The abuse begins with the relatively innocuous yet ubiquitous use of deserve in marketing: "You've worked hard all day, you deserve that piece of chocolate."
To some degree, this can be laid at the feet of lazy copy writing. People who write marketing pieces often go for the easy, mindless pitch that affirms ourselves.
The less innocuous uses are statements sometimes touted by non-profits such as, "No child deserves to die from cancer."
Most people would read this sentence and find nothing wrong with it. Of course children shouldn't die from cancer! But there is a big difference between "shouldn't" and "don't deserve to."
The idea of what we deserve is a metaphysical one. It depends on the idea that there is some kind of natural or universal order that ensures us of or entitles us to certain things. Deserve depends on an outside authority.
Sometimes the government determines what we deserve, such as punishments for crimes. But when it comes to what we positively deserve, what in the universe can guide this? If you are an atheist then you can perhaps lean on a natural order of the universe that we must infer from. But the problem with this is that it largely leaves the task of defining what we deserve up to faulty and biased humans, who often won't agree. And many atheists wouldn't even support the idea that we deserve anything, because there is no metaphysical authority to back your claim.
On the other hand, if you are a Christian, then you would naturally look to God to determine what we do or do not deserve. Unfortunately for us, the Bible is not full of discussion of all the good things we deserve as humans. It does talk about people deserving punishment when they do wrong, although God does not treat us as we deserve. As my favorite passage in all the Bible reads, "He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us." (Psalm 103)
Despite the fact that God's love for us is great, the Bible does not outline all the things we deserve when we have been good little boys and girls. It does outline all the wonderful ways God can bless us when we follow him and love him, but not as something we deserve.
The truth is that when we, or marketers for that matter, say that we deserve something, our claim is largely based on our feelings. It isn't based on any authoritative source or universal truth. It's based on how we feel. I worked 50 hours this week, so I feel like I deserve a break. Perhaps.
But back to statements such as "no child deserves to die of cancer." Really? It's horrible if a child dies of cancer, but is this some unalienable right that humans have? Does any human have a right not to die? No, we all die. Can we control how we die? No. Can we control when we die? No. If an old man dies of cancer do we say, "He had a right not to die of cancer?" No. We know that people die. Sometimes they die from cancer. It's horrible. But no power on earth or off of earth has deemed it a human right not to die from it, regardless of age.
We might say that bites the big one. That God must be a horrible God if he allows children to die from cancer. But that still doesn't give us the power to define the universe and our just desserts.
Our claims of what we deserve start with a little piece of chocolate, but lead us to make emotional decisions, rather than logically or morally sound decisions. For example, in the matter of stem cell research, people will be moved by the fact that little Jessica doesn't "deserve" to die of cancer, rather than making their decision based on whether or not destroying an embryo for scientific research is morally right or wrong or neutral.
In the matter of our marriages, our concept of what we deserve can lead to a victimization mindset and lead us to make bad choices. "I deserve someone who treats me this way." "I deserve someone who makes me feel this way." "I deserve someone who looks this way."
In the matter of our finances or personal habits, it can lead us to make bad decisions. "I work hard all day, just as hard as the Joneses, I deserve to buy this nicer car." (That you can't afford.) Or "I work hard all day, I deserve to drink that beer." (And another and another.)
Marketers feed our sense of self-justification, as it is already so strong to begin with. But often when we listen to these little lies of what we deserve, it leads us to make big mistakes morally, financially, and emotionally. So what can we substitute for this all-pervasive attitude in American society?
Rather than focusing on ourselves and what we deserve, focus on God's grace to us and becoming more like him. Christ wasn't worried about what he deserved. He was focused on serving, not because people deserved it, but because he loved them.
"Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!" (Philippians 2:5-8)