Monday, October 31, 2016

Our Christian belief in unmerited salvation can and should be our greatest foundation in life.

With the end of year academic examinations looming on the horizon for many of Singapore’s school-going children, there is a palpable tension and anxiety felt by many, often including the parents of the children as well.  It is a common joke/lament that it is not only the children who have the exam stress, but so do their parents. 

Exam anxiety and stress – whence is its origin?  By and large, it is an inevitable product of a society’s progress.  A country mired in the issues of mere survival and foundation-setting often have other pressing matters more directly related to physical survival.  Think of countries like Vietnam in the 70s when the most pressing matter was to find ways to escape the communists.  Studies?  We will deal with that once we have a life to live, and a country in which to live.  Current day equivalents are countries like Iraq, Syria and Yemen.  One wonders if children are educated at all in war-torn countries.

But when a society begins to progress and find some stability and peace, this is where education also begins to be one of the more fundamental ways in which to grow the people.  Singapore has come a long way since its quiet, fishing-village status to her meteoric rise to economic greatness now as one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in.  Along with such progress comes side or spin-off effects.  Especially in a country which prides itself in espousing meritocracy, where the adequately skilled with ability and talent earn or merit their right to succeed, the narrative in many minds would be that nothing less that the best scores and grades will be deemed acceptable.  The upside of this mentality is that those who have the necessary drive and determination, coupled with the smarts and natural born abilities get to become the so-called captains of industry.  But as is the case, there are many of the others who also ‘fall through the cracks’.  The truth is that not every person has the talents or skills to succeed in all that they do.  It is just not possible for everyone to be on top. 

Problems will arise when there is an unreasonably heavy emphasis on success, merit and achievement.  One’s worth and one’s dignity then easily become mired with the attainment of such goals, and when there is the experience of failure or defeat, perhaps even just due to the dynamics of the natural grading curve, one begins to see oneself either devalued or no longer with much worth.  It is thus not uncommon to read about how tragic it is that young children, as young as 10 or 11 have resorted to suicide as they cannot bear to face their parents with a red mark on their examination scores.  If for their entire lives, the affirmation and value that their parents had been giving them were largely based on the good grades that they had been bringing home, once these grades are not achieved, the child could well perceive that he or she has lost his or her reason for existence. 

The Christian teaching that every human being has a God-given value and dignity inherent in his very person shores one up against this toxic reasoning.  Revealed as Good News in the scriptures is that God has made us out of love, with love and for love, and that is the basis for believing that every human person, regardless of whether one is intelligent, beautiful, shapely and talented, or one is unintelligent, having physical features that are generally deemed unpleasant, humongous in size or lacking in skills, has just as much dignity and value as the next person.  Christians who are well taught from young that God has given them the very reason for their existence and hence their inherent dignity have a reasonable defense against the children that a success-obsessed culture that meritocracy can spawn. 

There is no meriting heaven for the Christian.  One cannot earn it, one cannot buy it, and one definitely cannot work for it.  It is pure gift and pure grace.  One only responds to it with love, at every moment of one’s life.  In a meritocratic society, Christianity’s good news is counter intuitive and perhaps even counter cultural.  While society tells us that there is no free lunch, Christianity says that there is an eternal banquet that is to be entered into that no one can earn or work for.  Meritocracy says that you only get what you deserve and achieve, Christianity says that the greatest goal in life (heaven/salvation) is given precisely because you don’t deserve it and cannot achieve it on your own, no matter how hard you try. 

Is there a downside to this?  Well, if one takes this gift for granted and doesn’t respond to it by a converted life and wanting to live in grace, one becomes a counter-witness to the beauty and truth of the Gospel.  But if one reflects on it regularly, delighting and relishing in the gift of not just life but a saved life despite oneself, one lives with a confidence that nothing should shake or rattle. 

We become holy and good not in order to attain God.  It is because God is holy and good that we become likewise.

1 comment:

  1. “We become holy and good not in order to attain God. It is because God is holy and good that we become likewise.”

    You are right to say that we have been taught that – “every human being has a God-given value and dignity inherent in his very person; ............. and our salvation is unmerited.....” – yet how often have we heard Catholics and Christians saying that that before they die, they would want to give the twilight years of their life to serve God in ministry, or do some good work – implying that by so doing they can assure themselves of a place in heaven (i.e. salvation).

    I guess it’s inevitable that the value system and norms of the world would rub off on us, consciously or otherwise....and so it takes time and faith to buy into the Good News that salvation is given freely despite our unworthiness or sinfulness. When we know this as a fact and accepts it, our world and how we view it, how we interact with those we come into contact with, will definitely change. Perhaps, we can even say that – this is the initial stage, the beginning of our transformation.... from living on the surface to recognizing the possibility of an interior or spiritual life.

    In a way, our eyes have been opened – to a new way of looking at things and all that we previously sought for ceaselessly and furiously as the meaning and purpose of our existence here – the “gold and silver – (be it wealth, power & fame) –will have turned to dross.” It is likely we will still continue to strive for “heaven”, we will still continue to do good - however, these actions will now be motivated by a deep desire to respond gratefully and humbly to the Goodness, the Love that brought us into being.....not to attain God, (as to possess) but because he has become the ultimate goal , the “home” that we have been seeking to return to all this while.

    God bless you, Fr.