“Better Than I Deserve”

If you’ve listened to Dave Ramsey at all, you’ve heard it as a response to “How are you?”

If you listen to country gospel, you might have heard it as a song.

If you’ve been looking, you’ve seen it in blog posts (and more blog posts) and maybe even on T shirts.

If you’ve sat under C.J. Mahaney or any of his disciples, you’ve heard it in sermons and greetings at church.

It sounds like a cute catch phrase. To some people it sounds humble.

And Biblical.

Stop complaining

In fact, in this C.J. Mahaney sermon on the topic, he uses as his text Philippians 2:14-18, “Do all things without” in various versions translated “grumbling,” “complaining,” “arguing,” “murmuring,” “disputing.” 

“I am never doing worse than I deserve, never, ever, ever doing worse than I deserve. Because I deserve hell.” (The part having to do with this statement begins at about minute 30.) “If my point of reference is hell—and I recommend that as a point of reference—then I’m doing better than I deserve.”

Not sure why the point of reference needs to be hell rather than heaven or Jesus, but the bottom line is, stop complaining.

What do the Christian leaders deserve?

What kind of treatment do these Christian leaders think they deserve from others? 

Does Dave Ramsey think he deserves to be mistreated? No, he doesn’t. He blocks people on Twitter, saying, “Any time somebody says something stupid and, you know, mean and hateful, or you start dropping cuss words in there, I’m not putting up with that.” 

Does C.J. Mahaney think when church members “complain,” the church elders are supposed to simply say they’re doing “better than they deserve” and rejoice? No, he doesn’t. With rumors of church discipline abounding for failure to properly handle allegations of sexual abuse, Mahaney abruptly left Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, MD, and started a new church elsewhere.

Just like “I’m the worst sinner I know,” even though the leaders may mouth the words, it is the underlings who are supposed to stay in a position of silence and acceptance of whatever may happen to them or those they love.

Church leaders may say “better than I deserve,” but the underlings are the ones who are expected to live it.

How this translates to one who has been abused

When I sit with an abuse survivor listening to her story of abuse and in some cases horrific torture to compel her into compliance (often through dissociation) for sex trafficking and child pornography, there are a couple of things I try to remember to always say, even though they seem to me to be so obviously true.

“This was not your fault.”

“You did not deserve to be treated this way.”

Many of them may intellectually accept the first. But I’ve seen significant pushback to the second that amounts, basically, to “I did deserve it, because it wasn’t as bad as hell, was it?”

I pray that Christians will hear me.

For the weakest and most vulnerable among us, this flippant “better than I deserve” is being used to promote doctrines of demons and to silence the abused.

In the name of not “complaining” when you’re “disappointed” (C.J. Mahaney’s words), those who have experienced horrors are being silenced.

Is this the heart of God?

And in fact, was this what Paul was talking about when he wrote Philippians 2:14? Well, no.

The context of the “stop complaining” Scripture

Here’s the context, from Philippians 2:12-15 (Jubilee edition).

Therefore, my beloved, as ye have always hearkened, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own saving health with fear and trembling. For it is God who works in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure. Do all things without murmurings and doubts, that ye may be blameless and innocent, children of God without rebuke in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world.

When Paul said “all things,” there, do you really think he meant “everything anyone tells you to do”? That may be what some people are used to, but I’m unaware of anyone who would publicly affirm that.

Do you think he meant “everything your pastors or other authorities tell you to do”? That may be what Mahaney and others believe, but if so, that would be promoting, enabling, and encouraging abuse from the wolves in sheep’s clothing, something I’ve written about many times. (For example, I’ve written about why “children obey your parents” isn’t to be taken as an across-the-board command, lest abused children have no recourse.) Does it mean “everything in your life,” as Mahaney preaches? Well, no, because of these dangers and others.

The only thing that really makes sense is that it is referring to the Scripture just previous. So it is as if Paul is saying, “Do all THESE things without murmurings and doubts [complaining, arguing, etc].” The THESE things would refer to “working out your own saving health [salvation, in some versions],” with the understanding that God is working in you.

What a very different light this casts on that Scripture. How is one to work out one’s “saving health”?

