I’ve had some thoughts rattling around my mind for the last week or two, and then I saw this great post from Michael Clark. He provides insight into a problem I’ve faced and which I think many Christians face, and I figured I’d add some reinforcement.
I get the impression that many Christians have it in their minds that good fortune is promised by God in a formulaic fashion. An extreme version of this view is what is commonly called “prosperity gospel.” Prosperity gospel is essentially a worldview—usually promoted by wealthy mega-church pastors—that views physical health, wealth, and social status as benefits directly bestowed by God as payment for services rendered. For instance, they frequently state that the more money you give to church, the more money God gives you back. Because, you know, you can’t out-give God. Most Evangelicals reject prosperity gospel because it usually omits any discussion of eternal spiritual matters. However, I think that many, if not most, Evangelicals hold similar views of prosperity whether it’s on a conscious or subconscious level.
I used to be one of them. I really felt like if I did what was right, then God would bless me. After all, it says that in the bible somewhere… right? If you fast and pray, that shows God how serious you are about what you want. Therefore, He is more likely to grant what you are asking for. If thou art righteous, then He shall pour out His blessings upon thee. I never really stopped to think about the implications of that view. It took me a while to realize that I viewed God as a predictable entity who would give me what I wanted if I followed the Fundamentalist commandments. I basically thought that if I behaved in strict accordance with The Rules (like don’t smoke, don’t swear, don’t drink alcoholic beverages, etc.) then He owed me a good life (as defined by me) in return.
This view was shaken when a series of troubling events occurred. At one point, I found myself in a set of circumstances that occurred not just in spite of my supposed righteous behavior—they seemed to occur because of my behavior. Shortly thereafter, a friend of mine was in an accident that left him severely injured. This accident occurred despite his upstanding character for which, according to my worldview, God should have rewarded him. After this series of events, I spent years seeking an answer to the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
In retrospect, there were several glaring errors in my thinking. The first is that there are “good” people. Certainly there is goodness in humainity, but our goodness is relative. No amount of relative goodness is enough to make God indebted to us. Another error was not recognizing that God created an orderly world governed by cause and effect. Sometimes our misfortune may be the result of poor decisions, and no amount of prior righteousness will supersede our poor decisions. Another error was thinking that bible verses that spoke of God blessing the righteous, implied that God would automatically suspend cause and effect if we could just be good enough.
I’ve heard other Christians voice their frustration at God because they “answered His call to ministry,” yet their ministry is struggling and seemingly ineffectual. What many believers may be missing (and what I was definitely missing) is that God’s purpose is not to make our desired endstate magically materialize, no matter how noble our intentions. His purpose is far above our own.
I once had the privilege of observing some military troops take part in a training exercise. This particular training session was designed to promote leadership, team building, and problem solving. What the trainees didn’t know, was that no matter how well they performed, the exercise controllers injected problems into the scenario that hindered the team’s success. Essentially, the better they performed, the harder the scenario became. You see, if they succeeded and completed the exercise easily, there would have been little training value. If they failed at various points, they would have to push themselves and work even harder to overcome the challenge at hand. Some of the troops rose to the occasion and worked together and ultimately overcame their obstacles. Others became angry and generated friction within their team. They didn’t realize that they had been deliberately set up to fail.
I now view the world as an orderly system that we perceive as chaotic. Choice and consequence. Cause and effect. Our circumstances are affected both by our own decisions and also by the decisions of others. Lots of causes and lots of effects. It’s like raindrops falling on a pond. When one raindrop falls onto the surface of the water, you can watch the ripples expand in a predictable manner. But when thousands of raindrops fall on the surface in a short amount of time, the ripples overlap, appear chaotic, and produce patterns too complex to be predictable.
Sometimes we suffer the repercussions of our own poor decisions. Sometimes we make good decisions but experience bad circumstances due to the actions of others. It’s at those times that we feel like life (or God) isn’t fair.
I am now convinced that our short time on this earth is a developmental period in which God places us to develop wisdom, judgment, and character. If this is the case, then it seems reasonable to me that God would allow us to go through difficult circumstances in order to give us opportunities to grow. Whether these trying circumstances are the result of cause and effect or the result of supernatural intervention is unknowable and unimportant. Without intending to trivialize the traumatic events that many people experience, I largely view our time on earth the same way I view a parent sending his kids outside to play. There will be fights, skinned knees, bruises, and hurt feelings. But such things are an inevitable part of life and in fact, perform a necessary role in their development. Shielding them from those experiences would ultimately prove to be detrimental to their development.
To me, it’s not inconceivable that, in a sense, God sets us up to fail. Once I accepted this concept, I felt an exhilarating sense of both freedom and responsibility. This is not to say that every failure is caused by God. Just that He allows these failures in order to develop us into better people. The good news is that He is walking alongside us through each failure, and He has a glorious endstate in mind toward which he is moving us.