Thursday, June 28, 2012

Why do the Wicked Prosper?

"Why do the wicked prosper?"  They do.  Sometimes you see "karma" come back to bite someone, but so often it seems like good people get shafted and bad people go on their merry way with a bombed out shell in their rear-view mirror.

The Christian response is usually to say, "Hey, don't call people wicked.  We're all wicked."  That is true.  We are.  When we forget this, we become self-righteous and easily embittered.  But I see that there are two senses in which the Bible speaks of "righteous/wicked."  In the ultimate sense, nobody is good.  None are righteous.  All fall short of God's glory.  No one seeks after God.  That is pretty standard and pretty essential Christian doctrine.  After all, it speaks of our universal need for salvation.  Accordingly, there are really only two kinds of people in the world: those who know they need to be saved and those who don't.

But I believe the Bible also speaks of the whole "righteous/wicked" contrast in more horizontal -perhaps we could call them "civil" -terms.  The "righteous" are those who seek to do good, for example.  The "wicked" are those who do things like oppress the poor and take advantage of the fatherless and widows.  The "righteous" are not assumed to be perfect or sinless or any such thing, but they are distinguished.  It can be argued that the term is used to denote the faithful, those who love and worship the true God.  It is clear that the faithful are not sinless, by any stretch (look at the examples we are given, such as King David), but they are still distinguished.

And I think the distinction is important.  It is not important for the sake of saying "I'm better than those bad people over there."  In the vertical sense, we have already established the universality of man's depravity and moral and spiritual need.  Yet, when we disregard the horizontal or "civil" sense we lose something significant.  We lose our voice.  Suddenly, no one has any room to cry out or plead to God.  Suddenly, the Biblical cry, "Why do the wicked prosper?" is meaningless.  After all, what right do I have to say that someone else is "wicked" when I am also "wicked?"  It is like saying that since I do bad things, too, then that cancels it all out and I lose the right to be wounded or cry for justice.  But the cry, which is a very real cry, implies that I am (or someone is) a victim or that I am not in the same group as the offender.  It implies that I try to live right and love God, though I sin, yet others who follow their own appetites not only do so without inhibition but seem to be rewarded for it by the bounty and success and ease of this life.  They "get away" with it, in a sense.  They destroy, and then walk away, leaving wreckage behind them, going about their merry way to bigger and bigger and better and better.

This is usually not a general cry, either.  We can look at the news and throw up our hands, saying, "How terrible!  Why do the wicked prosper?!"  But for many people, this is a very personal matter.  Betrayal, deception, destruction, loss, etc.  And the destroyer moves on, leaving you in a heap of wreckage and rubble.  You know you have your sins and failures, but really?  How is this fair?  How can life be like this?  Why, God, do you let it happen?  Why?

And must I try to humanize them?  Must I do all of those things that Christian books tell you to do, such as try to identify with them?  Can't I just hate them for the destruction they have caused and how their desertion and non-chalant motions to "move on" leave so much unanswered for and so much hurt and pain left throbbing and burning in my hands, gnawing through your flesh and into my soul?  Must I sit back and believe that God will sort everything out in the end?  Must I trust that He will be just?  What if He isn't?  He has sat by for so long doing nothing, and that seems so unjust, so what guarantee do I have that He will see things my way?  What if He decides the wrong wasn't that bad, and that I am just as wrong as they were?  Will not even God understand my pain and take it seriously?

Lot's of people, Christians especially, say "Oh, it's ok.  Things will work out in the end.  Their destructiveness will come back upon them?"  But the fear remains... what if it doesn't?  What if I am alone in feeling this suffering?  What if not even God, the One who really sees things objectively and fully, will understand my suffering and do what is right?  What if there is no vindication?  Or what if He just "forgives" them and there is nothing to address the pain and brokenness that has been dropped in my lap?

On a side note, this is what is so depressing about atheism.  Our pain is meaningless and will never be validated or vindicated in any true or lasting sense -not unless we become vigilantes and decide to take matters into our own hands.  But even then, the question still remains:  "What makes what happened 'wrong' to begin with, and upon what basis does my pain mean anything if right and wrong is only a preference or social convention?  All of those expectations for anything 'good' or 'right' were subjective and meaningless from the outset."

Anyway, when I read Psalm 73, I am drawn in.  The author even admits to being "envious" of them, the "arrogant."  Why?  Because they basically do what they do and nothing really happens to them.  They continue on with relative ease.  He goes on and on, describing this problem, and then concludes that even trying to understand how this can be is a "wearisome task."