It is by coming to know Jesus Christ in His fulness, as Paul has been teaching. And sometimes coming to know Him in His fulness involves asking Him to show us who He really is and was, and who we really are, in the midst of the trauma of massive betrayal and human-against-human evil.

This, of course, necessitates acknowledging that the trauma of massive betrayal and human-against-human evil actually happened.

What does it really mean to “deserve” something?

Does one human deserve for another human to, say, flay his skin off piece by piece until he dies, as the ancient Assyrians did (and right now I’m not going to talk about whether this still happens)?

Does one human deserve for another human to use him for unspeakable child pornography?

To “deserve” something means to “have the right to receive” something. If C.J. Mahaney and others believe that no one has any basic human rights, then “better than I deserve” accurately reflects their beliefs. (But I know of no proponent of this thought who lives this way.)

People do have rights, as I’ve petitioned in this blog  over and over. Here are all the posts directly about this topic:

Replying to one who says Christians should have no rights

It’s unBiblical to surrender your rights

Why do they tell you to “surrender rights” that aren’t even rights at all?

A video interview on the topic of “yielding rights”

Untwisting “you should surrender your rights” (a guest post for Leslie Vernick)

These teachings also compose several chapters in Untwisting Scriptures that were used to tie you up, gag you, and tangle your mind.

So I can firmly say, no matter what: you, whether you are a born-again child of God or a pagan in the forest, you deserve to be treated with the same dignity and respect that every human deserves at the hands of others. 

This is what is meant by human rights.

If you are a Christian, you deserve to be able to come to God through Jesus Christ.

This is what is meant by spiritual rights.

Here is what’s wrong with the flippant statement “I’m doing better than I deserve.” Not only that the ones who teach it live hypocritically—believing that they do indeed deserve to be treated with respect—but also that those who have been abused did not deserve to be treated that way.

Above all, let us walk in truth and love. Truth about what God and His Word actually say and teach. And love for others, all others, all the ones God brings across our path, and not simply peers. Let us be willing to listen to those who some say are “complaining” (as this post discusses) because they have something “negative” to say about what has happened to them or ones they love.

This is, after all, what we—as children of the true Lord Jesus Christ—are called to do. And this good work, listening to and loving those who have been traumatized without complaining about them, is one way, as the apostle Paul said, we can “shine as lights in the world.”

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3 years ago

Thank you for this post! “Better than I deserve” is nothing but a humble-brag coined by powerful, controlling, wealthy, entitled people, said in a “spiritual” tone. Ugh. And your analysis of “deserving” actually referring to *basic human rights* sure puts this phrase in a new light.

1 year ago
Reply to  GanyT.

Better than I deserve to me means that The Lord has not given me, a sinner, what I deserve. He sent His Son to die for my sins. He sheds mercy and grace. Therefore, I am doing better than I deserve. I don’t know exactly why Dave Ramsey says it, but the ORIGINAL, from C.J. Mahaney’s book “Christ Centered Life, means what I said earlier b

3 years ago

Thank you for this. I’ve hated that concept for as long as I’ve heard it. I thought that if I deserve death and hell, being raped is no big deal, nor is being disbelieved, shamed, ignored and blamed.

Thankfully, I began to understand that if God believed that, he wouldn’t have suffered and died for us. I am worth loving because God loves me and he knows what it’s like to be mistreated, betrayed and rejected. He understands that pain in ways the hypocrites never will.

This crap is so rarely addressed.

3 years ago
Reply to  Hope

Me, too, Hope. I thought that since I deserved death and hell, being a sinner and all, then being raped (among so many other things) was no big deal, part of the cross I was to bear, and to take it in stride.

Right now I am also thinking of the many Bible verses where people who were lame, plagued with various diseases, sought Jesus to be healed of their afflictions. If they’d have been preached the ‘better than I deserve’/’no complaining’ messages and trusted those pastors and church people to be speaking God’s truth and thus taken such to heart and applied it in their lives, they’d never have sought out Jesus’ healing.

It’s ultimately a blaming/shaming/silencing message. If those pastors who preached this would be forced to strip, bent over, and sodomized, they might just complain and then show their ‘better than I deserve’ messaging to be false/baloney.

