Part of the American Religion vs. the Bible series

All Reward and Provision Come from God—Not the Meritocracy

Whenever a student comes into my office in tears, I know there’s a very good chance that the source of their anguish is an overwhelming drive to be successful. I think my students are just trying to apply Paul’s admonition in Colossians 3:23–24: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” But something has gone wrong, so that the only part of the command they remember is to “work heartily.” And their motive is to avoid failure and merit success.

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The thing about meritocracy is we’d really like it to work, even if we are on the losing end. It’s a beautifully simple system—which is one sign that it’s not real: take these steps, have this talent, and you will receive whatever you merit. Instead of reassuring us, giving our lives clear direction and purpose, the myth of meritocracy makes us anxious, overwhelmed, and hypercritical. So why do we perpetuate such a dissatisfying myth?

The Myth of Meritocracy

Meritocracy is a social system where people receive the social outcome they deserve based on their merit. The most talented bands sell the most albums. The most intelligent and dedicated high school seniors get into the best colleges. The most qualified applicants get the best jobs. The most attractive people get the most attention. And so on.

Aside from a few professional sports (I can confidently say that there is no basketball player outside of the NBA who is as good as LeBron James), society simply doesn’t work this way. The most artistically, technically, and aesthetically talented bands often sell only a few albums, while absolutely terrible music sells by the millions (am I an old man shaking his fist at the clouds? Very well. I shake). The best poet in America probably lives in a small town in the Midwest, and no one knows her name. She teaches high school math. Some elite students get into elite universities, but a lot more elite students never get that chance, and meanwhile, the wealthy can send mediocre students to elite schools. And so on.

Fortune and various privileges end up determining much of our success in life: your genetics, your race, the class you were born into, whether your parents stayed married, your mental and physical health, whom you know, and a million other variables that are simply out of your control.

Someone might object that I’m describing a “pure meritocracy,” which definitely doesn’t exist, but that we live in a functional meritocracy. To which I would reply, “No, not really.” Though occasionally people receive the position in life that they merit, those are the exceptions.

This is news to no one, except that it is. What I mean is that we live in this ridiculous paradox that is common to contemporary life: we are fully aware that our myths are myths, but we choose to believe them anyway. You can see the same dynamic at work in advertisements. Almost no one genuinely believes that purchasing a specific car will give them the sense of identity and fullness that is depicted in a car commercial. We are highly aware of the techniques advertisers use to manipulate us. But, the ad still works.

One more example: social media. Almost every social media user is now aware that the system is manipulating them into being addicted and that their social media feed is controlled by an algorithm that confirms their biases and creates an “echo chamber.” Honestly, I bet half of the American population only knows the word “algorithm” because our culture has endlessly discussed the way social media manipulates our access to information. We also know that social media feedback in the form of Likes or Shares or Comments is vapid. It doesn’t mean what it feels like it means. In other words, we are not under the illusion of social media. Except that we are, willfully.

And we see meritocracy the same way. I don’t think rational, thoughtful, observant people believe that we live in a meritocracy, even a functional one. And yet we persist in thinking that if we just apply ourselves, if we just find the right technique, if we just hustle and grind and adopt a #growthmindset, we can achieve our dreams. And, conversely, if we fail to achieve our dreams, it’s because we didn’t merit it. We got what we deserved for better or for worse. This worked out great for Kobe Bryant, maybe the modern image of the hustle mindset. But you aren’t Kobe. Which is totally fine! Except that we program our children to think that they are Kobe, or potential Kobes, who just need to apply themselves and believe in themselves and work hard to chase their life goals.

So, again, why do we persist in promoting such a naked myth?

For one thing, this beautifully simple system grounds and directs us in a society that is rapidly changing, highly competitive, and exploding with options. When everything is shifting under your feet, and you don’t know what you are supposed to be doing with your life, and what it even means to live a good life, a meritocracy is quite reassuring. All you must do is choose a path, follow it diligently, and you will prosper.

Another reason we believe the myth is that there is a crisis of meaning. Modern people aren’t sure what this whole “life” thing is about. What does it mean? In Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Jake Barnes says that all he wants is to know how to live, and that “maybe if you found out how to live in [the world] you learned from that what it was all about.” His fear is that the meaning of life is inaccessible to us, so the best we can do is focus on what is controllable: our actions. Hemingway was expressing the Lost Generation’s angst, but a hundred years later, “meaning” is only more elusive. Charles Taylor uses the term “Nova Effect” to describe the rapid and ever-expanding range of lifestyle options available to the contemporary person. And with more possible accounts of life’s meaning, each account becomes more and more tenuous. If Jake despaired over figuring out the meaning of life in a 1926 novel, contemporary people will fair no better. And that’s how meritocracy helps.

Meritocracy tells us how to live in the world, so that we have some structure and direction even when we don’t know what life is all about. It’s a myth, but a useful one, because it can draw our attention away from the loss of meaning. To adapt Hemingway’s lines, if we can figure out how to live in the world, maybe we won’t have to consider what it’s all about.

The Bible on Work, Reward, and Provision

So far I’ve been very negative about meritocracy, but I don’t want to give the impression that I think hard work is pointless. On average, people who work hard are more successful than those who are lazy. The Proverbs are filled with admonitions to not be a sluggard. Proverbs 10:4 says, “A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich.” But such wisdom must be held in tension with other verses, like Proverbs 11:28: “Whoever trusts in his riches will fall, but the righteous will flourish like a green leaf.” On the one hand diligent work makes rich, on the other hand trusting in those riches leads to failure, not success. Wisdom literature teaches the value of hard work, but not the trust in success embodied in meritocracy.

