“God Is Always With Us”
Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC
Psalm 116: 1-9
September 16, 2018
“For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.” – Psalm 116:8i
The truth the Psalmist is affirming is one that all of us need to hear. What prevents me from hearing it is my skepticism and the unfamiliar nature of the psalmist’s language. He makes claims that are so sweeping they do not match my lived experience. In my ministry I have seen folks suffer through events no one should ever confront – the death of an 18-month-old child. I stood in the hospital room with the family. The grandmother rocked the dead child in her arms. An hour passed. The social worker told them they should consider giving the child’s body back to the healthcare team because he will start turning blue. Up till now, it only looked like the child was sleeping.
For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling. God did not deliver this child from death. Tears flowed from all the eyes in that room. And, yes, we all stumbled into tomorrow. Where is this God the psalmist speaks of?
How I wish I could stand before you and with a clear conscious and unwavering confidence tell you that these first nine verses of this psalm are as they present themselves. The truth, however, is more complicated.
And let us suppose that the psalmist is accurately portraying his experience. He was delivered from Sheol. His anguish and distress were lifted. While this may not be an accurate description of my own experience or yours, it is arrogant to assume that mine is the only legitimate experience of reality. So let us give to the psalmist the courtesy of taking his words at face value. This was his experience. He is not lying. He is not trying to bring you or me over to his side. Let us give him all that.
There still is a problem and it is this: Why him and not that 18-month-old child? The psalmist doesn’t say that God will deliver us all. Maybe he was okay with a capricious God. But such a view seems deeply disturbing to me. Why? I can find no meaning in life if God is a capricious, omnipotent being lacking any sense of either purpose or justice. And it’s not just a personal problem. It’s a biblical dilemma. Time and time again we are told throughout the Old and New Testament that God defends the oppressed, loves mercy and demands justice. My question is this: How do we live into tomorrow with what may be a capricious God showing mercy to some while withholding it from others?
I purpose looking at three different ways of approaching this problem. Before starting, however, it is important that I offer a disclaimer. You may find yourself described in what I am about to unfold. The view points I am about to offer are not theoretical constructs but ways in which human beings have come to understand God’s relationship with humanity. I know which one I like best, which one seems to fit my lived experience, but what I like and what is true may be two different things. I don’t know what the Truth (with a capital “T”) is. I don’t think you do either. We are all trying to figure this out and even though I am the one who’s getting paid, I don’t have a privileged position concerning the Devine’s nature. That said, let’s begin.
The first way of dealing with what appears to be God’s capricious dealings is to focus on God’s omniscience and providence. Love that word – omniscience. Remember, I’m the one who’s getting paid so I wanted to prove I went to seminary. Omniscience is a fancy way of saying God knows everything. It’s helpful when it comes to the problem that is before us. Why? It suggests that while we may see a given event as unjust or evil, God has the bigger picture. So your problem that never seems to go away, is used by God to good ends because it will bear benefits one cannot see today. Indeed, one of the most difficult verses in scripture, at least for me, is Romans 8:28. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. Behind that verse is the conviction that in God’s providence, there is a plan. We may not know it. We may not live long enough to see it, but God knows what God is doing.
Isn’t this the nature of faith? We live in trust. We cannot know the ultimate outcome of any give action. What looks like a good thing to us today, may prove to detrimental tomorrow. When we help one group we may end up harming another. So we are called upon to trust that God will bring good ends to everything that is before us.
This is not a bad way to live. It frees us from what Jessie Jackson called “the paralysis of analysis.” We do not have to determine what is virtuous and what is vice. This is why Augustine said, “Love God and do as you please.” God has the whole world in God’s hands and God cradles us in goodness.
Not bad. Right? But tell that to the parents of that eighteenth-month-old child. How would you put it? “God knows what is best?” “We don’t know what his life would have been like but God does and God saved him from future pain?” You might be well intended but if I was the parent of that child, I would be convinced that the God you are describing is not a being worthy of worship. While there may be power in relying on God’s providence and omniscience, it has limits.
There is a second way of dealing with the seeming capriciousness of God. We can point to heaven even as the one we seek to comfort is passing through hell. We could affirm that pain and death are but a brief moment in time. Those who pass from life to death are now seated at the right hand of God. This is captured in the prayer I often use at the conclusion of a funeral:
“We thank you for his/her pain is ended and death is past and he/she has entered into the joy you have prepared.”
I say this because I believe it, and it is easy to proclaim this conviction when some aged saint of the church has passed after a long and intractable illness. These words give hope in the midst of a hopeless situation and we cling to them as the promised fulfillment of God’s purpose. It is what Christ has promised. There is truth and power here. In the end, the ultimate purpose of God triumphs and we are made alive again within the Spirit of God.
There is a problem. If you follow this argument to its absurd conclusion it is saying that what happens in this physical world has little or no value. It tells us that what matters is one’s reliance on the world to come. I suspect that’s what drove Karl Marx crazy. The avoidance of the here and now by always looking to the by and by makes Christianity “an opiate for the masses.” Rather than engaging the world, religion is used to escape it. That’s a problem because it ignores the message of Jesus. He knew nothing of an escapist religion. Just look at His teachings. He defends the outcasts, he calls us to feed the hungry, He speaks a troubling truth to power, and he ends up crucified – not because he ignored the needs of the world but precisely because He held Rome and the good religious folks of His day accountable. So while looking to the promise of heaven has its place, it gets twisted when it allows us to avoid the pain of others.
So far we have looked at two possible coping mechanisms when dealing with what seems the capricious nature of God. First, a duel focus on God’s omniscience/providence. Second, we focused on the promise of eternal life. Both approaches have power and both contain truth. Yet in the interest of true confession, I find both to be woefully inadequate in explaining the tragedy of a child’s death. Is there another way?
What I propose is a radical awareness of free will. I want my children to love me. My love for them runs deeper than the sea. I would no more put them in harms way than I would leap from a tall building. But their love for me must be freely given. Oh, I could have locked them in our home, protected them from the dangers of the world, limited the influence of their peers by never allowing them to visit their friends. While doing all this, I could have showed them how much I care for them, how central they are to my life and joy. What do you think? Would they have grown to love me? Perhaps, but a love born out of such limits is not born in freedom.
No, this is no way to structure a child’s life and it is certainly no way to either show or receive love. As our children mature we give them freedom. Freedom to move away from us or embrace us. Freedom to reject us or to love us.
So it is with God. God could fence us in, encircle and protect us from all evil. To do so, however, would require a squelching of freedom – if not our own then the freedom of others. And for this freedom to be complete, it must be shared by all creation. Nature itself is free to go crazy. We often question the existence of cancer or the storms nature can unleash. These anomalies become the focus of our attention and push to the side the greatest wonder of them all – namely, that there is any order at all.
1 John 4:8 and again in the 16 verse, we find these words: “God is love…” In love’s world there is either radical freedom or love becomes coercion. God does not intend the tragedies that befall us. They come but the ultimate will of God sees all things to good ends. This is not an easy place to live. It has woven into it inevitable sorrow, loss and perplexity. But in love, it is the only universe that allows for freedom. May we all be saved from seeking the security of slavery. Let us embrace freedom that we might find our way to love. Let us pray….
i Psalm 116:1-9
1I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice and my supplications.
2Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
3The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish.
4Then I called on the name of the Lord: “O Lord, I pray, save my life!”
5Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful.
6The Lord protects the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me.
7Return, O my soul, to your rest, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.
8For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.
9I walk before the Lord in the land of the living.