Sunday, November 4, 2012

Faith, Hope, and Love

Deal bountifully with your servant, so that I may live and observe your word.  Open my eyes, so that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.  --  Psalm 119:17-18

This reading has been in the daily lectionary for most of the last week.  When I first read it, I was feeling very appreciative of God's guidance in my life, which always amazes me.  I often wonder why I feel this guidance so strongly, and other people do not.  "Why is that?  What is the difference?"  For a moment, last week, I actually thought, "It must be because I try to do what God asks."

I'm happy to report that I immediately recognized this thought as being problematic.  It was exactly that kind of problematic thinking that Jesus was trying to get the religious people of his day to see when he told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector, the story of the Prodigal Son, the Lost Sheep, etc.  I was thinking just like the Pharisee in the parable:  "I am so blessed because I keep God's laws.  I do this and that and the other.  Not like that unfortunate person over there."

Really?!  I keep God's laws perfectly?  Well, I think we all know the answer to that question.  I had temporarily forgotten that I do not always love my neighbor as myself.  I do not always forgive other people as I would like to be forgiven -- that is, immediately.  I sometimes judge other people negatively.  I can make more excuses for pure and simple sloth than anyone I know.  And, among other things, I can be very arrogant sometimes -- as illustrated by that first thought.

This is the danger for religious people, as John Ortberg describes so well in "The Life You've Always Wanted."  We think that we, more that other people, follow God's law.  We forget -- or ignore -- all the times when we fail to follow God's law.  But no one, no one, is perfect.  That is why the gospel is so important.  God loves us despite our flaws. 

So, if it's not what we do that makes the difference in why some people feel God's guidance and others don't, what is it?  Is it simply faith?  Is faith alone, without all the trappings (or traps) of divine favor or judgment, the key?  Is that why I feel God's guidance?

I know that whenever I am feeling particularly challenged by life's circumstances, I remember that God has guided me through troubles before, and I trust that he will guide me through the current one.  Like the Jewish people, my faith rests on past events of God's divine intervention.  Perhaps it is simply faith in God's love and guidance that allows me to see God's love and guidance. 

Later that same day, a woman at my boys' school told me about a friend of hers whose young daughter, four years old, had just died of ovarian cancer.  Sixteen years earlier, this woman had lost another child, at six months, to another kind of cancer.  The grieving woman was, of course, beyond devastated.  She no longer wanted to be around people who had healthy children.  I wondered how someone would help this woman believe in God's love and guidance.
I came across a book later that day which provided more food for thought.  Martin Seligman, Ph.D. writes in "Learned Optimism:  How to Change Your Mind and Your Life" that how we think about circumstances can determine much of our reality.   "The key to this process is hope or hopelessness."  Seligman writes that whether or not we have hope depends upon how we explain misfortune.  "Finding temporary and specific causes for misfortune is the art of hope:  temporary causes limit helplessness in time, and specific causes limit helplessness to the original situation.  On the other hand, permanent causes produce helplessness far into the future, and universal causes spread helplessness through all your endeavors.  Finding permanent and universal causes for misfortune is the practice of despair."  (pgs. 49, 76, 89).  For example if I fail a test, I could think that I hadn't studied very much and would do better next time with more studying, or I could think that am stupid and would never get it right.  Seligman writes that we can learn to turn around our pessimistic way of thinking, and learn to find temporary and specific causes for negative events.  We can learn to hope in a more positive future.

I recalled the first time I experienced God's guidance in my life -- before I had any personal history of such things to rely upon.  I went to church, at a loss to help myself, hoping to find some solace from God.  And I heard words in the sermon that spoke so directly to my specific concerns that I could not doubt that God was comforting me.  My hope in God led to an experience of God.

So faith  and hope.  Both essential ingredients in feeling the love and guidance of God.  But what if you have neither?

I imagine that the woman who lost her only children to devastating diseases was in such deep despair that hope was out of reach.  I imagine that after the first loss, she might have been much more pessimistic when her second child was diagnosed with cancer.  Like Naomi in the Book of Ruth after the loss of her husband and two adult sons, she may have felt abandoned by God altogether.  Naomi, too, felt little hope for the future.  She sent her daughters-in-law back to their homes because she had no hope of providing for them.

But Naomi's thinking changed over the course of the story.  What turned Naomi's thinking around?

It was the love of her daughter-in-law, Ruth.  Ruth would not leave Naomi, even though Naomi repeatedly told her to go.  Ruth stayed by her side.  And through Ruth's love, faith, and hope, shared with Naomi, they both were able to survive, and eventually thrive.

Perhaps that is why love is the greatest of the three, as Paul writes.  And why God's law is the law of love.  Perhaps it is through persistent love, the kind of love that is not easily turned away, that faith and hope are best shared with those that do not have such knowledge. And, perhaps, eventually, they might turn around and see it too.

Dear God, help us all to share the love we have been given with all those we find in need.  Love always, Pam


Doug said...

As always, you generate so much thought. So here are my thoughts. You mention "judge negatively". Do you mean as compared to judge positively? My thought is why judge at all? It would seem far better and easier to try to just accept, not judge. Key word is try.

You mention you can be arrogant. Where in the world did you come up with that? YOU, arrogant ? Never ! I mean that, you do not have an arrogant bone in your body. That one really confused me.

You use We and I interchangeably. Who is we?

That is it, those are my thoughts, not much on the message you might have been trying to convey. Perhaps I need more coffee.

Blessings and peace to you. And that is the peace of God, He is with you.


Pamela Keane said...

Hi Doug,

I suppose I made a distinction between judging negatively and judging positively because I see more problems with the first kind. Is it a problem to judge people to be kind, loving, compassionate?

You are right about the fact that I should have qualified the "we". By "we" I meant "religious people", but not all religious people think that way. Just some of us do, and mostly likely, only some of the time. However, since you made the comment, I will leave it as it stands and hope that this reply clarifies things.

I appreciate your defense that you do not think I am arrogant. I'm glad I keep that under wraps most of the time, but it does sometimes rear its ugly head -- if only in my head.