But the Psalm does not end there.  Something changes in the Psalmists demeanor.  He felt all of these very wearisome and distressing things "until" he went into the sanctuary of God.  It was there that he "discerned their end."  The Psalmist realizes something -God does see what goes on.  He even confesses his tendency to look at what is seen and to doubt God's justice, to become "brutish" and embittered by the sight of it all.  But then he realizes... God will address all things.  As it says in Mark's Gospel, "For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light."  God says, "I will avenge," and He will "wipe away every tear."  The Psalmist realizes that all of their ease and comfort is just a temporary phantom, a vapor.  The ease of their life right now, in other words, only gives the false appearance that they are getting away with anything.

One thing that is not addressed, however, is the case in which the offender is a believer or, at some point, becomes a believer and repents.  What then?  Even if they are really His, I do not think we can guarantee that they will change in this life or even come to fully see and fully admit it.  One could hope, but that still does not guarantee that that which was lost will ever be replaced in its same form.  That is the tragedy of loss in this life.  Even with the reality of forgiveness, that which was lost is never regained.  Something new can serve as a restoration, yet the original thing is gone.  But eventually, I believe there will be some kind of reconciliation or restoration, even if they come to you and say in His Kingdom, "I see now what I could not see back then.  I wish I could have, and I just want you to know that I love you."  That would not be "justice" or recompense, but it would be restoration and validation -which is what our broken hearts really long for.

In either case, God promises validation and restoration.  It won't be on our time, but it will come.  May this truth give us ease and help us to let go of our painful burdens of brokenness so that we may get back up off the ground.

And the Psalmist finishes the Psalm by reminding himself of something else.  He isn't alone.  We aren't alone.  God does see and know and hear, on the most personal level.  He is with us -a statement of God's intimate involvement with His people but also a foreshadowing of His imminence consummated in Jesus Christ and in Him taking up residence within us by His Holy Spirit.  And that is significant, for what we ultimately long for is someone who will take our pain seriously and not leave us in the quagmire of insignificance and disillusionment.  We want someone who will be on our side rather than someone who waffles and tries to stay "neutral" and uninvolved, like so many people do for fear of pissing someone off.

Can you imagine if what you feared -being ultimately alone in your loss and pain, never understood, always minimized, always with someone silently doubting you in the back of their mind, thinking, "Yeah, but is this all in your head?  What did you do to deserve it?"- actually came true?  All of that indignation and pain would have nowhere to go but directly back upon me in a "living death" of self-destruction.  It is ugly and deadly.  This is another reason why we need not only God but each other, true friendship.  We need Someone who will take us seriously and not abandon us.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Push-Pull Christianity

I've met far too many disillusioned Christians.  And I've met far too many Christians that seem to live in a happy little bubble with their marriage retreats, Love and Respect home groups (or whatever next fad book there is), and testimonies of God's faithfulness in giving them a happy life.  At this point in my life, I definitely find myself in the disillusioned category... even the cynical category.  I never thought I would find myself there.  After all, I had the theology to back it all up.  I knew better.  I had the right doctrine.

But something happened to every disillusioned Christian out there.  Chaos and crisis hit.  Tragedy struck.  And they looked at their life and all their efforts to walk the line and do the right thing, and they thought to themselves, "What is it all for?!  Why do the wicked prosper and I keep getting the shaft?  Why do selfish, destructive people seem to get everything they want, often at my expense or at the expense of someone else's destruction, and my years of praying and trying to obey God have just landed me here... lying in the proverbial ditch wondering what the hell happened?  And can anyone blame that I wish, for the first time, that I had simply said 'screw it' to all the rules and enjoyed myself just for me?"

And usually these disillusioned Christians go off the deepend, sometimes never to return.  They actually do say "screw it" to the "rules" and do whatever they want, slowly (or quickly) destroying themselves with all kinds of things they never would have done before.  And sometimes, they lose their faith -or at least severely question it.  After all, if God is really there, then why is there never an answer to my prayers and why does it seem like all the good I do means nothing?

The unwritten, unspoken assumption behind all of this, which even the Christians in the happy little bubble live by, is that "If I try really hard to be a good person and a good Christian, God will bless me and make my life happy and easy."  And some churches and teachers actually teach this -citing certain passages from the Old Testament in particular.

There are a few very glaring problems with this, though.  First of all, it becomes an absolute breeding ground for a very self-centered, results-oriented view of life, eventually leading to disillusionment and a crisis of faith when all my good doesn't yield the good I hoped.  In a subtle way, it creates a sense that God "owes" me, but worse... it gives the very mistaken impression that God has abandoned me when life falls apart.  And with that, anger and resentment toward God fester.  See, when you assume that your good efforst should have good results, and that God's favor is shown in getting those good results, then you must conclude that God has left you when those good results leave.  And that is exactly what happens -we think, "Ok, God... if you aren't going to care about me and what I like, and you're going to leave me like this, then I'm not going to care about you and what you like any more, and I'm leaving you -at least until you show up and start showing me that you care."

