This is the fifth and last in a series of articles on the “Five Wounds of Secularization,” or five ways that the world around us can wound the hope that God wants to share with us.
“What do you possess that you have not received?” (1 Cor 4:7)
The final wound of our culture is the growing sense of entitlement. Many believe this to be perhaps the most insidious of all the attacks on our faith life.
Indeed, before I go any further, I must note that when many people hear the word “entitlement,” they generally think of it in social or political terms or perhaps “welfare” programs for the poor. Let me be clear from the beginning that my use of the word “entitlement” does not pertain to what some refer to as “freeloaders” or “people who think the world owes them a living” or “people who don’t want to get a job.”
Rather, the manner in which I am speaking of our culture’s growing sense of entitlement refers to a complete absence of any sense of gratitude to God.
This is the very opposite of what the true Christian knows and believes — namely, that all is gift, most especially life itself.
This growing sense of entitlement is reflected in many areas of our culture. We see it in the firmly held cultural belief that my life is my possession and not a gift; that I have pulled myself up by my own bootstraps; that I deserve all the good things I have; that I am actually due whatever I want; and that I have the right to punish anyone who impedes me from obtaining whatever I desire.
Ultimately, with no sense of gratitude, God is removed entirely from my world view. Indeed, from such a distorted perspective, God should be grateful to me for all the hard work I’ve done and sacrifices I’ve made!
While I have purposely articulated this in a somewhat outlandish manner, I believe that many who read these words will recognize this growing sense of entitlement that pervades our culture. It reveals itself in our politics, it wounds family life and, worst of all, it puts us at odds with the God who does not always respond as we please to the demands we place at his feet.
The damage this attitude does to our spiritual growth is immense. When we conclude that we are due all good things, that we having nothing to be redeemed from or should never know suffering, then we find ourselves distanced from the God in whose image we were created.
In such a worldview we are in good company with many of the ancient Israelites as they are revealed to us at times in the Old Testament. The Jewish people had a clear understanding of their special role in salvation history. There was an immense dignity in knowing that they were “God’s chosen ones” and that God had promised to redeem all the world through them. But their privileged and unique identity was not a matter of status; it was to create a bond of love between them and God that would eventually include all of creation.
Moreover, this unique relationship would be powerful enough to enable them to look honestly at themselves, their unworthiness and sinfulness, which would lead them to recognize all the more their complete dependence on God and his mercy.
The Israelites, however, kept losing track of this truth and replaced their humility with exceptional arrogance. They fell into the illusion of self-reliance and distrust of Yahweh whenever things didn’t go their way. In their darkest moments, they would profess allegiance to the pagan gods in the mistaken hope that they could find satisfaction and security in what was, at best, the illusion of control.
Surely so deep a wound can be healed only with extraordinary humility and a profound sense of gratitude to the One who created, redeemed and loves us. Such attitudes are the essential bedrock of the spiritual life. We see this in Jesus’ disciples, whose examples are expounded in Scripture, as well as in the lives of the saints.
An excellent example in this respect is St. Ignatius of Loyola. Building on his own experience of arrogance that was transformed into gratitude, St. Ignatius came up with a short spiritual exercise that he recommends to other disciples: a nightly reflection on the experiences of the day as it is drawing to a close.
He prompts us to begin by reflecting specifically on the reasons we have to be thankful — not just for the things that have brought a passing smile or a good mood but the blessings the day held that quietly spoke to us of God’s love. It may take some work to sort out the day’s experiences, and our blessings are not always immediately obvious.
But only after this brief time of reflection on our blessings does Ignatius then invite us also to notice the times during the day when we have sinned. This acknowledgement of our sins helps to deepen our humility and make us ever more receptive to redeeming grace.
We then close the reflection by asking God for the strength to live the next day as a person of hope, humility and joy. Such a practice results in making us ever more faithful disciples. Actually, Ignatius is remembered by many for his famous prayer that was formed out of these reflections:
“Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding and my entire will, all I have and call my own. You have given all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace. That is enough for me.”
In the end, the secular culture says all meaning begins with “me.” The truth is that all meaning begins with “Thee.” No one can worthily approach God without first acknowledging that life itself is a gift and that the first words to God must always be words of gratitude and thanksgiving. Moreover, those who ponder the Scriptures as well as the lives of the saints cannot help but conclude that gratitude must endure even in the midst of hardship, challenges or suffering.
The wound is a sense of entitlement that can all too easily put us at odds with God and neighbor. The healing balm is the grace of recognizing that we are humble stewards of all that we have, including the gift of life itself, and then responding with gratitude and joy.