The following is another excerpt from my forthcoming book glorious ruin: how suffering sets you free.
“Good people get good stuff. Bad people get bad stuff.”
Or as the Beatles sang with their last gasp on Abbey Road, “In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”
Now I love John, Paul, George, and Ringo, but I take issue with them here, and I know I am in the minority. After all, the world runs on retribution. “This for that” comes as naturally to us as breathing.
Moralists interpret misfortune as the karmic result of misbehavior. This for that. “You failed to obey God, so He gave your child an illness.” Such rule-based economies of punishment and reward may be the default mode of the fallen human heart, but that doesn’t make them any less brutal!
This does not mean that sin doesn’t have consequences. If you blow all of your money on booze, you will likely reap poverty, loneliness, and cirrhosis of the liver. Simple cause and effect. But to conclude that suffering people have somehow heaped up trouble for themselves on the Cosmic Registry and that God is doling out the misery in direct proportion would be more than mistaken; it would be cruel. The humorist Jack Handey perceptively parodied such ideas in his Saturday Night Live-featured book Deep Thoughts:
If a kid asks where rain comes from, I think a cute thing to tell him is “God is crying.” And if he asks why God is crying, another cute thing to tell him is, “Probably because of something you did.”
The truth is that while we laugh at something as silly as Handey’s “deep thought”, most of us are naturally governed by this kind of thinking regarding God.
So, while no one can deny that our actions have consequences—that if you put your finger in a light socket you will “reap” a shock—we do God (and ourselves!) a great disservice when we project this schema onto Him. That is, when we moralize our suffering and that of others. The lab test results come back positive, and we interpret it as some sort of punishment. Or your loved ones interpret it that way. Your marriage falls apart, and you assume God is meting out His judgment on your indiscretions. Most of us—not all, I’m afraid—would stop short of blaming the citizens of New Orleans for the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, but that doesn’t mean we don’t moralize our suffering in other, more subtle ways.
The truth is that when you and I insist on that all-too-comfortable paradigm of cosmic score keeping, we’re no longer talking about Christianity. In fact, what we reveal is that we’ve adopted (unwittingly) a Westernized form of Hinduism. We are talking, in other words, about karma. If you are a bad person and things are going well for you, it is only a matter of time before karma catches up with you and “you get yours.” If you are good person, the inverse is true: just be patient and your good deeds will come back to you. This is a simplification of the complex Hindu understanding of history as determined by the past lives of others: that we are all stuck in an eternal cycle of suffering perpetuated by reincarnation.
Westerners are understandably reticent to embrace the notion that the universe is paying us back for a prior life of boozing, spousal abuse, or tax evasion. We believe in the inherent goodness of human beings, after all! We prefer to keep the cycle within the confines of a single life. But the appeal of this perspective should be fairly obvious: no one gets away with anything. If someone harmed you, she will suffer. If you do good, you will have a good life. Karma puts us in control. The problem in this worldview comes, as it always does, when we flip it around. If you are suffering, you have done something to merit it. Pain is proof.
No doubt many of us would object to the accusation that we share or agree with such a mind-set. That’s simplistic nonsense, we might think. No one with any education or experience would ever hold to such a juvenile relational bartering system. But hold on for a moment. Think about the last fight you had with your significant other—was there an element of deserving tucked into the conflict? “You hurt me, so now I’ll hurt you”? I can’t tell you how much self-abuse I’ve come across in my years of ministry that had some element of inward-directed retribution at its core: the teenage girl who punishes herself by cutting her arms; or men who sleep around to prove that they deserve the contempt of their wives. If we cling to quid pro quo when dealing with others and ourselves, why wouldn’t we project it onto God (or the universe)? We are all helpless moralizers, especially when it comes to suffering.
On the opposite end of our natural tendency to moralize life and suffering stands the counter-intuitive affirmation of Christianity. Christianity affirms that Jesus severed the link between suffering and deserving once for all on Calvary. God put the ledgers away and settled the accounts.
The good news of the gospel is NOT that good people get good stuff. It’s not that life is cyclical and that “what comes around goes around.” Rather, it’s that the bad get the best, the worst inherit the wealth, and the slave becomes a son (Romans 5:8).
Because the truth is, that it’s just misery to try to keep count of what God is no longer counting. Your entries keep disappearing.