We are big fans of cause and effect; of rewards for “right” behavior and punishment for “wrong”. This is intuitive. Our hearts align with these concepts easily. In ideal-land, those who act rightly receive beneficial things, positive energy, hand-over-fist money, and the like. Conversely, when someone is mistreated, we ask that privileges, money, relationships, and other good things be stripped from the offender swiftly. We like to call it justice. It’s a concept that we’re taught we should strive to see replicated.
And we sometimes feel like God has it wrong when He doesn’t observe the social mores that we conveniently set up on His behalf.
When we ask “Why does God let bad things happen to good people?”, it’s rare to hear “And another thing: why does he let bad things happen to bad people?” In fact this is the implication … why doesn’t God reserve the worst of circumstances for the worst of humanity? Where’s God’s favor for those that bust their butts to serve Him? My good behavior ought to be rewarded! That’s the way the universe functions.
But to take this view is to take a view that’s at least not in line with how God seems to have ordered things and perhaps even counter to it. After a long sermon about how everyone is blessed whether they like it or not, Jesus finishes up with this quotable quote that often gets skimmed over :
For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.
Our existence in the ultimate meritocracy has colored our perceptions of this. We think God loves ALL – whether good or bad, evil or righteous and we often miss the other emphasis here: God LOVES all.
To add a little context to this, think about a first century farming economy where rain and sun were essential to life itself. Good rains meant times of surplus and success for the good and the bad. A lack of rain meant that everybody suffered equally. Too much sun and everyone’s crops dried up.
We spend so much time attempting to win God’s favor. In fact, we have almost made it the centerpiece of our expression of faith. Many Christians say that they know that God will not love them any more if they increase their church attendance, pray more, give more. God’s love is not directly proportional to the church activities. And, in the same breath, we talk about how burned out we feel, how much we’re doing. We’ve discussed this already…
The implication of Scripture is not that there are no consequences for correct or incorrect behavior. Simply, it’s that God will give everyone equal footing. The rains will come or they won’t. The wind will not be directed by merit. God’s treatment will not always be understood, it will not always seem just according to how we assume the universe to run, but it will be divvied out based on His thoughts, or will, or whimsy depending on your persuasion.
Perhaps the problem is perspective. Perhaps it is some sort of omnipotent illusion where God has conveniently arranged for us all to crave justice but, through some of His patented razzle-dazzle, makes it appear like the evil-doers are getting more than my fair share.
The declaration from scripture above is immediately preceded by the familiar “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Remember, Jesus was talking to an oppressed people here – not 2009 Americans). We often take that literally to mean isolate the people in your life that are your enemies, don’t harbor any particular feelings of ill-will towards them, and remember to pray for them so that God will hear your prayers and maybe ask the oppressors to stop their life’s work.
I’m beginning to think of it another way; it’s the way of assimilation. “Us-and-Them” mentalities are often unhelpful today and my suspicion is that not much has changed in the past 2,000 years; similar situations were likely as polarizing as they are today. Given that we tend to love our non-enemies, and that the people we most often pray for aren’t making it a practice to persecute us, loving our enemies and praying for our persecutors has the distinct effect of making “Us” and “Them” indistinguishable. To the outsider gazing in, there is no separation between the enemies’ camp and the allies’ camp. Instead there’s a love and approach to everyone that is noticeably equal. Our prayers are indistinguishable. Our actions are indistinguishable. Our words and thoughts and motives are indistinguishable.
And we rejoice when the rain falls on the evil AND the good.