Lucky

I would like to reclaim luck.

There is a notion prevalent among evangelicals that Christians should never attribute their good fortune or success to luck but only to God’s blessing. I suspect that many would attribute luck—good or bad—to the devil. By good luck he further ensnares those who are already his and prevents their escape. By bad luck he discourages the faithful and tempts them to desert the way of life.

The bible, however, presents a different view. Even the terrible misfortunes that befall Job, though designed and executed by the devil, are nevertheless permitted by God. His religious friends are convinced that Job is guilty of some great wickedness. They accuse him of robbing widows, enslaving orphans, or getting his fortune by murder and deceit. No one, their reasoning goes, is that unlucky. Job, too, looks for some overarching reason behind his misery. He wants to confront God with his own innocence and insists on his own integrity even if he must die for it. Neither Job nor the friends seem aware of the role Satan has played, and the author does not recur to it at the end of the narrative, as if the devil’s part is not really important. In the bible God takes responsibility for everything. His blessings result in peace, well-being, and happiness. His curses result in disaster and misery.

For me the distinction between being lucky and being blessed is one of emphasis. If I attribute my success to luck, then I am saying that it was not primarily my doing. I merely took advantage of advantageous opportunities. If I attribute my success to being blessed, then I am saying that it was God’s doing, not mine. I am merely the recipient of God’s beneficence. The context determines whether I want to emphasize God’s agency.

One potential problem with emphasizing God’s agency in blessing is the tacit assumption some people will make that God’s blessing has somehow to be deserved. If I claim to be blessed, I may appear to be claiming some kind of special status with God due to moral superiority or holiness. To avoid such an appearance, I might just say, “I was lucky.”

A look comparing how often the phrases “so lucky” and “so blessed” occur over the past 200 years shows that “so blessed” tended to predominate in the 19th century, but “so lucky” surpassed it around the beginning of the 20th century and has remained ascendant since.

Google NGram Viewer "so blessed" vs. "so lucky"

Google NGram Viewer “so blessed” vs. “so lucky”

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How Great is Our God?

O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together.   —Psalm 34:3

The idea of magnifying God always seemed a little odd to me. We don’t typically talk of magnifying except in the sense of making something appear larger or nearer. How can God be made to appear bigger than he is? Is he not infinite? Or how can he be made to appear nearer? Is he not everywhere present? What can it mean to magnify the all-knowing, all-powerful, ever-present God?

Then I recall the language of lovers. Lovers extol what they love. Ask a lover about something he loves—it need not be a person but a hobby or vocation—and prepare to hear his love magnified as if it were the only thing in the universe. For in a sense it is; it fills his own universe. Those who love God cannot help praising him. Everything that happens in their lives will be found to connect in some way to the God they love.

They will speak of the glory of Your kingdom
and will declare Your might,
informing all people of Your mighty acts
and of the glorious splendor of Your kingdom. (Psalm 145:11-12)

But there is more.

We live in a world that belittles God. Our culture for the most part considers God as unimportant and regards people of faith—especially those whose faith impels them to public action—as dangerous lunatics. God is okay as long as he is the private delusion of a few fanatics. He is tolerable as long as he doesn’t matter in any meaningful way to the life and business of the world. Let God have his little corner in religion. Let him make his rules and have his “kingdom,” but let’s not have any nonsense about absolute truth or a universal moral law. Looking at God through the lens of our culture is like peering into the wrong end of a telescope. God seems small and distant, parochial and insignificant. His acts aren’t mighty; they’re puny. He is weak and stupid, perhaps even evil.

Consider what Christians credit God with: he created everything that exists; made a way through the Red Sea so the Israelites passed through on dry ground; he sent fire from heaven to consume Elijah’s offering; he shut the mouths of lions; he raised Jesus from the dead. But these things are all in the past. What has he done lately? What do we credit him with today? He gave me a parking place near the door so I wouldn’t get rained on; he reduced the severity of the flu I had; he provided a grocery gift card anonymously when I really needed it. While these acts reflect a personal care seldom found in the old stories, they don’t seem to magnify God. They make him out to be a kind of doting nanny, more concerned with our comfort than with our character. Perhaps the culture is only reflecting back the smallness in the testimony about God that Christians have given. Sometimes in our zeal for his omnipotence, we Christians even credit him with evil—at least with what the world regards as evil.

God intends that his children be like him, that they exhibit his character. In doing so, they reflect his good character and bring credit to his name. This is why Jesus told his followers, “Let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” The world unacquainted with God knows him by the deeds of his sons and daughters. It is by our good works that we show the world how merciful and loving is our God, how forgiving and patient, how terrifying and awesome. If our deeds are evil, we discredit God. One does not have to look far to see how much discredit Christians have brought to God. In the world we are known for bigotry and intolerance, hatred, ignorance, and ineffectiveness. So let us turn back from condemnation and from evil deeds that discredit God, and let us do good: bring health and healing to those who are sick, bring life and hope to the discouraged and depressed, love and accept the outcasts, set people free from systems that confine them. Let us magnify the Lord and exalt his name together.

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The Significance of the Cross

Then He said to them all, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. -Luke 9:23

The church—and Christians—doesn’t talk about the cross as much as it used to. You used to hear Christians talk about “bearing their cross” usually nothing more than an inconvenience. Perhaps there was a neighbor who wasn’t neighborly or a teenage daughter who was rebellious. “It’s just a cross I have to bear,” the complacent saint would say. This isn’t anything like what Jesus meant when he spoke to would-be followers.

To first-century disciples, the cross represented public torture and execution. It was reserved for the most heinous crimes against Rome. It is possibly the most cruel and violent form of execution ever devised, designed to kill slowly and tortuously and very publicly. The condemned were typically made to carry their own cross to the place of execution, so when Jesus says his follower must “take up his cross daily,” he has in mind only one destination: death.

Jesus tells his followers they must embrace their own death every day. In this way, they will always be prepared to die if need be for what they believe. For the way of Jesus’ followers is the way of love. They are to be like Jesus, offering themselves up to torture and death to secure life and liberty for others. They are not to use violence or try to force people to comply with their demands. They can persuade. They can reason. They can do good works. They can pray for their enemies. But they cannot curse. They cannot bribe. They cannot use force or coercion. At times, when the church has been politically ascendant, this command has been forgotten, and Christians have even tortured and killed other Christians in the name of Christ.

There is nothing Christlike about the use of force. Jesus never compelled; he invited. He spoke out harshly against the oppressors, especially when they pretended to speak for God, but he did not attack them physically*, and he did not resist when they attacked him. He expects his followers to behave as he did. He urges his followers to make a point of daily facing their own death and assures them that death is not final. This attitude of love with nothing to lose is what has made the church uniquely powerful in the world. It is a power not of force or violence but of totally committed people who will speak out against injustice and let themselves suffer and die for what is right.

* Of course there is an incident where Jesus confronted moneylenders in the temple with a makeshift whip of knotted cords. He was, however, severely provoked, not as some think by the greed and dishonesty of the moneylenders themselves, but by the tacit understanding that certain people could be excluded from God’s presence. The moneylenders set up their tables in the court of the Gentiles, the only portion of the temple open to foreigners, women, and invalids. The authorities did not arrest Jesus because he had exposed a policy they themselves knew to be wrong.
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