“When I looked for good, then evil came unto me; and when I waited for light, there came darkness.” ~~ Job 30:26
Easter morning may not be bright and sunny; at least the Weathermen aren’t predicting that this weekend. However, for Christians today, we can celebrate because we know the rest of the story. That first Easter morning, while it was still dark, the disciples were holed up in the Upper Room for fear of their lives and only Mary Magdalene was out in the darkness of the garden. Wandering in her grief and pain, she came upon an empty tomb. Thinking that Jesus had been stolen in the night, she raced to bring the disciples to confirm this. After they left, she stayed behind to mourn (John 20).
On that first Easter morning, Mary Magdalene might have been thinking, “No good deed goes unpunished. Why do the dogs bite the hand that feeds them? Why do the righteous suffer?” We aren’t unlike our first century cousin, for we ask the same question when bad things happen to good people. In fact, for most of us believers and non-believers alike, we aren’t thrilled when suffering comes into our lives! Most of us adults are like Job, the uber-Father: he offers sacrifices to God on behalf of his children just in case they fail to fulfill their responsibilities of faith (Job 1:5). We too try to keep our children free from suffering, and then when we or they suffer, we wonder why the righteous have to suffer when we too have been the protector of widows, orphans, and the weak (Job 4:5-6). Unfortunately, suffering is a fact of life, even of the blessed life, as Job was to discover. If we read the final chapters of the Gospels, the histories of the letters in the New Testament, and the stories of the lives of the Prophets, we will discover that those who are called to the God life are not immune to suffering.
Some strains of Christianity practice “Happy Face Theology,” but this is just the wearing of a mask to hide the inner struggles of our truly human suffering. “Jesus suffered on the cross to take away our suffering, their theology says, so have faith and be happy.” Unfortunately, this notion denies the believer the crucial struggle with reconciling contradictory ideas and emotions. It keeps the believer from building a rigorous faith that will stand up to the winds and turmoil that come from the storms of life. In the darkness we don’t need a shiny happy faith; we need a strong, deeply rooted faith, even if it can’t be seen above ground.
Another tradition of this Christian Feel Good Message is that those who do good will be rewarded and if we do wrong we are punished. Christ’s death on the cross gets complicated for this theology: here the good person gets punished, but then gets rewarded in the end. Suffering can have a purpose, if it’s for God. This opens up a whole bag of negative implications from permitting spousal abuse, sexual harassment, or accepting corporate child punishment “because the Bible has a text supporting it.” The Bible also has texts supporting slavery, eating only kosher foods, not wearing clothes made of two kinds of cloth, marrying more than one woman, and handling poisonous snakes during worship. Most of us ignore those things, much to our credit! Jesus said we aren’t punished for our misdeeds by God, but God wants us to repent and live a new life (Luke 13:1-5).
Riches and honor, long life and good health are also promised blessings of this tradition in Christianity that we know as Prosperity Theology. It’s belief is that salvation’s blessings are to be found today’s world, which is attractive to people who are attached to this world. Of course, the one who died on the cross and lay in the grave for three days said, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36). We are like King Solomon of old, and the Wisdom Tradition that was popular during his kingdom. We are in love with wisdom/reason, foreign gods/idols, power, and we care for ourselves rather than the poor of the land. The kingdom of Israel doesn’t survive this second king after David, but splits into a northern and southern territory. The Promised Land doesn’t hold together when humanity choses to place the love of earthly riches and power above the love of God.
When the dark days of despair come into our lives and we are wandering and grieving around in a garden, perhaps we even ask if God has abandoned us. We wonder if we lost the last coin in our pocket for the magic vending machine in the sky that has produced all the goodies we have been used to receiving just by dropping into church on a regular basis or by offering up prayers. Now these words go out to the emptiness and our coin drops back with a depressing clink. What we forget to do is to read the Bible for ourselves. Preaching is for encouragement, so it usually is upbeat. Reading the Bible will give us the whole story. In the Bible we discover that faithful people suffer as often as they have joy. The blessings of faith aren’t for our enrichment, but to glorify God and build his kingdom. We are meant to spend ourselves and be spent for God’s kingdom: to give the best of ourselves to the least, to the last, and to the lost.
Salmon swim upstream against all odds to spawn to create the next generation, even though for some this will be the last act of their lives. This is an act of suffering and sacrifice for the good of those who come after them. We want to have our faith and keep it for ourselves. We don’t want our young to suffer in any way possible, yet discipline is a mark of a faithful Christian. Are we different from the world, which chases profit, prosperity, security, social position and pleasure over pain? What marks you as one that swims upstream?
As a spiritual exercise, draw or photograph your idols: perfection, pure health, freedom from pain, wealth, security, or what ever you have made into your own little god. Next to this draw a rectangle: This is the void into which God will write the words and show you how God wants to use you. Use this as a meditation time this week. Don’t feel rushed to write on the first day. Write whatever comes into your mind, individual words or images day by day. May this be a New Day for you!