Friday, March 28, 2008

Thought For The Day

I've been mulling over some of the issues swirling around the Barrack Obama/ Reverend Wright kerfuffle. I've been reading an awful lot about it, a fair bit of it from black pastors and pundits who all have their own take on racism in America and Liberation Theology. It's been very interesting reading. I'm not going to get into the political side of this, but one spiritual thing has struck me rather forcefully. Much of what I have read has claimed that the black church in America breaks down into pretty much two camps, the Liberation Theology camp--blacks are an oppressed people on whom the wrongs of the past are still being wrought today--and the Prosperity Gospel camp--God wants you to be financially prosperous, healthy, and untroubled in life. I'm not sure how accurate this assessment is. I personally went to a church for over a decade whose black pastors and black members of the congregation completely rejected both these teachings. However that may be, many now are saying these two belief systems are the predominant lines of thought. What I am convinced is the case is that these two ways of thinking may seem like different ideologies to the people who embrace them, but they are two sides of the same coin.

Think about it. If you believe that God wants you to have every material comfort, if you, in fact, believe this to be a spiritual law, when (as is inevitable in life) you face trials and adversities, you are going to have to find some reason to explain why God is not blessing you as He has promised. You have to blame Him, yourself, or someone/something else. If you see yourself as following His rules and complying with the things He requires to guarantee these blessings, then something, or someone else must be at fault when they are not forthcoming. It is a natural progression. It also follows that you would do the same when you see others who you believe to be worthy facing an inevitably imperfect existence, especially if you see your condition and theirs as intrinsically linked. I don't care what race, color, gender, etc. you are. Most of us try to find ways to reconcile when our worldview and our reality come into conflict. Often that reconciliation takes the form of blame and resentment.

Now, the problems I see in this type of thinking are myriad, but I will limit my response to just a couple. First off, we are flawed and sinful beings, and the first person whose goodness and virtue we ought to look to question is our own. After all, we know ourselves quite intimately, and see the things inside our heads which no one else gets to see. Casting blame should always come back to "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." That, however, is really just the surface of the issue. The Prosperity Gospel's intrinsic flaw, in my opinion, is that it perverts the nature of our motivation for coming to Christ. What the Bible clarifies over and over is that humans are separated from God by our own sin, and that He has made a way, through Jesus, for us to be reconciled to Him and to be changed. The Gospel is all about spiritual restoration and transformation--often a very uncomfortable process as we let go of our selfishness and submit to God's better understanding of what would be best for us. (To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, God's goal is not to make us happy, but to make us good.) We come to God because we love Him and are grateful that He loved us first and wants a relationship with us--that He made a way for that to happen.

What happens when people make it about God making us comfortable instead? They lose the very essence of the love relationship. I ask you, on a strictly human level, do you want people in your life who are your friends because they love you come what may and are grateful for your love in return, or because you give them stuff and make things easy for them? On a less self-focused note, if you want what is best for those you love, where is the benefit to them from merely having things given to them? If your goal for those you love is to see them become better and stronger people, more able to help themselves and others, how will those traits be developed if you never allow them to face trials to develop and prove that growth? Weight lifters only get stronger by adding more weight. Runners gain endurance by pushing their limits. How many of us grow personally during the good and easy times? How much strength and perseverance and wisdom and virtue are gained on a beach in Maui? Now, how many of those do we develop as we work hard to support our families, or endure physical pain, or serve a suffering loved one? It's the hard times that teach us best. All of us naturally want to avoid pain and suffering, but we should not look to avoid them completely, nor desire a life with no trials for the ones we love. Would you want your children so coddled in life that they never develop any character, but remain weak, selfish, dependant whiners their whole lives? Now, take that limited human understanding of wanting what is best for those you love, and combine it with God's infinite love, knowledge and foresight. It goes against His very character to suggest that His goal for any person or group of people is perfect health, wealth and happiness. He loves us too much for that, and He does not want us to come to Him because He can give us stuff, but rather because He can change who we are.

I don't know how really prevalent the teachings of "prosperity" and "liberation" are in the black church, or any other church in America for that matter, but I do believe that those who cling to such teachings deny the true power of the Gospel. That true power is the power to change lives, through forgiveness for our sins and an ongoing changing of individual character which makes us able to say with Paul:

...I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength. Philippians 4:11-13

My husband always says, "Circumstance is nothing. Character is everything." It's who God is shaping us to be that matters. All the rest is just circumstance.