The Scriptures also reminds us that “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11). This is such a problem that we are warned not to envy the wicked:  

Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him;
    fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way,
    over the man who carries out evil devices! (Psalms 37:7)

If we all received what we merited, the wicked wouldn’t be enviable in the first place.

The injustice of society only contributes to the general sense of chaos and anxiety that we feel, which in turn drives us to believe the myth which says we can overcome the chaos if we have the right technique and a strong enough will.

Because at the core of meritocracy is control. We desire to control our fate, to master the chaos of our world, to determine our own story. And any myth that offers us a path to that control is a seductive myth: tarot cards, certain drugs, meritocracy.

If we are our own and belong to ourselves, this desire for control is not only appropriate, it is necessary, because then it is always ultimately our individual responsibility to make something good out of our lives.

The problem with this myth is that it is a myth, and a deadly one. It promises control and ends up controlling us. It demands more and more of our time and energy. Every rejection and setback reminds us that we are a failure. After all, what we receive is what we merit. Our success and happiness is our individual responsibility.

So when your college application is read by someone who is hangry or who missed their morning cup of coffee, it is your fault that you didn’t get into your top school. When your creative work is ignored by an audience that prefers pandering, superficial entertainment, it is your fault. And when you are skipped over for promotion, no matter the cause, it is your fault. You can sit there and feel sorry for yourself, or you can double down and work even harder until you receive the recognition you merit.

The inevitable result of any effort to master our lives and the world is despair, burnout, and bitterness. Now, look around. Is the world not filled with bitter, burned-out people in despair?

We need an alternative framework, one that encourages us to aspire and work hard without perpetuating the myth that those efforts will necessarily lead to control and success. If the belief that we are our own and belong to ourselves is at the root of meritocracy, perhaps we should consider the possibility that we are not our own but belong to God? How might that change our perspective?

Belonging to God involves the surrender of control. You cannot belong to God and be the master of your own life, let alone the world. You must have the humility to accept radical dependence upon Him. Every good gift comes from the Father above, every good gift (James 1:17). Not from you and your efforts. The good things you receive and experience, and there are many beautiful things in this life, are not merited. They are gratuitous.

It may seem counterintuitive, but it is actually easier to delight in gifts than something good that you merit, because you can never really be certain that you deserve something good. In fact, if you are self-aware enough, you should know that somewhere there is someone else who is much more deserving. They have worked harder, they have more talent, they have merited what you have. And if that is true, then the only way you can enjoy something that you have “earned” by “merit” is if you lie to yourself.

On the other hand, a gift can always be enjoyed because our “merit” is irrelevant. It is immoral not to take pleasure in a good gift, because your pleasure is an act of gratitude. The only way to not enjoy a gift is to insist upon your control, to insist that you don’t deserve what you have received, or that you merit something better.

To belong to God is to rest in His providential provision. There is profound freedom here. Those given great talent or opportunities have the freedom to take pleasure in those gifts without the corrosive effects of ego or self-deprecation. The nice things that you experience in life aren’t there for you to enjoy because you merit them. You take pleasure because God gave them to you. And you also have the freedom to work hard without the pressure to work yourself into exhaustion and burnout. You can enter into God’s Sabbath rest because He is the one holding up the world.

You should work with excellence in everything you do because your talents and opportunities are gifts from God, not to earn those gifts or to make yourself worthy of them. That is Paul’s point in Colossians 3. Not that working heartily earns us an inheritance, but that when we work unto the Lord the result of that work is still an inheritance.

In his warning about envying the success of evildoers, the Psalmist in 37:7 tells us to “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him,” which is the exact opposite of what meritocracy tells us. And yet, that sense of stillness and trust in God’s providence is precisely what we need as an antidote to the myth of merit.

Here’s how John Calvin describes the peace of Christian life in his Institutes:

When any thing prosperous befalls him will he [will not] impute it to himself and his own diligence, or industry, or fortune, instead of ascribing it to God as its author. If, while the affairs of others flourish, his make little progress, or even retrograde, he will bear his humble lot with greater equanimity and moderation than any irreligious man does the moderate success which only falls short of what he wished; for he has a solace in which he can rest more tranquilly than at the very summit of wealth or power, because he considers that his affairs are ordered by the Lord in the manner most conducive to his salvation.

When you fail, as you will at times, you can learn from your mistakes and move on without beating yourself up or blaming the system. You can accept that the meritocracy is broken. You can accept that you will fail. You can accept that sometimes you can work hard and devote yourself and still not receive what you hoped. You can accept that your dreams are not within your control. And you can rest in God’s control, because you belong to Him. And even your failures He works to the good of your salvation.

The world promises us that if we just use the correct tool, method, or technology, and we apply ourselves, we will be saved from failure by our own strength. But the Psalmist has a different word:

The war horse is a false hope for salvation,
    and by its great might it cannot rescue.

Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him,
    on those who hope in his steadfast love,
    that he may deliver their soul from death
    and keep them alive in famine. Psalm 33:17­–19

Image created by Rubner Durais

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