Thursday, June 27, 2013

thanking and blaming God

Lemons in my life today...
Just two weeks ago I got the incredible news that I received a major doctoral funding award.  I am still kind of in shock.  Over the course of my graduate studies I have made 6 applications to various funding agencies, asking them to recognize that I do good and important work. All of them have been unsuccessful.  My supervisor warned me that certain aspects of theology don't have a good track record for securing government funding.  I seemed to be a case in point.  Blame my weak application (one can always have more publications and accomplishments).  Blame those secular, atheist adjudicating committees who have no use for theology (that's me being bitter about bitter atheists).  Blame all those other clever students who pushed me out of the running (like one of my colleagues).  Each spring, I found myself bracing for the inevitable rejection letter(s) and when I received another one this April, I was depleted.  Yes, I was the first one on the waiting list (the first loser, so to speak), but it didn't matter. It still stung. I had failed once again and I thought, "I'm not going to waste my time with these anymore. I'm done!"  And then the second round of bursary awards was announced and I was on the list!  What?  I quietly thanked God for this generous gift, yes I did, but when someone said to me, "Isn't God good?" it somehow felt awkward. Yes, of course God is good, but wasn't God good all those other times when I was rejected?

I read a blog by Allison Vesterfelt this morning that talks about how we can give God credit for all the good things in our lives, but then turn around and blame God for everything bad that happens.  There are some variations on this: I tend to thank God for all the good things but don't blame him for bad stuff (it's God! You can't blame God!). Others rarely recognize God's presence in their lives, yet find it easy to point the finger at God when they witness horrible events (God's the one who could have done something and didn't!).  It seems to me that these responses are all symptoms of an unhealthy and unbalanced relationship.  Basically, these attitudes reveal that our interactions with the Divine One are mostly passive (perhaps even passive-aggressive) and decidedly fatalistic.  Passive because we don't bring ourselves fully to this relationship and this life.  Our interactions are ones where we try to hear what God is saying so we can obey and submit to "the plan."  They are also fatalistic because we assume no responsibility for how things turn out. God will do what he wants and there's nothing we can do about it. But in all my readings about how God interacts with people throughout history (the Bible), this is not the type of relationship that I see modeled.

From the very beginning (Genesis), the stories we read about God emphasize both his greatness and his generosity, his transcendence and immanence.  A show of his supreme, magnificent power is immediately followed by a story about his inclusion of humanity in creative work, in intimate friendship, and in discerning how to make wise decisions. God exerts his freedom to act and create and in doing so, gives us freedom to act and create. God does not want us to be obedient slaves; the many stories of the Israelites in captivity underline the theme of God repeatedly calling his people into freedom. At times the stories of exactly how much freedom God gives his people make us uncomfortable, for there are some incredibly bad decisions made which have dire implications for generations to follow.  In these stories we find passionate, rough, impulsive, overbearing, rash, angry, self-important, and aggressive people, but we do not find a lot of passivity.  The few characters that are reluctant to exert themselves are portrayed as unwise (Jesus tells the parable of the talents to illustrate this same point).  We also find people who question God, who ask God to change his mind, who defy God's directives, who bargain with God, and who express their disappointment at God's apparent lack of concern.  In general, we do not find fatalism or resignation.  We find engagement.  And this is what God, from the very beginning of the story, invites us to.

Much to my chagrin, I find that contemporary faith in God often lacks this vibrant, dynamic element.  Our acknowledgement of God's goodness is too often superficial, referring to our comfort rather than a generous and risky offer to participate in living out the kingdom of God in this world. Our shifting of blame to God for every bad thing, big and little, reveals that we don't want to take responsibility for our mistakes, for our unwise decisions which affect others and leave their scars on this world, and that we are averse to correction.  It also tells us that we don't trust God enough to work together with him in bringing justice and peace to this earth. God is powerful enough to fix everything, but he doesn't.  He invites us to be part of the process.  He asks us to be co-workers and friends, to be people who take the gift of freedom seriously and delight in the unique position in which we find ourselves.  Once I get a glimpse of the incredible nature of this animated, grace-infused relationship which God offers to me, a trite "Thank God" for a nice turn of events or a reactionary "It's God's fault!" for a natural disaster seem rather inappropriate.  God is not a convenient benefactor nor an impotent scapegoat.  These roles keep him at a distance. No, this Creator God invites me to create with him, to make something out of this life by engaging fully with the Holy Spirit and the world around me.

"God is good" means that I am invited to be an agent of that goodness in my work, my community, and all my interactions with others. Instead of blaming God for some undesirable turn of events, perhaps we should view any mess or disaster as an opportunity to participate in bringing the kingdom of God on earth through just acts, peaceful intentions, loving-kindness, faithfulness, hospitality, practical aid, and a dedication to rebuilding those things which are broken. If we find our interactions with God consist mostly of asking for gifts or placing blame, perhaps it is time to pursue a more vibrant relationship which reflects the generosity of a God who calls us to responsible freedom.

3 comments:

Bob Grier said...

Thanks for this, Matte. I've been in a similar situation this past little while. A lot of people had been praying for me and it looked like things were finally going my way.
I of course told everybody how God was faithful, generous, etc.When it all fell apart last week, I was crushed and my faith was shaken but I didnt blame God. I blamed someone who I thought hadnt been listening to God and subsequently made a wrong decision about me.

How does one know that God shut a door ( which I should accept and move on) or the door is "humanly" shut against God's will and plan for me. I am confused.

Matte Downey said...

Sorry to hear things didn't work out, Bob. I think part of the problem is that we do tend to separate events into "God's will" and "human will" which means that life will invariably appear to be at odds when things don't go in our favour. I don't see that in the stories of Abraham, Joseph or even Jesus. God's good will is always intertwined with human choice and the beauty of God's generosity is that human failure or bad intentions cannot thwart his goodness.

The other thing to watch out for is a worldview which tries to divine God's "perfect plan" and get in on it to ensure happiness. At the core, God's will is for us to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6). This goes for all situations we find ourselves in: rejection, martyrdom, ruling as a king, being a successful businessmen, or facing homelessness.

As for opening and closing of doors: God's door is always open and that's the only door that really matters. No one can shut you out of his presence.

Just some thoughts....Matte

Anonymous said...

Freedom in Christ means there is no plan: that's the point! We are free to figure it out for ourselves, to struggle towards revelation as it struggles towards us. But I don't think ever really know what it (revelation) is.

We are continuously in God's presence like Matte says, but we have no idea what/when that actually is, what that means. Think of the well-postered "Footprints" metaphor.

God is too great to be limited by our perceptions of him.

Rick Warren has done us some great disservice here.

Matte, as for the scholarship, you most certainly deserve it! Pat yourself on the back! I'm certain you do very good work.

As for when we get rewarded, I think a very good portion of this is quite simply luck of the draw.