Friday, November 7, 2014

What we can do, and what only God can do

The other night at church, there was a video presentation about a program that collects goods and toys for children, as many as will fit in a shoe box, and distributes them to needy children from all around the world. One of the repeated lines of those speaking during the presentation was this: through these shoe boxes, these kids learn that God has not forgotten them or abandoned them, that he still loves them. In my mind, I was asking the question: how does a shoe box from me here in Arizona show a child in Africa that God loves him? Why doesn't God show that love in some direct way? Why mediate through me? This question can be generalized, of course. If God loves us, why doesn't he intervene directly when things are going bad and we suffer? Why let us suffer and still insist from afar, as far as anyone can tell, that he still loves us?

This was an evil line of questioning because I asked it in doubt; this line of questioning roused up doubts in my mind about God's goodness and grace, which ought never to be considered. But thanks be to God that the Holy Spirit did not leave me in that line of questioning for too long, but instead gave me the insight that solved the problem. What was this insight?

I realized, first, that God has acted in a direct way in order to demonstrate his love for us; he has gone and intervened without waiting for us to do something. This is the intervention of God in Jesus Christ, by which our sins are atoned and forgiven, our bodies and natures restored to immortality and glory, and our fellowship with God renewed and guaranteed. God in Christ has taken the curse and evil and sin of the entire world upon himself, done away with it all in Christ's death, and through Christ's resurrection has guaranteed a glorious resurrection to life with God for all people. This was something that was accomplished, as Paul says, by God's pure grace: But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy (Tit 3.4-5).

The second realization was that there are things we can do, and things only God can do. When it comes to the redemption of the lowly and the fight against evil, God has done what was within only his power to accomplish. That is the salvation that we have through Jesus Christ. No one of us could stop the cycle of sin and death, no one of us could bring humanity back out of the ashes of its own impending doom. No one of us can say that we have conquered hell and the devil and share this victory with others! Therefore God did this for us, because he loves us. But there are things we can do, and these things God leaves up to us.

He leaves it up to us, for the most part anyway, to feed the hungry mouths of the starving. He leaves it up to us to work for peace in the face of approaching forces of evil, for example ISIS. He leaves it up to us to seek good for our neighbors who are in need. I wouldn't deny for a second that when we do these things, we are assisted all the while by God's grace. Of course that is true. But it is also true that, in contradistinction to the act of salvation accomplished by Christ, God does not work salvation or shalom in these other areas unilaterally and unconditionally.

Why does he leave it up to us? Because we have to learn how to be good; we have to learn how to care like him, and to do what is within our power for the sake of our neighbors who suffer. We want God to wave his magic wand and fix all the problems of the world, as if that will make everything okay. Far from it -- our hearts are sick, and even if everything were great, it is probable that we would only ruin it all once more. Perhaps the second ruin would be greater than the first! We have to make an effort, to make the requisite sacrifices, and dedicate ourselves to doing what is good. This is how we become like God, who does good to all and who did the greatest good of all in saving all of humanity.

Of course, I am writing this post from the comfort of my own suburban home on a nice laptop, and I have no intention to sell everything I have and give it to the poor. I have no intention to abandon myself utterly to the pursuit of the common good, forgetting entirely about myself. I don't think I can do what Christ did, not to think of myself or to please myself in some way or other (cf. Rom 15.3). I can at least make baby steps, however, and I can do what I can in every opportunity and situation that presents itself to me. And you can do the same!

It may just be that we are not supposed to live our lives trying to enjoy the eighty or so years we have at our disposal (if we are strong and lucky!) in as trouble-free a manner as possible. It may just be that the point is not to live pleasant and peaceful Epicurean existences until the inevitable moment of dissolution at death. It may just be that we are supposed to make the battle against the forces of evil and the restoration of this world our primary goal, and subordinate everything else to that.