Thursday, August 16, 2012

Good and Bad

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. - James 1:17

I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things. - Isaiah 45:7

Joel Osteen was talking on TV about how God's goodness means that God wants to do good things for us. As far as I could tell, the good things that Osteen had in mind are almost exclusively near-term and personal—getting noticed by the right people, getting a promotion, avoiding physical harm. Going from memory, part of the sermon went like this: “Someone might say, ‘How can you say that God is good, when my car got totaled?’ But I say, ‘God showed his goodness in that, even though your car was totaled, you were not harmed!’”

There are (at least) four major problems with this approach:

  • While focusing on God's desire to do good for us, it ignores other aspects of God's nature (for example, his justice, or his disciplining us).
  • The “good things” described are almost exclusively near-term and personal.
  • I do not understand how you can grant God total credit for every good thing that happens without also granting God total responsibility for every bad thing that happens. Sometimes only the car is totaled, but sometimes the car is totaled and the driver killed.
  • I do not understand how you can grant God total credit for every good thing that happens without also granting God total responsibility for every conceivable good or bad thing that might happen. If we thank God for intervening and sparing the driver's life, even though the car was totaled, then we must realize that it would be just as easy for an omnipotent God (and no doubt much more convenient for the driver) for God to turn a car-totaling accident into a near miss.

All of these problems can (and have!) been addressed by Christians, but they can't be addressed by the kind of facile theology that presents God's goodness in terms of our happiness and that invokes James 1:17 while ignoring Isaiah 45:7.

I do not think that God is especially concerned with my happiness. I don't think that he ignores it, it's just that if my happiness were a high priority to him, it becomes very difficult to explain why he's answered prayers the way he has. But that's okay; parenting has made me realize that I'm not especially concerned with my children's happiness. I do want them to be happy, but I know that I've already provided them with good lives, with lots of reasons for happiness. And I don't want them to be merely happy; I want them to love others, to know that they are loved, to learn and grow academically and spiritually, to commit their lives to God, to make an impact in the world. All of these things are much more important to me than their happiness.

I doubt that my kids spend much of their day considering how they can best love others, or learn and grow, or make an impact in the world. Their concerns are usually much more immediate. One wants to make sure that he gets a blueberry (not cinnamon raisin) bagel. Another wants to play Nintendo DS as soon as he possibly can, even if family or friends are visiting. The last wants my wife or me to do things for her so that she won't have to do it herself. When they don't get their wants, there's arguing, pleading, and occasionally tears. In short, I am not making them happy. They may not think that I'm very good at times like that.

My concerns are different than theirs. I want to teach them to accept a cinnamon raisin bagel with thanksgiving if that's all that we have. I want to teach them that relationships with people are more important than things, and sometimes that means spending time with people instead of playing video games. I want to teach them maturity and responsibility rather than getting a grown-up to do things for you. I'd argue that these things are good and that, in the long run, things like thankfulness, relationships, and maturity will bring more happiness than blueberry bagels, video games, and grown-ups' help.

I'm only 24 to 28 years older than my kids. My brain's finished growing, but other than that, I'm no smarter than them. But this is enough to have a completely different set of concerns than them. Why should I be surprised that God, who's infinitely older and wiser and smarter than me, has much more important goals for my life than the concerns that I so often permit to cause me unhappiness?

Blueberry bagels and video games and grown-ups' help are good things, and as James 1:17 says, we should thank God for them. But, as Isaiah 45:7 says, sometimes good things don't come. That's okay. There are higher priorities than what we cab currently see as good things. And even when bad things come, God is always good.