Herbert and the Debtor’s Ethic

I’m working through Jim Scott Orrick’s A Year with George Herbert: A Guide to Fifty-two of His Best Loved Poems. I read “The Thanksgiving,” which Orrick describes this way:

Herbert vows that he will use Christ’s gifts to praise Him and to give Him thanks. … The poet proposes a love contest between the Lord and himself. “I know,” he acknowledges, “that You are the king of grief. In view of the cross, there’s no disputing that. I know I cannot repay You by offering You my grief. But perhaps I can repay You for Your love and get one-up on You by using all Your gifts not for my benefit, but for yours.”

Orrick’s typically helpful and insightful analysis notes that Herbert is under no delusions of possible success, and the poem conveys this well. Herbert is not advocating the Debtor’s Ethic–the idea that our good works and obedience as Christians is motivated by “repaying Jesus.” No one seriously thinks that’s possible, but it’s the thought that counts, so the Ethic goes.

The Bible never puts forth the Debtor’s Ethic as motivation, either. But it does spend a lot of time encouraging believers to obedience and good works. In fact, Herbert’s “strategy” for the contest sounds a lot like what the New Testament expects of those who are in Christ.

The Gospel is, by definition, good news. “Work harder” isn’t good news, and so neither the Scriptures nor Herbert offer it as such. Rather, what is offered is this:

For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift–not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10 HCSB).

We can undertake Herbert’s “contest” as he does, with no actual intention of competing, but rather out of amazed wonder and gratitude that we are able to render to Jesus anything at all. It’s a miracle that we actually want to give Jesus anything other than a clenched fist and a middle finger, and so we do. And even what we offer is so weak and shot through with sin and brokenness that it’s a miracle He takes it and makes it holy and acceptable, just because He loves us.

Let’s enter the contest, then, and give up competing entirely.


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