The other evening I caught a glimpse of one of my favourite cartoon characters, Bart Simpson, praying. It was Christmas Eve in the Simpson household and Bart prayed the following prayer: ‘O God, if you bring me lots of good stuff tomorrow, I promise not to do anything bad between now and when I wake up.’
Bart’s deal with God may make us smile – but it might make us think as well. Could it be that we too, however unwittingly, live our lives with the unspoken belief that we have a ‘secret’ deal with God?
Such a ‘deal’ goes something like this: ‘God, I will believe in you and perhaps even follow you, but in return you will look after me. A little pain is acceptable as part of my sanctification. But that’s it. No failing marriages, terminal illnesses that kill those I love, or redundancies that don’t ultimately lead to a more fulfilling job.’
As I write this letter we stand on the brink of an unknown Autumn and Winter that could be impacted by Covid-19 in many different ways—a second wave; high levels of redundancies and unemployment; the further revealing deep social divisions.
I have known people who have been faithful Christians for many years – years when all was going well for them – suddenly lose their faith when unexpected hardship or tragedy struck. Invariably they asked the same question, ‘If there really was a God who loved me, he wouldn’t have let this happen to me.’
This is an understandable question to ask.
But the reality is that God never enters into such ‘deals’. Nowhere in the Bible does God say that those who believe in him will be spared from suffering – if anything the Bible makes it clear that those who follow God might suffer more than others. God does however promise that he will be with us in our suffering and that there is something gloriously worthwhile beyond it – suffering and death are not the end.
This is at the heart of the drama in the oldest book in the Bible: how will Job’s love for God hold up when it seems that God is not keeping his end of the bargain?
It’s in another Old Testament book , Habbakkuk, that we find the most eloquent summary of the idea of holding onto faith in God when life turns bad on us. ‘Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food…. Yet I will rejoice in the Lord.’
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not looking for trouble; these readings slightly frighten me, and I suppose that in truth I’d prefer it if there was a deal to keep my family from harm, my body from illness, and my work safe. But in my heart I know that real love doesn’t operate on the basis of a deal. Rather it operates on the basis of faith, trust, and commitment.
When the hard times come, which they will—which they might this Autumn and Winter—I pray that we will have enough of these to hold on to the God who promises so much, even in the very moment when He may seem to have abandoned us.
Yours in Christ,