David Ousley on the Christian Life
Like non-Christians, Christians usually deal with adversity—cancer, unemployment, temptation, an intractable husband, eating too much—by trying to get rid of it. Christians may do this by asking God to remove the adversity. (If a wife were particularly generous, she might ask God to make her intractable husband tractable rather than removing him.)
But what happens if God does not act forthrightly to remove the adversity? Christians may give up on God, or go on to the “try harder” approach. Pray more. Try different ways of praying. Ask other Christians to intercede for us. The assumption is that if the Christian gets his part right, God should come through. God’s part is to relieve Christians when they ask him.
The Christian life, in other words, operates like a fairy tale.
In the fairy tale, a good person encounters adversity, usually not of his own making, is wondrously delivered, and lives happily ever after. The miller’s daughter is delivered from certain death, brought upon her by her father’s boasting and ambition, when by wondrous circumstance a strange little man appears to spin the straw into gold. The promise to him of her first child seems a reasonable price to pay in the circumstances.
But when she has married the king and borne a son, and the little man appears again to claim his promised reward, she faces a terrible prospect indeed. She is so upset that the little man offers to let her off if she can tell him his name—cruelly, of course, for he knows she has no chance of guessing it. Again by wondrous circumstance, her huntsman overhears the little man at his camp in the woods, and she is delivered from Rumpelstiltskin. He is never heard from again, and she lives happily ever after with her royal family (with her remarkably uncurious husband none the wiser).
Everyone likes the fairy-tale model. It promises deliverance from adversities. The good guys always win in the end. This appeals to Christians, since they quite naturally think of themselves as the good guys, the more or less innocent victims of adversity.
But the scriptural model is different. Think of the Exodus, which is the pattern of God’s delivering his people in the Old Testament, and the type of his mercy on Christian souls as well. At the beginning of the story, Israel is enslaved in Egypt. Life is hard: living in exile oppressed by strangers, having no freedom, unable to worship as they would like, subjected to harsh labor and poor living conditions, suffering even the murder of their children by the Egyptians.
Moses appears and proclaims the Lord’s mercy, and their freedom. They rejoice—until the first result of Moses’ intervention is that life gets harder: They must provide their own straw for the bricks. The Israelites cool in their appreciation for Moses’ work. This isn’t deliverance at all.
During the plagues, all the Israelites have to do is watch, until the last one. Then they must actively obey, in slaying the paschal lambs, and smearing the blood on their doorposts. Their obedience and sacrifice are essential to their deliverance from the angel of death. Since they have seen something of God’s power in the plagues he sent the Egyptians, they trust enough to do as they’re told, and that trust is the key to their freedom. (The pattern is also that of Good Friday.)
As they leave Goshen, they again rejoice at their deliverance—until they see the Egyptian army pursuing them and their escape blocked by the Red Sea. They give up their joy and decide it would have been preferable to die of old age in slavery rather than be slaughtered by the army in the wilderness.
Life Gets Harder
At this point, God miraculously delivers them again, in parting the Red Sea so they can cross, and then in destroying the Egyptian army. (This, as Peter tells us, is the pattern of the Christian’s wondrous birth to true life in the font of baptism.)
Yet God’s mighty act of deliverance at the Red Sea brings his people into the wilderness of Sinai—delivers them into what is not exactly the Promised Land. Before the Israelites reach their goal, they face more adversities: lack of water, lack of food, their dissatisfaction with the good things God gave them (they pine for the leeks and onions of Egypt), and when they finally arrive on the borders of the Promised Land, the prospect of strong, armed opposition from its current inhabitants.
In other words, they find that life gets harder before it gets easier, and things that they formerly took for granted, they must now receive directly from God’s hand. At each encounter with adversity, they think that slavery was preferable, because at least in Egypt they had plenty of bread and water (and leeks, onions, and garlic).
Yet Israel’s time in the wilderness, and especially the extra forty years they bring upon themselves by their unfaithfulness at the border of the Promised Land, is the time for them to learn the vital lesson of God’s care for them, and thus that they can trust him implicitly. Without this trust and obedience, they could not enter the Promised Land to drive out the inhabitants.
For their first big battle after crossing the Jordan, God gives them a rather odd battle plan: marching silently around Jericho for seven days, and then blowing the trumpets and shouting. That they do it shows the transformation that has taken place in their character. They now trust God enough to obey him, even when the purpose is not immediately apparent.
