Keeping faith in a culture of entitlement

According to Nicholas Eberhardt, writing in the Wall Street Journal, entitlement transfers from the government to individuals have grown by 72 percent since 1960, and that is after adjusting for inflation and population growth.

Entitlement spending now comprises two-thirds of the federal budget. Half of all American households currently receive income from the government in entitlement payouts. The government owes, in the form of its entitlement commitments, approximately $7,200 for every man, woman and child living in the United States.

But it would be a mistake to think that the poor and the elderly – the recipients of Medicaid and Medicare, of welfare benefits and Social Security checks – necessarily have an “entitlement complex.” It would be an even bigger mistake to think they were the only ones.

Entitlement thinking is pervasive in our culture. Both corporate CEOs and the Occupy Wall Street protestors who despise them are vulnerable to its infection. The entitlement mentality has poisoned middle-class trade unions. It has corrupted IRS officials. Our nation’s entitlement obligations threaten to disable the economy, but that’s not the worst of it (in spite of what fiscal conservatives say). It’s the mindset of entitlement that’s killing us. And we’re all tainted by it.

And not just us. Entitlement thinking is found on the other side of the Atlantic too. So the Most Reverend Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, speaks of “a culture of entitlement” in London. And his is just one of many voices sounding the alarm in the West.

Let me add my voice to that chorus, though I will leave others to address the economic impact of entitlements and point the way out of the fiscal morass in which we find ourselves. My concern is with the debilitating spiritual consequences of entitlement thinking.

For one thing, it makes entering the spiritual life problematic. A rich spiritual life is predicated upon God’s grace, not upon my rights. The very idea that I deserve salvation makes it impossible for me to receive it. In Jesus’ story, it is the publican (not the “Republican,” just to be clear) who goes home justified. Unlike the Pharisee, who looks down on him, he knows he doesn’t deserve God’s favor. Yet he’s the one who receives it.

The entitlement mindset makes gratitude, which is such a vital part of the spiritual life, impossible. There is no spiritual health apart from gratitude, but there is no gratitude in the entitlement mindset. How can I be grateful for what I believe is mine by right? Moses long ago warned: “When you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down … and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God.” That is how the entitlement mindset works.

Entitlement thinking also leaves a person unprepared for the difficulties of life. Jesus warned, “In this world, you will have trouble.” It is guaranteed. Yet when a person who feels entitled to comfort, health or happiness encounters hardship, it threatens to undo him. Adversity leaves him angry and disillusioned, but it cannot make him strong, for the entitled are not capable of perseverance.

The entitlement mindset discourages personal effort, without which there is no spiritual growth. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote that a rich spiritual life is only found in “vigorous, universal obedience … in watchfulness and painfulness, in denying ourselves, and taking up our cross daily; as well as in earnest prayer…”

Spiritual joy is found in sacrifice, but that is not a place the entitlement mindset cares to go. A person who feels entitled stands ready to sacrifice others to his cause – even his spiritual cause – but he will not sacrifice himself. Yet, ironically, apart from such sacrifice spiritual growth and joy are not possible.

Published first in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, Saturday, October26, 2013

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