Thursday, August 8, 2013

Holy Providence in an Inequitable World


It's a tricky thing.  Although we Westerners know that sociopolitical equality is good for society, we often forget that capitalism thrives on inequity.  Pursuing dreams is one thing, but even when dreams are realized, we know we're not all going to die with the same number of toys.  The ideal objective in capitalism is that everyone has a relatively equal playing field to pay for what they need in a peaceable society.

Not that this is about acquisitions.  It's about life experiences, and the paths along which God leads each of us in our individual faith walks.  Being humans, and Westernized humans in particular, we're enculturated to compete against each other, and peg our life's progress against a particular peer group.  We're told that if we don't aim our sights high enough, we'll be lazy, ineffectual, poor, and expecting handouts from others.  Aim too high, and we'll be hopelessly unfulfilled, perpetual strivers, conceited, and jealous.

The trick, we're told, is to aim for somewhere in the middle, between untapped potential and blind ambition, so that we stand a good chance of gaining respectable ground beyond where we're standing today - but if things don't work out as planned, we don't actually become unacceptably poor.  Fortunately for us Americans, we've been able to build the largest, most stable middle class in the world using the least amount of corruption and civil warfare.  When people say God has truly blessed America, this is what I think of.

The Lord Giveth, and Taketh Away

The problem, many of us soon learn, is that inequity in our society can hamper our conventional strategy for success.  Depending on how much we start out with, and the resources we acquire along the way, we may be able to insulate ourselves from personally punitive inequity, even without knowing it.  Others of us let our morality become our conscience more in theory than in practice, and we figure out which rules we can bend - or even break - along the way towards "success."  After all, the ends justify the means, right?  "Whatever it takes."

Some of us, however, particularly during these days of volatile - or, actually, downright stagnant - economic activity, are simply trying to hang on for the ride.  For people of faith, trusting in Christ for guidance and provision is a daily practice, not a grateful acknowledgement of sheer abundance during our quarterly update from our financial adviser.  We tell ourselves it's not what's in the bank - or our portfolio - that counts, as much as what's in our heart.

But what does all this mean about our understanding of God's perfect providence?

How many times have you heard a believer in Christ exclaim about the Lord's providence, and then learn that what has been assumed to be providence may simply have been His common grace?

Everything that happens to us is providence, right?  Everything!  In our Christian parlance, however, we like to reserve those things we think are extra-special as "providential," as if they wouldn't have happened to us any other way than an extraordinary working of God for our benefit.

For example, somebody gets a better job in a more exciting city, and they talk about it as though they wouldn't have gotten that job or the opportunity to move to the more desirable city without God's explicit intervention on their behalf.  Hey - at least they're giving God the credit!  We often forget to do that.  Still, sometimes, I wonder if this has become an acceptable way to brag about our accomplishments among churched friends, since cloaking the "good" things that happen to us in a garment of religiosity negates our personal pride in having something go our way.

Now, bear with me, I'm not talking about being jealous of somebody else's success, even though that's another real temptation in this scenario.

Nevertheless, think about it:  Isn't it common sense that, in the normal course of human events, at least for us Westerners, if we work diligently, study well, and engage with others productively, we ordinarily progress up the ladder of life?  Unsaved people do this all the time.  If we knock on enough doors for which we have the appropriate credentials, and they open, and we walk through them, what's the big deal?  Yes, it's providential, but isn't it also providential when people who hate God knock on those same doors and walk through them?  Isn't it simply what happens in a rewards-based society like ours?  Might the difference be that we know to thank God, and that we use this opportunity for His glory, not ours?

After all, plenty of unGodly people get promotions, earn big salaries, live in exciting cities, and lead lives that dazzle us.  Sometimes, God's people don't get chosen for promotions, but He's still sovereign, right?  According to Psalm 145:9, God is "good to all," and "has compassion on all He has made."  That's the essence of common grace.  The sun shines and the rain falls on both the just and the unjust, according to Matthew 5:45.  Not that it's wrong for us believers in Christ to praise Him when good things happen to us.  But how often, when good things happen to us, do we credit our own specialness as the reason?  Or when we think we're missing out on something good, do we assume it's due to some fault of ours?

Look at it this way:  How often do we credit God with a demotion, or the loss of a job, or having to move to a less desirable address?  How much less providential are those things?  Not everything "bad" that happens to us is our fault, is it?  Inequity, remember, is part of life.  God can use what we think is negative for His glory, and His glory is the reason for our very existence, right?  Scripture doesn't tell us that we should be happy when "bad" things happen to us, unless we're suffering something directly because of our faith in Christ.  But evaluating God's goodness to us based on the desirable qualities of those things He allows us to steward and enjoy is only half the story, isn't it?

Appreciating Blessings, In All Their Forms, and He Who Bestows Them 

After all, many more people on our planet live in poverty than live in wealth, and much of the poverty on our planet comes not from personal sin, but from various forms of suppression and exploitation, which are results of - you guessed it! - inequity.  And no, these inequities aren't necessarily caused by us big, bad Americans, but by unscrupulous power brokers within their own countries.

The point is that God has blessed Westerners with many good things, but that doesn't mean we're any more special to Him than people in Majority World countries.  Unfortunately, we Westerners often take for granted God's material bounty to us, even as we tend to inflate the parameters of what God's providence should provide.  God promises us that His people will not starve or lack clothing or shelter, but He never says anything about smartphones, automobiles, or even college degrees, or crime-free neighborhoods. 

Not that any of these things, nor reliable supplies of electricity, nor functional systems of law, nor cutting-edge healthcare, are wrong.  Taking them for granted - that's what's wrong.  Promotions, new homes, and better living conditions aren't wrong either, and neither is crediting God's goodness in supplying them.  However, isn't there a fine line between assuming we're entitled to things because we've worked hard to attain them, being genuinely appreciative to God for allowing us to experience them, and implying that if we don't attain these things, God is somehow being less good to us?

"It's a God thing" can be quite inaccurate, since everything is a God thing.  Even things that don't happen are God things.  Yes, God gives good gifts to His children, and many of those good things are enjoyable, and in a sense, we deny the goodness of those enjoyable things by, well, not enjoying them.  Don't not enjoy something because it's been granted to you and not somebody else.

In God's perfect Kingdom, there is no inequity, even though we may be responsible for different facets of His assets.  There's the parable of the talents, and also the metaphor of the parts of the body.  Ironic, huh?

So, if something isn't granted to you, couldn't that withholding be a form of goodness from God, too?  Probably not an enjoyable goodness, of course, but something in which a lesson exists for us to learn something more about God's providence?  Whether God gives us something or doesn't, is it necessarily based on whether or not we've earned it, or deserved it?

Sometimes, it doesn't seem that God "gives," as much as He "allows."  Evaluating the merits of what He allows based on our culture's expectations and definitions, then, might not be telling the whole story.

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