One of the most difficult things I’ve struggled with since moving here has been a sense of entitlement. That word is not one I ever hear from those living here, mainly because it’s never used in a positive context. It is typically in reference to “handouts to the poor” and finds its anchoring in food stamps and other poverty-related imagery, even though the largest entitlement programs in the US are Medicare and Social Security (which merit the name simply because they are guaranteed payouts/benefits from the government, even if they are drawn from money you put in previously through your paycheck). I hear it mainly from politicians these days, people who want you to believe that such handouts are not only unmerited but expected. It is meant to inspire you with a sense of injustice: that there are deserving victims and undeserving freeloaders, there are hardworking benefactors that just need a hand and lazy ingrates who not only feed off the system but feel that the benefit is owed to them. I don’t mean to be politically one-sided, but it is impossible to ignore a statement like Mitt Romney’s, who put it starkly and bluntly:
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what … he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax.… I mean that’s what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
In watching the video, you can hear the disgust that permeates that single word, “entitlement.” It is not a pretty word, mainly because it is not meant to be. For some reason (perhaps many reasons), it is important to distinguish between those who are deserving and who are undeserving, those who have earned a right or entitlement and those who have not.
But this is not what I mean in struggling with entitlement. It is not a problem with “them”; it is a problem with me.
It was difficult to describe at first, these twinges of irritation, cramps in the soul. It would be a missed compliment I had been expecting to receive, perhaps triggered by a generous and sacrificial action on my part that went underrecognized and underappreciated. Or it would be a moment of temptation to slip a reference to my educational pedigree into the conversation, how unusual and awkward I felt in a community “so different from the one I grew up in.” I still can’t describe exactly what it was I felt entitled to, but it was probably a number of things: a pat on the back, gratitude, respect, change. I guess I wanted to fit in enough to be accepted, but stick out enough to be exalted. And phrasing all this so bluntly sounds terribly egotistical and obnoxious, but it is what I struggle with, and I describe it because perhaps you struggle with it too. There is a neediness deep inside me for what I subconsciously believe is the rightful recompense for my efforts. Some days it is just the right to be thanked, to a quiet home at night, or to working heat in the house. Other days, it is the right to have my desires fulfilled, to be praised, to see positive results in my work.
But in reality, I deserve none of these things. My sentiments of entitlement run deep, but they run foul.
You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.
Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. — Revelation 3
The true reality of our human condition is that we are all impoverished, that there is nothing that we deserve or have earned by personal right or vigilance. We are fools to think otherwise. Politics gets it all wrong; it is not that 47% feel entitled, or that 99% are disenfranchised or that 1% hoard the wealth. We are 100% impoverished in demographic, in spirit, and in human condition.
Who will liberate me? How am I freed from this body of death? In Jesus Christ, we find the secret to contentment, the effacement of entitlement. Through the willing and intentional identification with Christ and his suffering, I choose to allow the revelation of the selfish and human-centered desires of my heart and through that twinge of self-righteousness and entitlement, understand the audacity and magnitude of the self-emptying suffering of Jesus Christ.
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. — Philippians 3