At a family Thanksgiving celebration yesterday I became embroiled in an unpleasant argument about politics with a family member. Without getting into the substance of the discussion, I felt lingering discomfort for some time later. Part of it was the abrupt nature of the conflict itself. But it was partly because it raised afresh gnawing self-doubt in me that I've had deep down for some time.
The household that I lead, love, and attempt to provide for receives much from the world around us. Some of these goods come from the church that I pastor, as I am paid from the free, voluntary gifts out of the hard-earned wages of its members, not to mention other favors and blessings (like leftovers from a meal) that these generous folks give us. Some of these goods come from family, friends of the family, and friends that are like family. These include assistance that made it possible for us to get into our home, the vehicle we drive, the furniture we sit on that is almost entirely hand-me-downs, and much of the clothes on our backs, among innumerable other gifts of love that we've received since my wife and I got married. Some goods that we receive are social goods that governments secure for their citizens. Some of those goods are general and shared with other citizens, like the fact that I can leave my house and not be afraid that it's been broken into while I'm gone, that I can travel on interstate highways without getting killed (most likely), that I can eat packaged food and not be afraid that it's poisoning me, and so on. Other goods from governments are specific to my family, like the insulin pump my diabetic son wears and the education my children receive.
I can't put a price on the goods that we receive from the world around us, but that's only because I haven't kept a comprehensive list. But if I had, an accounting could be made: a monetary value set on all we've received annually or through our whole marriage. But what have I paid for it? Monetarily, next to nothing compared to what I receive. It's been virtually all take and no give.
I try to justify this, especially what I receive from governments. I want to believe that as a pastor I contribute intangibles to society that improve the community's well-being. I look at my four good kids and hope that their existence in the world and what they will become is a contribution, at the very least to increase the population to shore up Social Security. I expect that as the kids grow up and leave the house I'll pay more and more in taxes that will pay for the next generation and the one after that as others are now paying for me. But I can't measure any of this quantitatively with any confidence. I haven't served my country or community in other ways, like in military service or the police. I can't make any case that I'm paying my own way, much less being prepared to do anything about the $266,000 that is my family's share of the national debt. I can't refute the charge that I'm doing my own thing subsidized by others and not giving anything in return.
This makes me ashamed as a citizen and as a man who is responsible to provide for his family. It is very humbling and makes me feel very small and weak to recognize that my entire life and that of my family rides on the gifts of others. But if there is anything that makes me equal with those who are paying my way as well as their own, it is that everything that they have, they have received too. As Paul pointed out to the Corinthian church (which my dad has often reminded me), "What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as though you did not?" (1 Cor. 4:7). A person who has paid a hundred times more to the public than the public has paid back to them has not paid for the breath moving through their lungs right now. They haven't deserved where they were born and to whom. They haven't earned their raw intelligence or physical advantages no matter how hard they have worked to develop or maintain those things. They haven't paid for their health; no matter how much their wealth may have limited disease, much of that is out of all of our control. And they haven't purchased any genuine love that they have received from others no matter how carefully they have fostered those relationships. Surely, none of us has anything that we can't identify as or trace back to something that we received through no merit of our own.
This fact does not absolve me of my responsibility to my world. Justice demands that I give all I am capable of giving, even bearing the burdens of others if I'm able, and take as little as I can. But this truth does encourage humility and chase away any temptation to boast about what I deserve. All such claim to what one deserves is foolhardy. I deserve nothing. Everything I have I owe to others and ultimately to God. Far better to know this and be ashamed than to be a proud fool.