[Frederica Here and Now; April 22, 2009]
When my daughter-in-law brought in the harvest from her very diligent vegetable gardening, she sent me a photo of the bounty. I felt immediate wonder and gratitude—that with the sweat of her brow (and the much smaller brows of her 6 little ones) God had made this miracle, had made little brown seeds and little green sprouts turn into a basketful of robust edibles. How grateful to God they must feel, I thought. When I want vegetables, I have to pay for them.
The fallacy became clear a few thoughts later. The vegetables I buy at the store are just as miraculous as those in her back yard. But the miracle is hidden from me, because I have to go buy them. I have to hand over my credit card before bringing my vegetables home, so I have the vague impression that they are won by my own labor. God doesn’t get any credit.
Now, admittedly, God isn’t the only factor in a successful vegetable garden. There’s an old joke about a city feller who was taking a drive in the country, and pulled over to watch a farmer tending his fields. Impressed by the abundance stretching acre after acre, he said to the farmer, “Isn’t God good, to provide all this bounty!” The farmer replied, “You should have seen this place when God had it all to himself.”
Yet the fact that we encounter such foods in gently-misted produce displays, rather than sprouting from the dirt, camouflages God’s role. This doesn’t apply only to foods, of course. We do almost everything with money. Earlier generations had to seek God fervently for healing from diseases that we now cure with medication or treatment, bought with our hard-earned money. Earlier generations prayed for clement weather, but we evade extreme temperatures with heating-and-cooling systems, bought with our hard-earned money. An orange used to be a Christmas treat; now we have them year-round, and virtually any other food we desire, from any part of the world. Frankly, there’s not much left for God to do.
We’ve brought so much under human control that only the things left uncontrollable are the biggies: a tsunami, a car accident, a fast-moving cancer. It is for those remaining troubles that we turn to God for help, and, enough of the time, he doesn’t do the job. When I want something done, if it’s under my control, well, it gets done. If it’s something no one can control but God, results are not as reliable. God just doesn’t do as good a job as humans do. When it’s time for performance review, he receives a report of “Disappointing.”
Every night I pray Psalm 50 (51), and in the translation I use there is a line that has long perplexed me:
“That Thou mightest be justified in Thy words, and prevail when Thou art judged.”
I always wondered, When is God judged? It dawned on me that *now* is when God is being judged. The recent profusion of atheist and skeptical arguments often point to the existence of evil: if there is suffering in the world, either God is not capable of restraining it (he’s not omnipotent), or he doesn’t particularly care what happens to us (his will doesn’t require that things turn out well for humans). As the formula goes, either God is God and he is not good, or God is good and he is not God.
The funny thing about this current theme is that it doesn’t seem oriented toward saying that there is no God at all, as much as saying that God is failing to perform. It’s not a matter of facing a universe that is empty, as facing one where the guy in charge is a senile dufus. We live in an economy where our primary identity is that of consumer; we grow used to making hundreds of judgments every day, as we decide which product will earn our hard-earned bucks. Almost everything that could be under human control has been subjected to our desires; God has only one thing to take care of, the problem of evil. Why does he keep goofing up?
Those lines from the psalm are the end of a sentence; they are conditioned on something that comes earlier. God prevails when he is judged because something else has happened.
“Against Thee only have I sinned and done this evil in Thy sight,
That Thou mightest be justified in Thy words, and prevail when Thou art judged.”
God prevails when we have an accurate view of the universe. It is one in which we ourselves have sinned, and sinned specifically against Him. The illusion that we are isolated individuals minding our own business, working hard for the things we want and acquiring them fair and square, must dissolve if we are ever to grasp the truth: that God’s life and energy runs through all Creation and underlies everything, including our own bodies; that we exist solely by his grace, and we offend that gift every day. But we are continually being worked over by advertising messages that teach I-me-mine, and assure us that we deserve whatever we want. The only cure for that is repentance, but repentance is bad for the economy. So we are conditioned to be self-indulgent, and conditioned not to feel gratitude. Why be grateful, when we paid for it with our own money? Who does God think he is, anyway?