Friday, 24 September 2010

God Owes us Nothing

This is the title of a book I read a while ago by the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski. The book is actually about Blaise Pascal and the way the Catholic church rejected the Jansenist frame of mind in the C17th, but that's by the by. What has got me thinking again is the title: God Owes us Nothing. It's a powerful thought, maybe on first sight depressing, but the more I have thought about it, the key to a whole lot of wisdom.

Kolakowski's point is that this is essentially the insight at the heart of the Augustinian tradition in Christianity, something common to much mediaeval thought, to Luther, to Calvin and to Pascal. The book chronicles how it was firmly shown the door by the RC church in the Jansenist/Jesuit/Molinist controversies of the C17th. Although initially forbidding, I am increasingly convinced this insight is the way to a truly liberating way of life. If God owes me something – happiness, wealth, health or whatever, I will naturally feel short-changed if I don't get it. You regularly hear stories of people who believed in God, until a friend got ill, or died, or they saw some tragedy, or heard about the tsunami, or encountered real suffering and 'lost their faith'. I suspect this happens because deep down we think that God owes us something, and if God doesn't give it, then the problem is with God – either that he is unkind, or simply doesn't exist. If God owes me something and he doesn't provide it, I lose faith in God. To begin however from the perspective that God owes us nothing – that we have no rights over him, no claim on him, means that everything we do get comes as a gift – as a sheer delight, something to be deeply grateful for. Every breath, friendship, act of kindness, chocolate, football, strawberries – they are all gifts not rights. It suddenly turns everything about my life from something I feel I have right to, and moan mercilessly about if I lose it, to something that is a true surprise. Our natural cry 'it's not fair' when something bad happens to us reflects this same basic idea – that we somehow deserve fairness or justice.

To that extent the Dawkins brigade are perhaps right – we should not think the universe is made for us, that we are any more than specks of life on a distant planet, and we should give up our delusions of deserving divine intervention when things go a bit wrong. The essence of Christian faith is the faith that although this is precisely what we should expect, the surprise is that we do receive so much from the hand of God. Despite our insignificance, we have been privileged by God to play a key role on this planet of reflecting his image to the rest of creation. We do sometimes enjoy gifts of health, laughter, sport, music, shelter etc., and these are neither random accidents of a faceless universe, nor things we have a right to expect because of our inherent deserving, but gratuitous, free gifts from the heart that beats behind it all.

It is so much better to view everything as unexpected and gratuitous gift than as right. 'Rights' make us grasping, holding onto things and insisting on them – it centres life around me and what I deserve. 'Gift' makes us grateful, always delighted with the new things that come, and a bit more philosophical about stuff we lose. In the Christian life, if I think God owes me something, then grace and mercy will not seem a miracle to me at all – after all, it's only what I deserve. If God owes us nothing, his grace, the gift of Jesus, the Holy Spirit his provision of my needs are all miracles, things I don't deserve and thus to be given thanks for with a constant sense of wonder and amazement. This insight is perhaps the key to a truly thankful and (relatively) carefree life. It is perhaps the key to happiness.


  1. Graham - that is an interesting post and, in the wake of the Pakistan floods, I have recently been reflecting on how the faith of Muslims seems so much more resilient to disaster for much the same reason. If God owes us nothing and if everything is subject to the will of God then true submission to God comes only when we can accept both good and ill with equal equanimity. It is certainly a good antidote to the invidious prosperity gospel. However there are two slight issues with envisioning God as too transcendent or even impassive - the first is that it runs the risk of making God redundant and the second is that it seems to undervalue the distinctive and immanent ministries of God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. And I guess that is why, ultimately, that Christians cannot help but think of God differently from our Muslim brothers and sisters.

  2. I would go further and say that our very existence is an incredible gift.

  3. Thank you for writing this. This is the Gospel. I deserve death but Jesus gives me life, I am sinful but Jesus gives me His righteousness. God owes me none of this but gives me everything in Him. And all gifts are for His Glory and my joy. How great of a God He is, because I don't deserve it and have done nothing and will do nothing to earn it. He is good.
    Thanks for posting this great reminder.

  4. Hi Graham,

    I agree with Paul's comment above about the danger of Islamization in our portrayals of God (see the useful article by Udo Middleman "The Islamization of Christianity").

    While the thought you highlight is true as an objective transcendent fact it seems to me its not the kind of thing that a relational God of love or the God of much of the OT eg:the prophets, the lament psalms, encourages us to engage in. Its makes it sound as if God was saying to us "look, its not like I owe you anything but if I feel like it I might make an exception do you a favour and help you/save you this time. After all its not as if I like you that much." The statement doesn't invite me to wrestle with God about the pain of this world and of my life but rather seems to be saying "shut up and be thankful for whatever you get for after all you don't deserve anything anyway." I just can't see how it'd produce love in us for God but rather an attitude of distance, resignation and just put up with it and stop complaining.

    I'm not saying that God owes us anything but I am saying that to relate to God out of such an understanding might not produce the kind of vibrant, honest faith that looks and sounds genuine and embraces all of life - the good and the bad. The statement is in danger of portraying God as an indifferent oppressive father who expects total gratitude and does not tolerate questions, grief or complaints.
    Anyway, that's my 0.02 worth. :-)

    Love the work you, Mike Lloyd and Chris Tilling are doing. Keep it up!

  5. Nice post - I too remember being struck by the title of this book - it is a great summary of the basic Augustinian (and Islamic?) outlook. And it does capture something really important. What worries me is that it has often been used to underpin the idea that because God owes us nothing, he is quite within his rights to predestine people to damnation, or at least withhold saving grace from the vast bulk of humanity - and that this is what he has done!

    So don't we need to hold two thoughts together: 'God owes us nothing' and 'God is love'? Perhaps the basic truth is that God may owe us nothing, but he owes himself - i.e. he's compelled by his own loving character to seek and save the lost.


  6. This is great. Grateful that you posted it. I will need this as an occasional reminder I am affraid. Not that God doesn't owe me, but the treasure of life is God and that my very relationship with Him is a gift I don't deserve. God's love for me makes it so. I wish it kept me from being a "spoiled brat" sometimes.
    thanks Father Graham.

  7. Dear Graham,

    I found this thought also powerfully expressed by Miroslav Volf in his book Free of Charge.


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