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ruleBackground

Gospels

John 21:17

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."

February 10, 2002

Entitlement

A woman I once taught for almost a year in a discipleship and scope of the Bible class is out church shopping. Again.

For the past two years she's attended one of the largest, most full-service, forward-thinking, biblically sound congregations in the area. But she's discontented. When I heard the reason why, I shook my head.

She felt the Sunday School at the 9:30 service was too crowded and not run well enough for her son. Although she had heard good things about the 8:00 children's program, she didn't want to get her middle-school daughter up that early. "It's her only day to sleep in," she said. "The church just isn't meeting our needs."

She visited the little church a friend of mine attends, then called her on the phone. "Your church just isn't friendly enough," she said. "Only a few people said hello to me when I walked in. I didn't feel special there."

Over the years, I have watched this woman back out on many opportunities to serve Christ. Instead, she believes she is entitled to simply attend worship, where she can sit back, be filled and feel good. When she feels less than satisfied — or when someone asks her if she'd like to help in some ministry — she starts looking elsewhere. In her mind, church exists to meet her needs in a high-quality way, without any involvement on her part.

She is not alone. A lot of people who consider themselves Christians feel a similar sense of entitlement.

*****

Entitlement is a sinful attitude that infuses our thinking, manifests itself in all kinds of ways, and is tough to keep at bay even when we recognize it for what it is.

I have been seeing a lot of examples of entitlement lately.

I see it in the community I live in, where well-off, well-educated white people wage campaigns over public school district boundaries in order to minimize the number of lower-income, non-white students in the schools their kids attend. Behind all the smokescreen talk that obscures the racism is the attitude of entitlement — that allowing "those" kinds of people into the schools would lower the educational experience my children deserve.

I see it in Americans' reactions after last fall's tragic events. We believe we are entitled to secure, peaceful lives in this country. But now that security has been disrupted. Somehow we don't reflect on the fact that most of the people in the world have nowhere near the peace and security we do. This is not the way things are supposed to be in America. Something's wrong.

I see it in people my age who are a certain distance down the road in their marriages. We realize all our needs are not being fulfilled by our spouses, and probably never will be. We're entitled to fulfilling marriages and seem baffled by the disappointments.

The sense of entitlement is everywhere.

*****

One of the most subtle and dangerous forms of entitlement I know of is the kind that has existed among church leaders from the beginning. It's where we think that because we are God's servants, have turned our lives over to him and have sacrificed for the cause, God owes us something.

Like success in ministry. A little recognition. Some thanks. Maybe even places of honor.

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. "Teacher," they said, "we want you to do for us whatever we ask."

"What do you want me to do for you?" he asked.

They replied, "Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory."

"You don't know what you are asking," Jesus said. "Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?"

"We can," they answered.

Jesus said to them, "You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared."
— Mark 10:35-4

*****

A year ago I was mired in depression, trying to recover from the death of a church I had been a part of planting.

Funny things happen when you try to come to grips with a situation that just doesn't make sense. I was convinced that if I could just understand why certain things happened, I could eventually heal.

One of the most troubling loose ends was that no one from the denomination had thanked us for trying. It seemed that not only did they not care about our well-being, they hadn't given us much thought at all.

I kept waiting to get a phone call, a letter, a visit — anything at all. But nothing happened.

Surely they owe us something, I thought. Didn't they know how hard it had been? Shouldn't they care about us, even a little? Surely, we're entitled to some kind of recognition for our sacrifices, faithfulness and hard work.

After months of getting nowhere trying to understand why we had been abandoned, I was exhausted. I simply could not square the treatment I thought we were entitled to with what had actually happened.

*****

Finally, about this time last year, God gave me an answer, but not one I expected. One day I read these words of Jesus from Luke in my devotions, and the scales fell from my eyes:

Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, "Come along now and sit down to eat"?

Would he not rather say, "Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink"?

Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do?

So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, "We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty." — Luke 17:7-10

I realized then that the church — no, more than the church — that God did not owe me anything.

Much as I wanted a "thank you," much as I yearned for someone to comfort me or validate my ministry, God did not owe me this. I was not entitled to rewards, thanks or recognition simply because I was God's servant. And I was not entitled to success, either.

*****

That was my answer. Does it seem to you a harsh thing?

To me it was liberation. I repented, and much healing took place that day. You may wonder why.

Here's my best answer. I realized what had happened put me in the company of other servants of God who endured frustration, misunderstanding and failure. This is the biblical record, and it is the record of God's servants through the history of the Christian church.

It is what Jesus told us to expect. It is the servant's attitude he wants us to have.

What I came to understand is that obedience to God, no matter what the personal outcome, is what is required of us.

A part of my entitlement attitude died that day. Good riddance to it.

In his well-known book, The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen wrote, "Many ministers, priests and Christian laymen have become disillusioned, bitter and even hostile when years of hard work bear no fruit, when little change is accomplished. Building a vocation on the expectations of concrete results, however conceived, is like building a house on sand instead of on solid rock, and even takes away the ability to accept successes as free gifts."

This is a lesson I need to keep constantly before me as I continue in ministry. May it bring perspective to you as well.

.

 

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. "Teacher," they said, "we want you to do for us whatever we ask."

"What do you want me to do for you?" he asked.

They replied, "Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory."

"You don't know what you are asking," Jesus said. "Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?"

"We can," they answered.

Jesus said to them, "You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared."

— Mark 10:35-4