Posted by: dacalu | 6 March 2011

How to Be Worthy

I’ve been giving some thought to the idea of being worthy.  It’s a notion that comes up frequently in Christianity, most often in the notion of not being worthy.  I tend to think of Anglican prayer of humble access:

“We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy…”

Christians who focus on the atonement really like this kind of language; it emphasizes God’s free gift to us.  Christians who focus on the incarnation tend to be uncomfortable; it downplays God’s first gift in creation (“The Lord saw that it was very good”).  Non-Christians, by and large don’t get it at all; it sounds toady at best and self-hating at worst.

So let me try to unpack this whole question of worth and worthiness.  First the summary:

All things come from God and belong to God.  I am worthy to own nothing.

God asks us to be stewards of creation.  I have been given many things to care for.  If I am unworthy to do so, then I should find someone who is or become someone who is.

God loves us and gives us many good gifts.  I am worthy of that love and trust.

Now to unpack that.

 

I am worthy to own nothing.  Christians think that God, in creating, upholding, and governing the world, has the authority to decide what belongs where.  Scripture records a God who loves all things and seeks to see the world flourish and grow.  We get in trouble when we think that we have personal ownership – the right to consume, destroy, or withhold from others the goods God gave to all for the sake of all.

Adam and Eve think that they can eat the fruit of the Tree (of the knowledge of good and evil, Genesis 2), just because it’s in the garden they tend.  Many theologians (and I count me before three seconds ago in this camp) focus on whether or not Adam and Eve had a right to the apple, whether they could or should disobey God’s command (“don’t eat it”).  Many non-Christian philosophers focus on Adam and Eve’s liberty (who is God to say one way or the other).  No one asks what the fruit of the Tree may have grown into (perhaps another tree or another garden or another world).  No one asks whether there were others who could only eat from the fruit of that Tree.  We do not know what was lost.  Still, leaving that speculation aside, Adam and Eve made free to consume something that did not belong to them.  Again and again, the prophets have pointed out how some human beings hoard good things, preventing others from getting them.  At the end of Jonah, God even points out how unfair it would be to the cattle of Nineveh if Jonah did not save the city.

Christians think that ownership, the moral right to dispose of something however you wish, belongs only to God.  It is radical, but there is nothing toady or self-effacing about it.  It’s a question of justice and generosity.

 

I am the steward of many things.  God has entrusted me with a soul (a self-hood), a body, and a mind.  God has given me family, friends, knowledge, and skill.  God has given me property and a community.  Here worthiness becomes somewhat tricky.  It’s tricky because moral ownership (God’s), personal possession (mine), and legal ownership (assigned me by the state) get wrapped up together.

First, Christians recognize that the three are not the same.  Private property as a way of negotiating how each of us (by our own conscience) disposes of the things in our possession can be a wonderful thing.  Private property as a philosophical statement of our moral ownership is evil.  There is a pride in assuming moral ownership.  I can see how non-theists would find that strange and even threatening, and there’s really nothing I can do about that.  (I am strict in some things.)  Either you recognize that things are for the benefit of all, or you think they are there for the benefit of yourself and those close to you.  The latter means apathy toward some and therefore is not good.  [NB: Universal moral ownership need not be theistic.]

Those who think they have moral ownership will prefer to maximize personal benefit, regardless of the good or ill toward others.  Christians – who believe God has moral ownership – [and other believers in universal moral ownership] will try to maximize the good for all.  This means giving up those things of which you cannot be a good steward.  Often it will be necessary to educate yourself to be a better keeper of God’s gifts or to pass them on to someone else who will.  If you are not worthy of something you possess, pass it on.  [The question of when and whether you can seize possession of a thing – say a gun or a country – from someone who is not a good steward is quite difficult and I will have to meditate on it for a couple years.]

 

I am worthy of God’s grace.  One of the most frustrating things I hear as a Christian is the statement – sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit – that someone is unworthy of God’s grace.  This could be the grace of existence or the grace of life or the grace of love or the grace of salvation.  From my perspective all of those are gifts freely given by God to all (who may be able to refuse – again, not sure, but that’s beside the point).  To say that you are unworthy of God’s love is to say that God was a fool in giving it to you.  That’s not an insult to you, it’s a condemnation of God.  I trust that God knew what God was doing in creating each and all of us, in bringing us to life, in loving us, and in living and dying as one of us.  As a Christian, I believe that God chose this world, this exact world, in all of it’s mess and complication.  There is evil in it only because it has not yet come to term – some parts are still undeveloped – but nowhere can we find an intrusion of basic evil into a good world.  That’s what it means to say that God created the world, all things seen and unseen.  That’s what it means to say that God saw that it was good.  And that means we are worthy of every good gift God gives us…

…as long as we realize that the gift is for our enjoyment and the benefit of all…

…as long as we know that we have been given responsibility to care for the world…

you are worthy.

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