Fret Not

It’s not fair!  Some people never seem to get caught, while others of us the one time we are hurrying a little too fast, there are those blue lights in our rear view mirror.  Some people take tremendous risks, and never seem to suffer a negative consequence, while other folks if not for their bad luck, they wouldn’t have any luck at all.  The writers of the scriptures were no Polly Anna’s.  They recognized that sometimes the wicked seem to get away with it.  Even Jesus understood the universe isn’t fair:  “God causes the sun to shine on the evil and the good, and the rain falls on the just and the unjust.”

It’s not fair, and there is no such thing as perfect justice.  Maybe that is why so many people are drawn to graphic images of damnation and the suffering of the wicked in a fiery afterlife like in Dante’s Inferno.  They want somebody to get their just deserts.

Now I have to admit there is just a little part of my unredeemed soul, that gets a thrill when Dirty Harry says, “Go ahead, make my day.”  And sometimes I enjoy stories about revenge.  Like the town gossip who got her just deserts.  It seems that the town gossip circulated a rumor that a local man, George, was an alcoholic, because she had observed his pick-up truck parked outside the only bar in town.  George never answered a word to the woman’s accusation.  He just took his pick-up truck and parked it out in front of the Gossip’s house all night.


Then there is my favorite story about revenge.  Three Big Bad Biker Dudes went into a roadside Truck Stop and went up to an older gentleman at the counter who was having his breakfast.

The first biker took out his cigar and dropped it into the man’s coffee.  The man didn’t say a word and resumed eating his breakfast.

The second biker tipped over his glass of orange juice — still no reaction.  The third ugly biker dumped the man’s plate of bacon and eggs on the floor.  The little old man got up without saying a word, paid his bill and left the cafe.

“He wasn’t much of a man was he?” said the leader of the pack.

“No,” said the waitress, “and not much of a truck driver either. He just ran over three Harleys in the parking lot.”

There is a primitive part of our nature that enjoys the prospect of retributive justice — bad guys getting their just deserts.  Don’t get mad get even.  But our Psalmist counsels us to fret not.  Don’t get bent out of shape over the wicked.  Eventually their schemes will unravel — sort of like Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.   The seeds of Madoff’s destruction were sown into the very heart of his business, just as the subprime mortgage market was structured to fail.  “Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look well at his place, he will not be there.”

But most of us are impatient.  We can’t wait for the slow natural unfolding of events to bring down the wicked.  We want revenge and we want it now – retribution.  The American justice system is caught in a contradiction in the popular imagination between retributive justice and restorative or rehabilitative justice.  Restorative justice seeks to make whole what is broken.  Retributive justice wants to punish – an eye for an eye.  But as Mahatma Gandhi said, “an eye for an eye only leaves the whole world blind.”  Now some folks may think I am treading on political ground here, but it’s not politics, it’s theology.

What kind of God do we believe in?  Do we want an angry punishing God, who delights in eternally torturing people for their sins — sinners in the hands of an angry God?  Or do we want a loving Creator, who seeks to save and reconcile the whole world to himself – the whole world, no exceptions, even you and me?

Now I recognize there is a great divide in the Christian world between those who want an angry punishing God, and those who want to believe that God is love.  Rob Bell, a prominent evangelical pastor this Spring, kicked up a hornet’s nest in the evangelical community, when he published a book entitled,  Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.  Rob Bell is saying that a truly loving God does not consign people to eternal torment – there is no hell.

And when I was in Bethlehem I was confronted with why “love wins” is such an important affirmation of faith/ On this trip to Israel it seemed to me that the two sides in the Israeli Palestinian conflict are further apart than ever.  Person after person with whom we visited expressed genuine despair.  The most optimistic statement I heard from Kinneret Shiryon, a woman reform Rabbi.  And she said, “we are two peoples living on the same land, and we have to learn to live together.  But I don’t think I will see it in my life time.  I pray that it will be in my children’s life time.  This was the most optimistic statement from Israeli or Palestinian.  And then I was visiting Bethlehem.  I have not been in Bethlehem since the separation wall between Bethlehem and Jerusalem was built.  And as I came out of the store, there was the wall in all of its ugliness – ugly and necessary.  And then I noticed among the graffiti the affirmation of faith in the face of despair – love ultimately wins.

I think the most telling howls of protest over Bell’s book are those who complain, “if there is no hell, what’s the point of being good?”  Like if there is no incentive for being good, we will all run out and commit deliciously wicked deeds.   Or if there is no hell, why would people join the church and give money?  Can’t we do good for the sake of doing good?  Can’t doing good and participating in the community of faith be its own reward?

But then I am reminded of the rule of thumb in marketing:  fear sells better than hope.  We can certainly see how that principle works in politics.  It is much easier to get people out to vote, if you can make them afraid of something, than trying to get them to turn out to vote by inspiring hope.  Fear sells better than hope.

But I believe like Rob Bell the church needs to take the high road.  We need to preach a gospel of love for God, because God first loves us.  God invites us to do good even when there is no particular reward, because love wins, that is the good news of Jesus Christ.  Love wins has been taught by all great souls, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King.  Love wins, even when the forces of evil try to kill it, because love rises stronger than before.

So what do we do with all those images of an angry punishing God?  Maybe it is time to embrace I John 4:16  So we know and believe the love God has for us.  God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.  But if God is love and heaven and hell are no longer issues, what incentives do we offer for people to choose the good and avoid evil?

Terri Shows has a phrase I believe cuts to the heart of the matter:  “how’s that workin’ for you?”  Children who are raised with natural and logical consequences become more responsible and mature than children who grow up parented by a strict rewards and punishments system.  Natural and logical consequences focuses on giving children choices, while punishment systems focus on control.  And that is really the problem with religious groups that focus on an angry punishing God.  They want control, rather than freeing up people to become responsible adults.  If people respond to God out of fear, they are much easier to control, than if they are choosing God out of love.

Now a natural and logical consequences approach to religion means we have to help people learn to appreciate a long term perspective, rather than seeking immediate gratification.  Listen again to some of the phrases from Psalm 37:

Trust in the LORD, and do good; so you will dwell in the land.   Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.   Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him.  Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently.  All of those phrases make sense to someone who has learned to approach life with a long term perspective.  The problem with most of us is we want what we want and we want it now!  We want everything to be fair now! We want to know that those people who have hurts us or we don’t like are going to get their just deserts in the end.  We don’t want any of this be still and know that I am God business.  Believing in a God of love, following Jesus to do the good is for mature people.

Believing in a God of love and following Jesus is also for people who are willing to forgive others, and who are willing to be forgiven.  We don’t have to live frozen lives for fear that we might a mistake, because our blunders are forgiven.   Now we also have to be willing to  believe in a God who forgives people we don’t like.  And that may be one of the hardest parts of embracing the way of Jesus.  Matthew 18:21  Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”  22  Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.   Luke 6:37  “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38  give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap.  For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

Jesus is just downright subversive.  He undermines all of our efforts to use religion for social control.  Jesus wants us to be free to love.  And that means we are also free to be unloving, and that is why God freely offers forgiveness – we can start over and try again.  God loves us.

We have to learn to take the long view.  When Bernie Madoff was riding high, he was admired and envied.  But now, how’s that working for you Bernie?   Be not envious of wrongdoers, for they will ultimately fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb.  Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!  Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.  Take the long view.  Be still before the Lord and wait patiently.  Better is a little that the righteous has than the abundance of many wicked.

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