I am not going to lie. I am a hardline cynic. Maybe I have been too jaded by experience, but I cannot look at the world and see it as basically good. I have no desire to stay forever young, nor to live any longer than I have to on this side of eternity.
One of the ramifications of this is that when I read God’s promises, I do not see them as pertaining to this mortal life. I am pretty sure God do not intend them that way either. I believe that Jesus’ most perfect summary of this life was: “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). I will come to the rest of that Scripture in a future post, when I talk about suffering. But I need to preface that discussion by pointing out that this statement by Jesus is fundamentally at odds with common interpretations of other Scriptures.
One such (mis)interpretation, which occasioned this post, was a comment I recently heard regarding this verse: “Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33). A very enthusiastic young radio host on a local Christian station boldly urged listeners to live a life that put God first so that “the floodgates of Heaven [would] open and [they would] be richly blessed.” I was horrified and changed stations. It sounds innocuous enough, but the theology is horrible, and sadly this notion of receiving “blessing” has become an integral part of Christian jargon.
What about Stephen, who was stoned to death for his faith (Acts 7:54-60)? Or Paul, who suffered tribulations too numerous to mention (2 Corinthians 11)? What about Jesus, cruelly crucified, despite having done nothing wrong? Were they not seeking God’s kingdom first? It seems to me that if you are judging blessing by happy circumstance, they were the most wretched of men. But no, go and read those accounts again and you will see that these men believed themselves to be blessed, even in their darkest hours.
I believe that if two interpretations of Jesus’ words are at odds with one another, it means that one or possibly both interpretations are incorrect, not that Jesus was inconsistent. So I can only conclude that at least one of our interpretations is incorrect. Now I cannot see how one could go too far wrong in interpreting : “In this world you will have trouble”, so I know which interpretation I am questioning.
I do not believe that there is any magical formula for unlocking God’s “blessings”. I do not believe that if we somehow decipher what it means to seek His kingdom first, that He will either be compelled to make us unbelievably happy or that He will exclaim: “Yes! I was hoping you would finally get it!” and bless our socks off.
I have come to be quite irked by the casual way Christians constantly talk about how God “blessed” them by providing this or that, as if by implication they would not have been blessed had He chosen not to. I refuse to believe that God’s blessing is defined by what we do or do not have. It is not about circumstances. And as long as we understand blessing incorrectly, we will continue to have our faith shattered when the realities of life break us.
There are no mystical keys to success. Life is horrible. There is no escaping that; we will suffer and we will die. So what, then, does Jesus mean when he says that if we seek God’s kingdom first, these good things will be “added” (an interesting choice of word, by the way)? I maintain that God is – and always has been – far more interested in our characters – our states of being – than He is in our circumstances. I take this verse to be a statement about the nature of abundant life rather than a formula for how to attain it. When we are in communion with God, I believe, and when our lives are oriented towards serving Him, only then can we experience joy and peace on a level that transcends circumstance. Not because moral behaviour unchains the hand of God, and not because adherence to a law somehow makes us immune to life’s tragedy, but because God is life. If we strive to live according to His precepts, we will always be more fulfilled – not because we earn it, but because it is the way it has been designed.
So I am not expecting the floodgates of Heaven to open anytime soon. I fully expect life to remain hostile and often bereft of beauty. Without question, I will refuse to count myself blessed only when life goes my way. To believe otherwise would be to believe in a God who is capricious and puerile – blessing and cursing indiscriminately and randomly. Whether I am suffering as a consequence of my own, or somebody else’s actions, or just because the natural world is savage; or whether I succeed beyond my expectations, I will never cease to believe that I am loved by my Creator. For that reason alone, while I may be an incurable cynic, I still count myself – ironically, perhaps – blessed.