Because I work at the computer store, I have an inordinate number of apps on my iPhone because most every time one of my coworkers tells me of a new app they have discovered, I end up downloading it. One of those is called “IFTTT” (If This, Then That) which allows you set up sequences (recipes, they call them) so you can always have things happen a certain way — if you take a post a picture on Instagram, then it will also put a copy in your Dropbox folder — like a giant game of Mouse Trap. I put the app on my phone last summer and then removed it earlier this year when I realized I don’t use it. As I read Reinhold Niebuhr this morning, I realized I part of it may be I don’t think about life rolling out that way, for the most part.
The books that have found me this Lenten season — both gifts from friends — have been around awhile: first Thurman, and now Justice and Mercy by Reinhold Niebuhr, which was edited after he died by his daughter and published in 1974, though the material comes from the Forties and Fifties. Niebuhr is the one who said, “Justice is what Love looks like in public;” he was also one who worked hard to find a faith that mattered, that was relevant to a nuclear world, to a world that had known the tragedy of two world wars. The pages are filled with his prayers and sermons.
The opening sermon is “The Providence of God” and he makes a distinction between “the instinct of religion” and “the gospel of Christ,” even as he says we find both in scripture. Without offering a quote fest, let me see if I can explain what has captured me in what he said.
“The natural instincts of religion demand that my life be given meaning by a special security against of the insecurities of life,” he says, quoting from a couple of Psalms to show it is natural for us to expect punishment for evil and reward for good. If it should seem those “were not being properly correlated in life; then God will guarantee finally that they will be properly correlated.” He goes on with examples from scripture and history of those who expect God to be on their side (cue Bob Dylan), that believe that judgment will set things right in their favor. “These are natural religious instincts,” he says, “the natural efforts to close prematurely the great structure of life’s meaning.”
Life is not IFTTT. There is more to faith than security and favor. We diminish what it means to follow Christ when we distill the structure of meaning to those two pillars.
For life is not completely at variance with itself. There is reward for goodness in life, and there is punishment for evil, but not absolutely. The same law which punishes the criminal punishes the Savior. And there are three crosses: two for criminals who cannot meet the moral mediocrities of life, and one for the Savior who rises above it. This is life. (18)
I read the sermon before I went to church today where we looked at the temptatio
ns of Jesus. As I thought through the sequence of the Tempter’s offerings — turn the stones to bread, jump and the angels will catch you, play the game and all this can be yours — I saw them as a picture of the very tension Neibuhr describes: Satan offers security, power, favor; Jesus chooses love, grace, mercy. Jesus understood what he had come to do was beyond making sure he felt safe in the Rock of Ages or knew that God was on his side. So he
said, “No.” Over and over. And then came out of the desert to deliver the sermon that was Niebuhr’s inspiration:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)
A little more from Reinhold:
It is not true that God gives special favors, and it is not true that there are simple moral meanings in the processes of history. We cannot speak simply of a moral order which, if defied, would destroy us. . . . The Christian faith believes that within and beyond the tragedies and the contradictions of history we have laid hold upon [God’s] loving heart, the proof of whose love is first impartiality towards all of his children, and secondly a mercy which transcends good and evil. (20)
Christ calls us to expect more out of God than security, attention, or even fairness, because though all three requests have their validity at certain times, we live in a world that is not safe, that is inattentive to most of the suffering of humanity, and is certainly not fair. If those three things are all we expect of God, our religion will fail. But that is not the last word.
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone. Therefore we must be saved by love.
And nothing can separate us from Love.