They go on to occupy the land, flowing with milk and honey, and live happily ever after, sort of. There are always temptations to unfaithfulness—in the remnants of the pagan tribes, in the dangers of foreign attacks, and in the adversities of famine and pestilence. When they are faithful and obedient, things go well, and when they are not faithful, things get pretty rotten.
The scriptural model of Christian life differs from the fairy tale. In the fairy tale, basically good people are faced with adversity, are miraculously delivered, and go back to life as usual. It is the first and third that distinguish the Christian life from the fairy tale: the deliverance may, from our point of view, look the same, but the reason and the purpose are different.
First, in Scripture, people are not very good at the beginning, and are unable to deliver themselves from their adversity, and they do not quickly get better. They cry for deliverance, out of self-interest, and they complain about having to find straw, out of self-interest. Even after the miracles of Passover and the Red Sea, the Israelites are whiners, ready to murmur against their Deliverer and complain about his provisions for them. They are ready to make the golden calf, and to rebel against Moses.
Scripture makes clear that God intervenes because he is merciful, not because his chosen people deserve it. Their realization of this is key to the development of trust in God. So long as God’s people think they are worthy of his care, they will be quick to murmur, complain, and rebel.
Second, God does deliver his people (sometimes in spite of themselves) much like the fairy tale. Deliverance comes by unexpected and miraculous means: an angel killing their oppressor’s firstborn but not theirs, the parting of a sea, water spouting from a rock, food falling from heaven, a city’s walls falling down without being touched. This is the part that lulls us into fairy-tale thinking.
But (this is the third element of the model) the people of Scripture do not then go back to life as usual and live happily ever after. Rather, God lets them encounter adversity, and then delivers them in an unmistakably miraculous way, in order for his people to be transformed.
The people of Israel are not, after the forty years in the wilderness, the same people they were when they lived as slaves in Egypt. They have been formed into a people which trusts God, which is ready to believe that whatever adversities may lie ahead, God can deal with them, even if they cannot. They are ready to obey when he says to march around Jericho. They know, as they did not before, that all blessings are from God, and that nothing matters more than being faithful to him. In short, they are transformed.
At each point in the story where they show their old servile character, it is shown in unfaithfulness: the golden calf, the complaint about manna, the response to the spies’ report. They feel that God is letting them down, but it is their character, and not God’s activity, that needs to be changed.
Man does not change easily or willingly. The alcoholic goes on drinking until, for some reason, it becomes harder to drink than to stop. Israel is lovingly forced to confront its servile mentality and character, and to grow up to trust in God. Even with all the adversities and deliverances, it took forty years. Without the adversities, it is hard to imagine that Israel would ever have changed.
Those in the midst of adversity naturally prefer the fairy-tale model. God provides the quick fix, and then they can return to life as usual, the life they think they deserve, which is life without adversity.
Christians are not exempt from such self-interest. But they should be able to see that God’s greater interest is for his people to love him, and to find their true fulfillment in him. The adversities serve a greater purpose, just as the adversity of the cross served the greater purpose of mankind’s redemption.
In giving up the fairy-tale model in favor of the scriptural, Christians are not required to give up the idea of God’s miraculous and powerful intervention in human affairs. There are the many Old Testament miracles, the many miracles Jesus did, the ones the apostles performed—and the Resurrection cannot be topped. But the miracles serve God’s purposes—chief among them man’s transformation—and not man’s comfort.
Christians are no less prone than Israel to demand quick solutions and then to murmur and distrust when they don’t happen. This appears when the newly diagnosed cancer patient says, “Why is God doing this to me? I’ve always said my prayers and gone to church.” It appears when the “safe” diocese elects an unsound bishop, and the clergy wonder, “How could this happen to us?”
It appears when the faithful in an unfaithful church try every institutional arrangement they can think of, and nothing works. They are frustrated, perhaps embittered, because their best effort—and all their prayers—have not delivered them from the adversity.
The difference comes down to the purpose of this life. For the fairy tale, the purpose is to get through adversities with as little pain as possible, in order to get back to “normal” life, which is life without adversities. For the Christian, the purpose of life is to love God, a love that must be learned by being loved by him.
Since no one has been more loved by the Father than the Son, Jesus, we can expect that the experience of the cross will be part of his love for us, as it was for Jesus. The aim is not life without adversity, but life transformed.
David Ousley is the rector of St. James Church, an inner-city parish in Philadelphia, which left the Episcopal Church last year. He also formerly edited a newsletter of Christian piety and spirituality called Pilgrimage.
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