3 years ago
Reply to  Rebecca Davis

Yes, therein lies the rub! The very people who practice these false displays of ‘humility’ — it’s almost like virtue signaling — are the most intolerant, who won’t suffer or be inconvenienced or anything.

It’s a sham. It’s duplicity. It’s a walking contradiction, which you pointed out. Thanks for reiterating that. They are hypocrites. They prove their latest catchphrase doesn’t actually apply to them and they don’t believe in it, not when it comes to themselves, that is.

1 year ago
Reply to  Anonymous

Yes, I was thinking of the same thing as I worked through a lot of this false theology. I was thinking of all of the lepers and the bleeding woman and all of the other broken people whom Christ saw in the highways and biways. That wasn’t the message He sent to them. He simply offered them healing and sent them away in peace. He didn’t slam them with messages of shame and worthlessness.

I had been so beaten down by these kinds of teachings, that I could relate to those people in the Bible. It’s interesting how our “stinkin’ thinkin’ ” can get so tied into our theology.

I remember the saying, “God is no respecter of persons,” therefore, I didn’t have to respect others either.

3 years ago

I know and have experienced this on both sides. The whole ‘do all things without complaining’ ‘obey/don’t be disobedient’ and ‘better than I deserve’ and other catch-phrases that are put into use as though such is as God calls you to do, kind of like ‘turn the other cheek’ and ‘God hates divorce’.

When you see one person enslaving another, it’s horrible. It leaves a sickening feeling in your gut. When you see a person clearly abusing another, a wifebeater out in public, really laying into his obviously cowed, shell-of-a-person, abused wife, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. It should. And yet these people who are being enslaved, trafficked, abused, subjugated, exploited, abused, etc. are also often misguided Christians who think it is God’s will for them.

I used to think such. Same with the whole ‘take up your cross and follow Him’ and ‘He’ll never give you more than you can bear’. But it’s nonsense. Same with the whole ‘do not take a matter to court’ (as though engaging in any litigation is ungodly).

And the exploited, abused, beaten, trafficked, controlled, harmed ones continue to be harmed all the more.

I really think most of these people who say these things are either so removed from the daily struggles of vulnerable people (those who are women, disabled, poor, etc) they talk about these lofty things as though such are badges of ‘humility’. OR, these are charlatans, working wolves wearing the sheep’s (shepherd’s) clothing.

And the worst part about it is the most vulnerable suffer all the more. These men who preach such things haven’t been enslaved, exploited, abused, beaten, raped, or trafficked. They don’t know. And yet in any given church congregation I’d bet there are many who are victims of such. And who typically clings hardest to any words from a pastor’s mouth, desperately reads the most Christian self-help books? Those in pain, like abused women, trafficked persons, oppressed persons.

The more I remember all these catch-phrases and bad teachings of the ‘c’hristian community, the more upset I become. It’s either the blind leading, or it’s charlatans. And the most desperate people are the keenest listeners and are the most likely to apply these catch-phrases to their lives and take them to heart.

Same with the ‘I’m the worst sinner I know’. Oh, for so long I applied that in my life and the wolves that were feasting on me. And the damage! AHH!!!

Loving reading your blog, Rebecca. It’s painful because I see more and more of these twisted Scriptures, twisty catch-phrases and recall it having been applied in my own life, to my ever-growing damage/harm.

3 years ago
Reply to  Rebecca Davis

And then when followers repeat this and adopt this mindset, it also makes them intolerant of and indifferent to the complaining of others. There is such a thing as a legitimate complaint. Even in the Bible there is the ‘Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm’. Guess they weren’t ‘walking in humility’ and being uppity, forgetting to deem themselves ‘better than they deserve’.

I’m so glad you write this blog because if a person grows up with such messaging and is raised in the church and God is very important to them, they were raised to see pastors as shepherds, deserving unquestioning obedience ‘because they give account for you’ then it’s hard to see these things until someone else, such as your lovely self, Rebecca, writes blog posts about such. Then the light goes on.

Otherwise, the fish doesn’t notice the water, as it has always been in such, doesn’t know any different until someone sparks some learning or critical thinking and then the reevaluation can begin and ‘aha’ moments occur.

3 years ago

Oh, how many times I’ve seen this used against the abused. . .

