Thank God We’re Not Equal
The Eternal Joys of Coming In Last
Adam’s sin was pride, but many of the old English poets stressed the love that in his pride he repaid with disobedience. In other words, they saw that the fundamental manifestation of pride is ingratitude. So George Herbert portrays Christ reproaching us on his way to Calvary:
Then they condemne me all with that same breath
Which I do give them daily, unto death.
Thus Adam my first breathing rendereth: Was ever grief like mine?
It is easy enough for the Christian to remember to thank God for at least a few of the good things he has given us, especially when our whole society celebrates a day called “Thanksgiving.” We might even remember once in a while to thank God for the breath in our lungs, for our mere existence, since it is with each of us as it was with Adam, that God has taken some dust from the earth and breathed into it, that we might be a living soul.
But Adam in his pride wanted to seize for himself what he saw as a good thing that God had not given him. In his disobedience he showed himself ungrateful for what he had been given (since he wanted even more). But there is something else to notice here: Adam showed himself ungrateful not only for what he had been given, but for what had been withheld from him, since he judged that he might provide for himself a fairer enjoyment of goods. He fell because he did not give thanks that he did not have everything.
Adam forgot to thank God for the prohibition. He forgot to praise God for the inequality between himself and his Maker. The really grateful soul—the one that is full of thanksgiving—is pleased not only by the great gifts God has given him, but by the great gifts God has withheld from him.
He is also (and this is most difficult for man’s hardheartedness) pleased by the surpassing gifts that God has given to others. That includes the gift of authority over us, as God gives us someone nearby to obey: the father and the mother whom we are to honor, and the pastor and the elders whose wisdom we do well to consult, and all those rulers and teachers and apostles to whom God has given the place of command or counsel, for both our earthly and our eternal good.
Such delegated authority is one of God’s ways of drawing near to us, lest we spend all our hours vainly imagining a conversation wherein God says what we should like him to say. Our subordination is a divine gift, though we (thankless creatures that we are) often feel it as a burden.
Equality is a great mantra these days, but I do not see how a narrow-eyed insistence upon equality is easily reconcilable with gratitude. I am not talking about equality of human dignity or equality before the law. I am talking about that demand to have what everyone else has—not only material goods, though we do feel that, but also qualities like respect and authority—and to feel affronted if we do not.
What authority could survive, if everyone had an equal warrant to thwart the commands of another? How unutterably dreary life would be if everyone else had at most one’s own measure of intelligence, love, courage, wisdom, and beauty. Imagine how tuneless would be the choir in heaven if everyone sang only as well as oneself.
Anthony Esolen is a professor at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, New Hampshire, and the author of many books, including Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius). He has also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House). He and his wife Debra publish a web magazine, Word and Song (anthonyesolen.substack.com), on poetry, hymnody, language, classic films, and music. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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