PSALM 66:8-20

Bless our God, O peoples,
    let the sound of his praise be heard,
who has kept us among the living,
    and has not let our feet slip.
10 For you, O God, have tested us;
    you have tried us as silver is tried.
11 You brought us into the net;
    you laid burdens on our backs;
12 you let people ride over our heads;
    we went through fire and through water;
yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.

13 I will come into your house with burnt offerings;
    I will pay you my vows,
14 those that my lips uttered
    and my mouth promised when I was in trouble.
15 I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings,
    with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams;
I will make an offering of bulls and goats. Selah

16 Come and hear, all you who fear God,
    and I will tell what he has done for me.
17 I cried aloud to him,
    and he was extolled with my tongue.
18 If I had cherished iniquity in my heart,
    the Lord would not have listened.
19 But truly God has listened;
    he has given heed to the words of my prayer.

20 Blessed be God,
    because he has not rejected my prayer
    or removed his steadfast love from me.

There is a moral impulse in all of us, a need to believe that life is fair and people get what they deserve. The mere suggestion that it might not be so can provoke some to throw up their hands and threaten to quit the whole business. What’s the point then? they will protest. If the universe isn’t set up to favor the righteous and crush the wicked, then why work so hard to be good?

Many psalms hold this perspective, with the poet lamenting how the faithful suffer as sinners prosper. His resolution of the problem represents one of four ways that individuals have worked through this apparent moral contradiction in reality. His way is to re-frame hardship and loss as a means by which God tests, purifies, and strengthens our faith.

This might be something God does directly or else leaves to the member of his heavenly council named Satan (literally the adversary) whose job is to “prove” the character of believers by pushing them to the wall or tripping them into the fire. God blesses and the devil burns; together they work out the balance.

If the gap of retribution – that is, the elapse of time between a good or bad deed and the appropriate payback – is too long, one might begin wondering what God is up to. One compensatory adjustment looks for the reward or punishment to be paid out on an individual’s descendants. A corollary of this is to see your present suffering (or prosperity) as a consequence of your ancestor’s moral character.

Eventually the gap can become so great that your only comfort is in knowing that we will all get what we deserve in the next life. Heaven and hell, then, help resolve the problem of moral inequity by ensuring that no one escapes the long arm of God’s law. Look at those slugs and scoundrels driving their fancy cars. Their day of reckoning is coming, and it won’t be long before they’re writhing in torment with the rest of God’s enemies. Just knowing this makes us smile.

Of course, it can also happen that a believer stops believing at this point. If God’s purpose is to get everything started, supervise the process and occasionally intervene, allocating rewards to the good people and penalties to the bad people, then he’s not doing his job very well. How deserving of worship is a God who can’t even manage his responsibilities on the job? He might as well not exist. Life isn’t fair and people don’t get what they deserve. It sucks, but that’s how it is.

This might seem to exhaust our options, but there is one more response to the moral inequity of life. We don’t dismiss it as only apparent or make God into a cosmic quality control officer.  Nor do we need to push out the time frame across generations or into the next life. We can agree that life isn’t fair and people don’t get what they deserve. But it doesn’t suck. Instead of retribution or karma at the heart of reality, it’s all grace.

Grace is the principle that transcends morality. It declares that the grounding mystery of existence is creative, generous, provident and forgiving. It’s not about making things even and setting the balance right. You can’t earn it, steal it, bank it, or lose it. It doesn’t come to you because you’re good enough or better than the next guy. It falls as spring rain on the fields of the just and unjust alike.

Hardship and fortune don’t need to be moralized; ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are value judgments we impose to make things meaningful (or bearable). Life is a mixture of pain and pleasure, love and loss, joy and sorrow. Happy is the person who moves through it all with faith, releasing all expectation and just resting in the grace of each moment.

Don’t worry, there is enough for everyone!

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Comments
  1. You did it again John. On the button, and coincides with our reading of Buddhism. How insightful the Buddha was to come up with this list of sufferings, common to all. This list gave me a greater knowledge of what makes us more alike than different, no matter what our station in life.
    Buddha’s First Noble Truth (Life is usually “suffering”);
    I have abbreviated;
    1) Trauma of Birth
    2) Pathology of Sickness
    3) Decrepitude
    4) Phobia of Death
    5) Tied to something you dislike
    6) Separated from a loved one
    Who hasn’t felt and experienced more than one of these “sufferings”?

    The idea that we have a life of suffering, brought to mind the book by Peck “The Road Less Traveled”, which starts out with “Life is difficult”. Almost stated like the Buddha, and I agree, life is hard, but our time, whether a day, or only a minute, can be filled joy, love and understanding, plus acceptance of the moment.

    I don’t believe we are predestined, or controlled by an outside magical force, “who” forms our decisions and decides if we are to see the sun rise the next day or not, or whether we are being directed to be “good”, or “bad”. That doesn’t even enter into my mind, because I am responsible for how I respond to my surroundings and others around me. How I react, or not react is a choice I make every single day, multiple times. I make an attempt every day to realize what is around me, and who and what truly matters to me in my life.

    I will never be a rich person, but that doesn’t matter to me, because I can truly be happy and content in most situations, even if I were to loose everything around me, I would still have that moment of enjoying the sun rise, what’s happening between, and watching the sun set.

    Again I write too much. : )

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