This is the second post in a series about relying on God in a messy world.
God doesn’t push us around. And yet he rules the universe.
God is reliable. But things often don’t work out even when we’re counting on God with all our heart.
Preachers and theologians and philosophers have given us a mountain range of sermons, essays, articles and books to explain why good things happen to bad people.
As I said in the previous post, most of these preachers and authors try to reconcile God’s goodness with suffering.
Some say that God didn’t cause the suffering or couldn’t prevent it. He’s good, but not as powerful as advertised. He’s really nice, but maybe not so reliable.
Others say that the all-powerful God was justified in causing the suffering because the sufferers had it coming.
God’s got mojo and he’s good in a fierce, anxiety-producing kind of way. He’s so prickly that relying on him might make you feel a little too vulnerable.
Both of these theological strategies seem devoted to getting God off the hook.
I’m not very interested in that.
Most people I know, when they’re really in the thick of what life throws at us, don’t care that much about it either.
When your child is sick, your job is on the line, your marriage is on the rocks, your teenager is hooked on heroin, your parent drifts in and out of the fog of Alzheimer’s, the utility bill is due and the money is gone.
When you’re exhausted from chauffeuring your kids for the thousandth time, sick of thinking you’re too fat or too thin or too old, so lonely in a crowded room you find yourself fighting back tears.
When you really want that promotion, that project at work to be a homerun, that college acceptance, that girl to marry you, that guy to marry somebody else, just not to say the wrong thing on your first date.
Can you rely on God?
It’s really not enough that he’s watching and that he cares. I am not interested in being a character in one of God’s soap operas.
Can I count on him to come through for me? Every time!
Scripture tells us yes. And I believe this to be true, but I had to clear away some intellectual debris before it made some sense. Maybe you could use some conceptual decluttering yourself.
Some of us believe that life is about being comfortable. Others pursue success or pleasure or fame or power with such tenacity that we can only assume that this is their vision of the highest good.
If they’re right, then God has really let a lot of us down.
But they are not right.
Human life is about more, much more, than comfort or pleasure or applause or influence or possessions.
As I’ve said in previous posts, we were made to love. Love is a free gift, not a hapless passion.
Created in God’s image, we have the ability to choose a way of relating to God and to each other regardless of how we happen to feel about God or the other person at the moment.
To love, we have to be free. But it doesn’t stop there. We have to learn to be free. And this is where God is perfectly reliable.
This might sound strange. We have to learn to be free. Aren’t we just free? We can make choices. Right?
If the height of freedom were willfulness, this freedom thing would be a breeze. Just choose and you’re free. As Jean-Paul Sartre put it, we’re condemned to be free. We can’t help ourselves.
But this isn’t true. Just ask addicts about how their once free choices led them into captivity.
Their choices to begin using led them to lose their ability to choose to walk away from the drug of their choice. Those in recovery will mostly tell you that grace saved them (although their word choices may vary).
Freedom is learning how to choose.
Two-year olds, teenagers, and men at midlife can be willful. A mature person knows how to be willing.
Grownups are grownups because they don’t have to have their own way. They know that Jesus Christ offers a more excellent Way. To be free is to be willing. And we have to learn how to do this.
Look at the Biblical record.
By design Adam was free. He could feed himself by plucking the fruit from any tree in the Garden of Eden. Any tree.
But God directed him how to exercise his freedom. It’s as if God said, “Here’s a nice new will. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll love it. Actually, once you get the hang of it you’ll love.” (Genesis 2:15-17)
The rest of that story tells us one thing for sure. Getting the hang of this freedom thing is easier said than done. And the scriptural record keeps underscoring precisely this point in different ways.
God promised Abraham and Sarah a son.
Abraham and Sarah waited a quarter of a century for God to come through on the promise. (Abraham was 100 and Sarah 90. That’s another story!)
Abraham needed to learn how to choose his son Isaac as a son, not an idol that would replace God. It’s a lesson plenty of us could still learn. Our children would appreciate it. They’re not here to justify our existence.
To take another example, the Hebrews wandered in the desert for 40 years after passing through the Red Sea until coming to the Promised Land.
Geographically speaking, that should have been about a three-week walk.
God himself led them through the desert: a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. So why the scenic route? In the desert, the Hebrews were learning how to be free, how to live freely in covenant with God.
The Sinai Covenant consists of the law. I have resisted using the word “obedience” up to this point precisely because of its negative tone for contemporary ears.
Obedience seems to many to be the exact opposite of freedom.
Nothing could be further from the truth. God does not impose a capricious set of demands upon us in his law. The law’s purpose is to guide us in learning how to love.
The summary of the law that Jesus himself utters makes it clear. All the law boils down to loving God in your very marrow and loving your neighbor as yourself.
Slavishly following rules for fear of punishment or in hope of personal advancement is not at all what God had in mind.
He wants us to learn to be free. To be willing.
Here’s our problem. A big part of us stays willful. Freedom keeps feeling like that thing I want to do but can’t do. Being willing seems to take effort because I’m fighting with myself.
Only one of us has ever gotten this willingness business right. Jesus. And he did it for all of us.
And don’t for a moment think it was like falling off a log. Look at Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.
“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground. (Luke 22:42-44)
Jesus was willing. He came through for us once and for all. He is still willing. And he keeps coming through for us, day by day, as we learn to be free.
In our sorrow and in our joy, in our failures and in our victories, he comes through for us. Making us who we cannot make ourselves alone.
There is more to say about how to rely upon God in our daily lives, what he does about our suffering and sorrow, miracles, and Satan. More posts in this series to come.
Dear Anglican Pelican,
Once again, you are right on. I hope you are being widely read, marked, learned and inwardly digested, (and “heard”). Sometimes we have to wander theologically for 40 years, or longer, before we complete a three-week walk. But, you are showing it to us, and for that we give thanks.
Thanks, my friend!
Well said Jake – very moving – thanks for sharing.
Thanks, Alston! I enjoy your blog as well. Keep it coming!