3 years ago

I’ve been told from the pulpit that this was the correct response to, “”How are you?” We even had to practice it in unison. Repeatedly. In chant. On multiple Sunday’s. We’re not there any more.

But I realize now that we are made in the image of a God of indescribable beauty, creativity, and wonder. We bear that image. Therfore, as humans we have worth. We have value. And we deserve respect. And if we are saved, in addition, we are children of the King, co-heirs with Christ. We are given the keys to the coming kingdom. That doesn’t make us less. That makes us more!

But who says we deserve hell all the time? Who keeps bringing up our condemnation? Satan! The accuser! That’s his name!

We ARE bound to go there by default, but God doesn’t want that. He’s not cheering for that! He’s not breathlessly looking forward to that! HE provided the way out. He opened the door Himself! He made our way of escape. By paying with His own blood and life.

So I’m sick and tired of these yo-yos making new catch phrases that sound all “humble” and ramming them down our throats or pressuring us to buy the T-shirt.

Once we’re saved, God never calls us sinners again. Never accuses us again. We bear His image. And we are new and clean. Like my son says, “Only Satan laughs at the afflictions of others.” (Unless God is snickering at the pride of the arrogant, truly wicked.) So once we’re saved, it is the Accuser who keeps pointing to hell and saying “This is what you deserve, this is what you should get, this is what you’re worth.” And grinning and laughing at the heartache it causes to hearts that are tender.

3 years ago
Reply to  MoodyMom

Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I kept thinking of the serenity prayer as I read these posts. In other words, I think there is a huge distinction between accepting suffering that we can’t change and accepting abuse that we are in a position to do something about!

What I’m saying is this… maybe sayings like these could be helpful for someone facing terminal cancer, for example, (after all has been done medically). Chronically complaining about things you can’t change seems counter productive.

But complaining about (and REFUSING to accept) abuse is a whole different story. Clearly no one deserves to be mistreated! Loudly complaining about abuse must be music to God’s ears!

What do you all think?

3 years ago
Reply to  MoodyMom

I love this comment and all the others almost as much as this post! Well said, Rebecca and everyone.

3 years ago

I think they are telling the truth and they know it. Don’t assume that means they don’t fully expect to always be doing “better than they deserve” and don’t assume that they have any intention of becoming more deserving of all of their riches and power. Maybe it’s just a little Freudian truth disguised as humility.

3 years ago

Or, the common ‘Think of al the suffering and persecuted Christians all over the world’. Yes, we should keep them in mind.
It is very trendy to ride on the suffering which takes place in faraway countries…
But the suffering of God’s children in our own countries isn’t any less important. If there is no compassion to those close by, how can there be genuine compassion for someone who is far away?

1 year ago

Thank you for all of your untwisting of Scriptures! I haven’t been under abuse, but I am in circles where MOST of what you address is being taught, and it is very confusing for me, because it ‘sounds biblical’, and I feel that if I go against that, I am being rebellious and being deceived by Satan, or worse: that I’m not truly Christian. I am in a moment where I am struggling to see God’s goodness and love for me, and I wish I could find someone to talk with about all of my doubts and concerns (I’m not from the US).
In regards to this topic, I remember I once listened to all the HORRORS of the Nanjing Massacre and telling someone else about it, and being told something in the lines of ‘yeah, that’s horrifying, but hell is worse’. At the moment I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong, because it sounded ‘biblical’, yet it seemed lacking of compassion for the lives of image bearers that were destroyed and lacking of a desire for justice. Because of this teaching, I sometimes struggle to trust in God’s justice, because if ‘hell is worse’, then maybe He isn’t that upset about massacres and such? But of course that’s not biblical, He will do justice!
Ironically, people that preach this kind of teaching (not all) tend to be more ‘forgiving’ towards some sins than to some others (for instance, they are prone to defend an abuser, but also prone to attack a homosexual, I give this example because I’ve seen it), and that adds to my confusion.
It’s really sad to see people twisting Scriptures in order to enslave people! The only place where we can find salvation and rest, being used as a yoke of bondage.

David Connon
David Connon
7 months ago

Thank you, Rebecca, for this thoughtful post.


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