowingly). Instead of leaving you with no friends (which is what you deserve), He allows you to continue to have relationships, and He even continues to help you grow and change.
Grace and mercy really do go hand in hand many times. If we look close enough, we can see both of them at work in our lives in the very same situations.
We all really love grace and mercy when it applies to us. We love when God blesses us even when we don’t deserve it. We love that He forgives us and then helps us through the repercussions of our bad decisions or behavior. We love that He doesn’t take away everything we have just because we rub it in other people’s faces through our insensitivity to their circumstances, or maybe even if we simply don’t appreciate it. And when we’ve done something stupid (like my husband and I have done financially on many occasions) and should experience great loss, we let out a huge sigh of relief when God provides a way to minimize the impact. We love grace and mercy – until it happens to someone else. When we look at someone who gets something we think they did NOT deserve, it makes us angry or jealous. We just can’t figure out why God would do that. After all, why wouldn’t God punish them instead of allowing good things in their lives? I must confess I have a big “justice gene” in me, and it’s hard for me to watch people do wrong (or not do right) and just keep landing on their feet. We’ve all watched people who have made terrible decisions in their lives and still keep coming out on top. That’s a hard thing to witness when you spend your life truly trying to do the right things and somehow keep coming out on the bottom. It can be a very difficult thing to handle.
In Matthew 20:1-16, we are told a parable of a landowner who went out at around 6:00 a.m. and hired men to work in his vineyard. He made a contract with them to work until 6:00 p.m. for a full day’s wage. At 9:00 a.m., the owner went back and found some more men to come work for him. He told them to come and work and he’d pay them “whatever was right.” The owner did the same thing again at noon, 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. Remember, no one but the first set of workers had a contract. When quitting time came at 6:00 p.m., the owner started paying everyone, beginning with those who were hired last. The owner paid them a full day’s wage. Remember these guys only worked for one hour! Then he did the same with each group of men, paying each of them a full day’s wage, regardless of when they started working. You can just see the first group of men standing there as the process was going on, thinking surely they will be paid MORE since they worked all day long and these other “lazy” men got paid full wages. When it came time to pay the 6:00 a.m. workers, the owner paid them exactly what they had contracted for – a full day’s wage. Was that a fair amount? Absolutely! Did it make them angry? Absolutely! When they complained about it, the owner said, “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a day’s wage? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Ouch! It’s interesting to note that if those 6:00 a.m. workers had not paid attention to what everyone else was paid, they would have been happy with their wages and for the fairness of the owner who kept His word. They were richer at the end of the day than when they began, but that no longer mattered.
So often we are like the 6:00 a.m. workers, especially as Christians. We know what God has promised us, so we go about serving Him as we believe He has asked us to do. We attend church, tithe, sing, teach, and a host of other things, and we even do them with the right motives! We study and we try to live the way He has instructed us to live. We strive to be generous, love others and forgive even without being asked. We stand up for what is right, and take the high road in our personal and professional lives. And you know what? WE ARE BLESSED! If we are doing what we are called to do, then we will absolutely be blessed. God has promised, and He does not lie. So then everything should be great, right? Wrong! See, God doesn’t care how late in the day someone starts serving Him; He cares about HOW they serve Him. Someone could spend a lifetime making bad decisions but asking God to forgive him/her, and guess what? He WILL! When He forgives, He forgets and wipes the slate clean. That means He is free to bless that person when he/she makes good decisions or is obedient to His will. But we cry out “That isn’t fair!” We sit back and start thinking about all the effort we’ve put in, maybe even the persecution we’ve endured in life for living right, and start feeling slighted that God doesn’t give us more! Once we get into that cycle, we become ungrateful and resentful not only of what others have, but of the fact that God now seems so unfair. Sometimes it shakes our faith to the point that we start considering becoming selfish and living however we want, because in our minds, obviously that’s what pays off. We feel we have a right to complain about it, just like those 6:00 a.m. workers did, and God’s answer is the same as the owner of that vineyard: “I am not being unfair to you, friend…Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” The truth is, we are envious because He is generous, and the entire problem begins when we start looking around and comparing what we have to what others have.
God is a gracious and merciful Father. All of us count on Him keeping His word. We count on the way He forgives and restores us, even when we don’t deserve it. We count on the fact that He blesses us any time we serve him with the right motives, instead of punishing us for when we don’t. We each have our own walk, and I don’t know exactly what is going on in your life, just like you don’t know exactly what is going on in mine. You don’t know where I’ve been or the state of my relationship with God, just as I don’t know yours. So before we get too judgmental with others (or ourselves), or become too critical of God Himself (because that is the reality of what we are doing), we need to step back and remember who He is. God IS love, and He is continually forgiving ALL of us when we ask and blessing us far beyond what we deserve.
We need to stop determining our opinion of God’s mercy and grace based on how we all compare to each other. If we look at what anyone else has as a measure of His generosity, we are in danger of using a terribly flawed yardstick to judge both those who we think are better OR worse off than ourselves. The truth is that if we have more than others, it isn’t a sign that we are better than them or that God likes us more. And if we have less than others, it isn’t a sign that God likes us less! Focus on what you do have instead of what you don’t. Consider the faithfulness of God in your life instead of being upset that He is faithful in someone else’s.
Grace and mercy – two beautiful aspects of God’s character that we twist and turn to fit the way WE think, but thankfully His ways are not our ways. He is more loving, forgiving and generous than any one of us could ever be, and I am grateful. If He has made specific promises, He will always keep His word (like the owner with the first group of workers). But in those areas where His promises are what He will do, but not HOW He will do it, we must trust that He will always “do whatever is right.” Very few people spend their entire lives in true service without sliding backwards every now and then. Every time we sin, we lose time – work time, service time. We are the equivalent of the “lazy” workers who didn’t put in a full day’s work. That puts almost all of us in the category of the other workers. When we lose time, we must trust God that He will reward us with “whatever is right.” It is quality, not quantity for which He is searching.
So today, I will look to Him and His faithfulness to me instead of looking at the possessions, successes or blessings of anyone else. Will I stay in this place? Unfortunately not, but through the beauty of God’s grace and mercy, I can return to it with a simple refocusing and the promise of His forgiveness whenever I ask…no matter how many times it takes.