2 Samuel 12:7–10, 13; Galatians 2:16, 19–21; Luke 7:36–8:3
God doesn’t want you to be happy.
God doesn’t want you to be prosperous.
God doesn’t want you to be successful.
God doesn’t want you to “be nice” to others.
These are not by any means bad things, mind you, but God doesn’t want them for you, at least not as ends in themselves. These are not the goals of a Christian life. God’s plan is much bigger than this.
Yet many American Christians believe that this is what Christianity is about: being nice to one another so that God will be nice to them and help them be happy. In many Christian circles, these are the aims. We live a life of prosperity, happiness, and success, and if we’re “nice” to others (that is, if we’re not judgmental and cranky), those are all signs that we’re a good person and are going to Heaven. And God’s role in this schema is to help us be happy and to answer our prayers for prosperity.
This distortion of Christianity, this heresy, is what sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton refer to as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This is the faith of most Americans who claim to be Christian or who just claim to believe in God. God is reduced from the Lord of All Creation worthy of our absolute love and devotion to a genie who pops up whenever we rub His bottle the right way and say the right incantation. And His main job is to help us be happy and then convey us to heaven.
But that’s not the faith of the Church, and that’s not how our God operates. Christ himself sets out for His disciples what they can expect in this life: poverty, persecution, and the cross. And actually there are very good reasons for this, because we human beings tend to get caught up in our own delusions about ourselves and forget the gratitude we owe to God. Prosperity numbs us to our own shortcomings, to our need for redemption and forgiveness.
In the reading from 2 Samuel, Nathan condemns David for having committed adultery with Bathsheba and then covering it up by bringing about her husband Uriah’s death. Now, notably, Nathan doesn’t dwell in this passage on the objective sinfulness of the actions, which is obvious enough. Instead, he points out all that the Lord has done for David up to this point. He brought him out of an obscure life as a shepherd and made him king of Israel. He has given David victory over all of his foes. He has made him prosperous.
Surely David praises the Lord and writes these Psalms to him, but he’s also out for all he can get. He takes the wives and concubines of Saul and many more. He takes Saul’s palaces and no doubt adds to them. He has everything he could possibly want, certainly far more than he needs. Yet he has to go even further and take what doesn’t belong to him.
That’s the problem with the prosperity gospel and with Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. We never recognize when we have enough, and we justify everything based on what we think we lack. Our moral reason becomes an after-the-fact rationalization of what we’ve done rather than a critical process of evaluating our immediate life choices. Our ability to discern the difference between I want and I need is destroyed. What belongs to the other becomes our need. That is the very essence of what it means to covet.
Fr. Damien Ference posted a great article on the Word of Fire blog this week about how celibates often idealize married life and the married vocation. Based on some of Fr. Jerry’s comments, I don’t think he experiences this dilemma, but apparently other priests do. And of course, people in married vocations sometimes also idealize the celibate vocations. Fr. Ference shared some of his notions with his pastor prior to his ordination. His pastor responded, “Kid, the grass is brown on both sides.”
What Fr. Ference came to realize was, as he put it, that “whatever vocation you are called to, the cross is there, ” and that “the door to salvation is the cross.” The celibate priest or religious in loneliness might imagine having a life partner with whom to share their life experience.
The husband might be thinking, “If only I were a priest, I wouldn’t have to hold anyone’s purse at the mall.”
The wife with children might be thinking, as I suspect many of you are this week, “If only I were a nun, I might not have to hear the words ‘I’m bored’ every 20 minutes all summer long.”
This is our constant temptation, our constant trap. We succumb to it just as our original parents succumbed: if only we knew good from evil; if only we were like God.
If only we were content with the blessings we have. Now there’s a path to joy right there. But our abundance becomes a blindness in us of our blessedness. The Gospel reading is a case in point. The Pharisee invites Jesus to dine with him. No doubt, given that he allows all kinds of people, including the sinful woman, into his banquet, he clearly has more than he needs, so much so that his dinner parties are public events. But he assumes that his prosperity is a sign that he is holier, cleaner, more righteous than others. He uses the metric of his own imagined righteousness to judge the sinful woman.
But Jesus measures by a different standard. The Pharisee doesn’t think of himself as dependent on God or beholden in any way. He’s righteous! He deserves the fruits of his success.
But the sinful woman recognizes her utter dependence. And mind you, the sinful woman was by no means a poor woman. She has just anointed Jesus’ feet with a costly ointment or nard—the Greek word is actually the same word we use for myhhr. Where else have we heard of myhhr in the gospel accounts? From the gifts of the three wise men. So this sinful woman certainly wasn’t poor in material wealth…
But she was poor in spirit. She recognized her need for God, for his mercy, and for his grace—something the Pharisee did not recognize. And you can’t ask for forgiveness when you don’t know you need it. Her debt is great, and she knows it. Because she is forgiven much, she loves much.
Let’s circle back to this idea I mentioned earlier: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, this notion that you just have to be a nice person. You sometimes hear people put it this way: “I’m a nice person! I haven’t killed anyone.”
That’s not really setting the bar very high, is it?
The problem is that we have forgotten what constitutes sin. Certainly it includes murder right up there at the top, but it also includes not honoring father and mother, coveting what belongs to others, and not giving proper respect and worship to God. You see, the 10 commandments are not about being nice. They are about being just, about being loving, about being merciful—as it turns out, merciful just as God is merciful. And sometimes justice, love, and mercy do not coincide with being simply “nice.”
Imagine that you wake up at 1:00 AM, and you notice that the corner exterior of your neighbor’s house is burning. The fire is already too big for you to put out, and the fire fighters will take at least 10 minutes to respond. Someone needs to wake the neighbors! But wait! It’s 1:00 AM. You’d be waking them from a dead sleep. That wouldn’t be nice.
Now, that illustration is farfetched, I admit. But how often do we use being nice as a reason not to tell someone the truth in love? We have a country that at times seems to be burning down around us. I like to think it’s more those other states on the coasts, but let’s face it: we have our problems here in Idaho as well. We’re so worried about not being perceived as “nice” that we won’t point out simple truths, simple facts: the fact that families and society grow when men and women marry permanently and have children; the fact that identity is not something we invent or choose ourselves but something endowed to us by God; the fact that paying a CEO a salary in the millions while their employees live on food stamps might just be an injustice; and that intentionally taking an innocent life in utero, by weapons of mass destruction, or by euthanasia are all crimes that cry out to God for justice.
God doesn’t want us to be nice. He doesn’t want us to be happy. He wants us to be holy, and he offers us the way of the Cross because the cross is the only means of salvation. The door to salvation is the cross.