God Things

As my close friends and family already know, I’ve always struggled with the notion of God blessing His children with stuff. I get fidgety and cynical whenever something is said about God providing funds for a new building project or the money for a second car or new TV. I roll my eyes when pastors announce that God has intervened to help get parking lots re-paved or new sound systems ordered. 

I have an extremely negative visceral reaction when the term “blessing” is used, (usually with the purest of intentions), to describe a pay raise or a new job opportunity or a free couch. In fact, my attitude can get so bad that it hurts my relationship with God and with other people. I’m angry at someone or something, and I think sometimes it shows. 

I’m not exactly sure when all of this started.

It might have been when a friend of mine got married the same weekend that Hurricane Katrina struck. A member of the wedding party marveled at what a blessing it was that the nasty weather moved Westward so that the bride could enjoy a beautiful wedding day. It was such a “God thing,” she told me excitedly. I went home that night and watched footage of families stranded on their rooftops, and thousands of hungry people stuck in the Superdome, and I wondered if this was really a “God thing” after all.

Or it might have been when I travelled to India. There I met a little boy named Kanakaraju. Kanakaraju’s mother had unknowingly contracted AIDS from her husband and was very sick. The worry and pain was visible on Kanakarju’s face when he asked me in a sincere, almost pleading voice, to pray for his mother.  We prayed together. I don’t know if I’ve ever in my life wanted God to respond with a miracle more. But He didn’t. Kanakarju’s mother died a few weeks later, leaving her son orphaned.  Back in the States, I had a very difficult time praying for all those things I used to think I desperately needed—a book deal, a new computer, a good return on a real estate investment. It sounds silly, but I didn’t want God to go out of His way if it meant ignoring children like Kanakarju. “Why don’t you just take care of those kids,” I’d pray. “I don’t really need things like they need things.”

To this day, I am uncomfortable praying for myself. I am keenly aware of the fact that, in the time it takes for me to pray over a meal, about 21 children have died from hunger. Sometimes, when I stroll through the bottled water aisle at Wal Mart, I get sick to my stomach thinking about how many people get deathly ill simply because they have no access to clean water.  When pastors ask me to pray about the budget, I wonder how many frightened children in Darfur are praying for peace, how many desperate mothers are praying for just a piece of bread or bowl of rice to get their babies through another night. When Christian college administrators describe an uptick in enrollment or a big donation for a new building  project “a picture of God’s goodness,” I wonder how they would describe Kanakaraju’s situation. What is that a picture of? Did Kanakarju simply not have enough faith?

It seems to me that, if God’s goodness is determined by how much stuff he gives out, then He is not a particularly good God at all.  Sure, he’s been “good” to rich Americans, but He hasn’t been “good” to the millions upon millions who suffer terribly every day, and who cry out to Him for help to no avail. This is why, for several years, I actually preferred the term “lucky” to “blessed.”  As I told my friends and family, I would rather it be the result of luck that I enjoy good health, access to education, and religious freedom, while a woman my age in Iran can be killed for the suspicion of adultery, or a woman my age in Africa can get raped repeatedly for being of the wrong ethnicity. I’d rather it be luck than an act of God, because if it were an act of God, then God would be cruel and unfair.  

I spent a lot of years being furious with God about this until He graciously reminded me that His Kingdom works differently than any other. In His kingdom, “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” The gospel of Jesus is best received, not by the rich and well-fed, but by the poor and the hungry.

As Jesus said:

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man. Be glad in that day and leap for joy...But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full. Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry. ...”

This upside down kingdom is something else I witnessed first-hand in India. The poor understand something about God that I don’t. They have a relationship with Him that includes far more dependency and love and thankfulness than I can ever know. Kanakarju, though not blessed materially, was blessed with remarkable faith. Maybe, when James says that “every good and perfect gift is from above,” he’s not talking about money.

With this in mind,  I’ve personally come to believe that material abundance is not necessarily a sign of faithfulness or of God’s favor. Folks like to talk about how America has been blessed (with riches) because of its religious origins (which included slavery and ethnic cleansing). I’m not so sure that America’s abundance necessarily means that it has been blessed by God. The Romans liked to brag that the gods had smiled upon them too.

So, while I’ve sort of worked though this issue personally, I still really struggle with the term “blessing.” Dan tries to remind me that people use it with the best of intentions. “They are trying to communicate the fact that they did not accomplish something on their own,” he says. “They are trying to show thankfulness and dependency.”

“...Or they’re just trying to justify their actions by inserting God into the conversation,” I shoot back.

“You can’t judge people’s motives,” Dan says. “For someone who claims to follow the teachings of Jesus, you’re being awfully judgmental.”

“You’re right,” I say. “Let’s play guitar hero.”

So, I guess my question is this: What do I do about this little attitude I’ve got? I’ve noticed that some of my friends get embarrassed when they use phrases like “God thing” or “blessing” around me, and I see that this is incredibly unfair. How do I keep myself from talking about genocide when someone just wants me to pray for their sick dog? How do I dial down the cynicism when folks are just trying to express thankfulness and grattitude to God? Has anyone else out there struggled with this? How have you kept your attitude in check?

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