One of the lessons I still retain from my old high school days is the first our economics teacher ever taught us: there is no such thing as a free lunch.
In economics, the meaning of the proverb is clear enough: You can’t get something for nothing. Every decision has costs and consequences, even if they are only the unseen costs of other opportunities and goods necessarily foregone.
Most students assented to this common-sense lesson without complaint. Granted, there were those who challenged our teacher on the point. One proposed the following: “Say you just happened to find yourself relaxing on a beach, lying on the sand underneath a coconut tree, with your mouth ajar. Then consider that a coconut positioned directly above you spontaneously begins dripping its milk into your mouth. That seems like a free lunch to me.”
This is an interesting thought experiment, and I would not very much mind finding myself in a similar situation at some point, but the example does not disprove the proverb. Someone, at some point, had to put in some effort to make that situation possible.
But this column is about more than just coconuts and opportunity costs. We assent to the saying—you can’t get something for nothing—when it is taught in the context of a high school economics classroom, but many nevertheless reject it in other more important areas of life.
Consider faith. At the outset, we need to highlight one radically important sense in which the “no free lunch” adage does not apply. Everything we have—our life and all that comes with it—is something that we got for nothing. None of us earned our existence, or compensated God for bringing us into being. We are utterly dependent on God’s gratuitous, creative love for our very lives.
Now, that’s a pretty big exception to the rule, you might say. Maybe when it comes to faith and our relationship with God, we can get something for nothing. Indeed, if you speak with people today who affirm God’s existence and claim to be in some sense motivated to live in harmony with him, you will encounter many people who either believe or act as if they believe that very little is demanded of them in order for a) them to have a satisfactory relationship with God, who certainly exists and wants them to be nice to everyone, but who need not intrude too far or too often into their daily lives, b) be a pretty good person, and c) go to heaven when they die.
This attitude—especially prevalent among young people (in whom it has been astutely diagnosed by Christian Smith as moralistic therapeutic deism)—is very dangerous. The overarching goal of people succumbing to this new spiritual sentiment is to feel good about themselves and be generally “happy.” God is useful in their quest to the extent that he contributes to that goal and provides help and comfort in time of need.
People who adhere to this view are of all stripes. The damage is not confined to one particular faith tradition or denomination. All of us, even those of us who recognize the wrongheadedness of moralistic therapeutic deism, are likely tempted to a similar attitude—one in which we think that we can get the results we are looking for with little or no effort—at times.
We all shy away at times from putting in the work that faith requires and that God desires of us, but we nevertheless still expect to see the desired results and to receive the ultimate good—we expect to go to heaven. For those of us who reject this approach to faith yet succumb to it at times, the damage is less severe: perhaps we fail to put in the real work and effort that a fruitful prayer life demands, while becoming frustrated by a lack of perceived results; or we from time to time presume upon God’s mercy and congratulate ourselves for being “pretty good people” who are surely going to end up in heaven.
But for some the damage and potential for serious harm is far greater. Those who reject the rules and teachings of organized religion—the moral doctrine of the Catholic Church, for example—risk missing out on true fulfillment. They chafe at the notion that there are some things they cannot do and reject all limits on their freedom that are not of their own choosing, all in the name of happiness. They do not realize that it is precisely these rules and teachings—or better yet these truths of the faith—that ensure real freedom and open up the possibility of authentic human flourishing.
I’m reminded of Chesterton’s image of children playing on a tall island in the sea. “So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the center of the island; their song had ceased.”
The walls are important, and we should be wary of tearing them down. Whether we tear them down by our own choosing, as many young people do today, or are misled by some of those in authority in the Church to think that the walls may not be as deeply rooted as we thought (see e.g. the ongoing controversy regarding reception of the Eucharist for the divorced and remarried), we risk ending up like the children huddled in the center of the island: fragile and afraid. If we’re lucky, we will come to an uneasy rest in a comfortable safe space. If we are not so lucky, the toll in human anguish might run high.
In the end, we all might do well to remember the old adage: you can’t get something for nothing. Fostering a real relationship with God requires hard work—prayer is rarely easy! Being a good person, or better yet a saint, is a constant challenge, and the path is marked by many defeats. Staying inside the walls can be difficult, but it’s necessary. And reaching our ultimate destination—well, we rely for that on God’s abundant mercy and ceaseless desire that we be united to him, but we have to do our part too.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch on the stairway to heaven.
Tim Bradley graduated from Notre Dame in May. He now pursues free lunches in Washington, D.C.