Tuesday, July 3, 2012

"What Does It Matter?"

They turn round and round by his guidance, to accomplish all that he commands them on the face of the habitable world.  Whether for correction, or for his land, or for love, he causes it to happen.  --  Job 37:12-13

This passage came up again in the Daily Lectionary recently.  It was in the Daily Lectionary a month ago as well, and I  wrote about it in Living in Christian Community  So very rarely does the same passage from the same verse get repeated in the Daily Lectionary that its coming up again was significant to me.  It was also significant because I have been somewhat haunted by something I wrote in that earlier posting.  I was writing about the great diversity among Christians, and trying to understand how I should respond to this diversity.  In particular, I was trying to sort through how I ought to respond to others who think so very differently than I do.

This is something I wrestle with quite frequently because Christian unity is very important to me, and I believe to God, as well.  I see Christian unity as encompassing every aspect of my life, not just the life of the church.  I see it influencing the way I relate to the people in my church, the people of other Christian denominations, the people of other faiths, and the people I work with, and the people I live with.  In every aspect of life, I meet with people who think differently than I do.  How I respond to this diversity as a Christian is the great question of my life.

Over the years, I have learned that Christian unity is more about forming a cohesive group among those who think differently than it is about forming a cohesive group of like-minded people.  For if you love your brother only what more are you doing than others?  That is the key to Christian unity:  loving those who think so differently than you do.

There are essential rewards inherent in maintaining such unity.  We learn more from those who are different from us than from those who think just like we do.   We need that diversity to grow into the people God wants us to be.  And sometimes we actually need our opposites to provide us with a much needed balance.

One of the things I find so fascinating about the Bible is the great diversity to be found within it, in particular the opposing characterizations of God.  God is a god of judgment and mercy.  God is a god of law and gospel.  These opposites provide a necessary balance and a check to each other.  Too much mercy, and people will take God for granted; too much judgment and people will turn away.  There is good reason for all these diverse writings to be held together as our Scriptures.  The people who gathered these diverse writings together valued the diverse viewpoints to be found among God's people.  I, too, value the diversity. 

But, there is a limit to  Christian unity, and this I know very well also.  There is a limit for most people in terms of the diversity they are willing to accept and include within their circle.  For some people, simply being of another denomination is too much.  For some people, being of another faith is too much. Jesus, too, set limits, on what was an acceptable belief, and he was not beyond contradicting what was scriptural law to illustrate this point.  For Jesus, if one's belief was not loving towards God or neighbor then that belief needed to be questioned and countermanded.  This is the limit I try to follow, and what I tried to convey a month ago in that earlier posting:  If no one is harmed by one's beliefs, then, I wrote, "[W]hat does it matter?"  That sentence, however, has haunted me since I wrote it.

Don't get me wrong.  I still hold to this line.  If anyone is harmed by anyone's beliefs, then that person's beliefs cannot be approved of or ignored.  That person must be shown in the most loving, yet forthright, way possible that their beliefs are harmful.

At the time I wrote it, I was thinking more about the harm that is caused by excluding those who think differently, than I was about the harm that can be caused by specific beliefs.  However, since then, I have been made aware of the fact that some beliefs actually can cause harm in their own right.  These beliefs do not work to provide a much needed balance.  They actually cause harm.

There are probably many such beliefs.  However, the belief that I was trying so hard to accept and include as one of the many beliefs illustrating the great diversity of Christianity, is the belief that God does not answer prayers.  Since that posting, I have been shown just how harmful this belief can be. 

Belief in the efficacy of prayer and belief in a benevolent God go hand-in-hand.  If you think that God is so distant from humankind that God does not intervene in any way, not even to answer prayers, then why believe in God at all?  For a person of faith, that is an unreasonable, and an even harmful, belief.

It is especially harmful in moments of crisis, when the hope that God will answer your prayer is the only hope you have.  Moments of crisis come to everyone.  Moments of crisis often test our faith.  We pray for deliverance.  We pray for acceptance.  But neither prayer is answered.  If one begins to believe at this moment that God does not answer prayers, then one is a short step away from disbelieving God altogether. And, if that were to happen, then that person would be truly lost and alone. 

The only answer to such dark nights of the soul, which come to even the greatest saints, is to trust more deeply in God.  For God can only answer those who put their complete trust in him.  Only when we completely trust that God can help us, can God help us.  Very often the problem is not that God is not answering our prayers,but that we are not listening.  Sometimes God's answer comes in a quiet unexpected whisper.  And if we do not take the time to quiet ourselves and open our ears and eyes to what comes to us, we will miss God's word for us entirely.  Sometimes all we need to do to hear God's answer to our prayers is to trust that it will come, and to open our hearts to his answer, however it may come and whatever it may be.

Faith, hope, and love.  All three are intertwined, and essential.

Dear God, thank you for bringing this passage to my attention again, and calling me to rectify my previous posting.  I hope that this new posting brings hope to those without hope, and comfort to those without comfort.  Love always, Pam


Doug said...

Hi Pam,

The one word that keeps jumping off the page at me is "harm". As I read your post and nodded my head in agreement with most of it, I began to ask myself how is one harmed by disagreement or differing beliefs? What kind of harm, emotional, spiritual, physical, or something else? I suppose like belief in God or interpretation of the Bible, harm has can have many definitions. Interesting use of the word in your post. Still pondering.

Pamela Keane said...

Hi Doug,

Re-reading my post, I see that I certainly used the word "harm" enough times! Over-used more like. Apologies to all.

But to respond to your other comment... I used to think like you that another person's beliefs were their beliefs and that was that -- no need to worry about what another person believes, especially about God. However, all beliefs translate into words, and from words into actions. So, yes, some beliefs can cause harm.

One belief that causes harm is the belief that you know who is not acceptable to God. If you promote this idea to others, particularly others who you think are excluded from God, you are being hurtful to that person. The more forceful you are in your belief, the more harm is done. We have been witnesses to this at our church.

The other belief that I know can be harmful is this belief that God does not answer prayer. This was a new understanding for me, as I stated in the posting.

I'm sure there are others. If we thought of the political realm, I'm sure we could come up with many beliefs that cause harm.

Peace to you,