I think this tendency is not to be solely blamed on our culture, though I think that Western culture and American Christianity does promote this attitude.  The reason I say this is because of places in Scripture like Romans chapter eight or the epistle to the Hebrews.  Both of those were written to believers who were living through terrible things.  And you can see how in both cases it is implied that these believers were struggling with similar questions.  God, why is this happenening to us?  Have you abandoned us?  Why?  Taking Romans 8 and Hebrews 10-11 as examples, the authors sought to comfort these strained believers by reminding them that God has not abandoned them one bit but that His rewards are ensured to them, to those who persevere and don't abandon Him.

But secondly, this belief forgets the simple fact that our Master did everything right.  He didn't just do some things right.  He didn't just try really hard.  He did everything right.  The Father was "well-pleased" with Him, by His own goodness and righteousness and works alone.  And where did it land Him?  How did His life work out?  Did Jesus get an easy, cushy, happy life that fit right into the grooves of the American, suburban, Christian family dream?  Not even close.  He was rejected by His own people, misunderstood by His own family, hated, mocked, slandered, handed over to enemies, beaten, humiliated, and killed as a criminal for the jeers and spits of all who walked by, if they still could stomach to look at him at that point.

Hmmm.  Something is wrong with this formula.  Could it be that this life doesn't work like a machine, where you pull this lever and push this button in the right way and get life to be how you want?  Could it be that there is no formula, no secret to making everything happen the way you want?  Could it be that there are no guarantees in this life, save only the promises of God?  Could it be that we are not above our Master, and therefore we should expect trouble, just as Jesus told us to?

But all of this begs the question:  "Why be good at all?"  I think many Christians never ask this question.  It's just what you are supposed to do, or it is what you will do if you want God to bless your life.  But if there is no guarantee at all that God will take the bad out of your life, then why obey at all?

1. God's commands are for our good.  Obeying them does not ensure a good, trouble-free life one bit.  But obeying them does spare us from a lot of unnecessary heartache and chaos on top of the trouble and chaos that we already will face just from living in this broken world.  For example, God forbids sex outside of marriage.  There are many very good reasons for that -one of which being how sex creates an unseen bond with the person that can blind us to major red-flags and reasons why being with that person is not good for us.  Sin is destructive, period.

2. We leave an inheritance for those who come after us.  If we ever have children, for example, we are leaving an inheritance to them -an inheritance of our character.  It isn't something can is seen or measured or carried in a box.  But it is something they will be handed, even if they don't ask for it!  We hand to them our character, including all of the good things but also all of the baggage and destructiveness.

3. We devalue God if we claim to love God yet live in such a way that says, "God's will isn't for me."  When people, especially people who do not know Jesus, look at our lives and see how we flagrantly do things that God forbids and have no real problem continuing in it, it shows them that God isn't very special.  It shows them that the people who claim to love God don't really care or respect Him, so therefore God must not be all that great.

4. We will receive our reward in the future.  We will receive our crown for persevering and remaining faithful (and that has primarily to do with our attitude more than our outward acts) -our crown just isn't here and now.  I realize that people from Western culture are spoiled and have a very hard time with delayed gratification, but this is how God works and how are promises are delivered to us.  Even if God does grant deliverance and restoration in this life, which He may or may not do, it is often a delayed deliverance.  The idea is faithfulness in spite of circumstances.  We hold on, we do not give up hope and trust when things go bad, we keep moving.  That is what perseverance means.  God does not promise us a cushy life for being good and trying really hard.  He promises us restoration and eventual deliverance to those who persevere.  And in order for us to persevere, there must be something for us to persevere through.  It isn't as though God doesn't know life can suck.

5. I believe the ultimate reason to obey God is gratitude and love.  When you truly grasp that God owes you absolutely nothing and that you, like everyone else, live under God's curse and fail to live up to your humanity every single day, but that God pursued you still and sent His Son to die for you, to make you His, and rose from the grave to be the progenitor of a new creation for us, to give us everything, to give us Himself and an inheritance with Him forever... to the degree you truly grasp the magnitude of this gift, you cannot live the same way.  You will want to honor Him and not dishonor His gift to you.  But I have found that believing that God has abandoned you when life falls apart is corrosive and in direct opposition to this truth, for this truth says the exact opposite.  It says that God is for us, as it says in Romans 8.  This truth, the Gospel, says that God doesn't walk away from us, reasoning that if God gave so much to have us then He would not abandon us for less.