Simple instructions can be dangerous things. Far from helping me do what I want to do, they can sometimes reduce my ego to a pile of rubble. Take for example my effort to connect a new TV and sound bar with an old DVD player – a simple task, I thought naively. After at least three frustrating hours, three trips to the electronics store, and some persistent coaching from the sales clerk, the DVD player still isn’t connected. That was eighteen months ago, and I haven’t found courage to try to finish the job.
That frustration can pale in comparison with the frustration of trying to follow instructions for living. Early in my faith journey I heard someone say he could avoid commuting delays by using prayer to change traffic signals green. Anyone who had enough faith to pray that way, he said, could do the same thing. I knew it didn’t sound right at the time, but he got me searching out instructions for prayer to see why my efforts were frustrated and to see if there was something I had missed. It was only later I knew he was a complete charlatan.
Even the scriptures can seem frustrating as instructions for life. It’s easy to read the Bible as a simple instruction manual for living. Lots of people do. Do this well enough, and that will follow. “Happy are those whose way is blameless,” the psalmist wrote (Ps. 119:1). Live a perfect life, and you’ll be happy. There’s an assumption, I suppose, that if you’re not happy, you need to examine your life to see how you’re not living perfectly.
Moses promised that if we obey God’s commandments, God will bless us materially (Deut. 30:16-18). Obey and grow rich, he seems to say; follow the rules and get the goodies. Choose to live a godly life, and you will prosper; choose to sin, and live in poverty. Lots of people think that way. Take a look at the record of the last Congress, and you’ll see what happens when some of the wealthy view the poor that way today.
But the choice and its results aren’t that simple. The book of Job is essentially a long indictment of such foolishness. It’s a well-known story: Prosperous family man lives an exemplary life and suffers nearly complete tragedy because God succumbs to the influence of Satan. It’s a plot that gets played out all around us every day as bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad. Anyone who has lived for more than five minutes knows that right behavior does not always lead to great rewards, and even the most reprehensible behavior does not always result in punishment.
So what’s going on? A simple choice between prosperity and adversity sounds easy. Who would not choose life over death in hope of gaining a blessing or two? God asks who wants life, and every hand goes up. The catch is, I think, that it’s not as simple as choosing life or death, not as simple as stating a preference. We’ve got to back up our preference with action. The choice between life and death never stops coming to us. It comes to us in every large or small choice we make, in every minute of every day of our lives. And we’ve got to make the choice every time.
Moses laid that choice before Israel in his farewell address (Deuteronomy 30:15-20), after forty years of wandering with them in the wilderness, forty years of their bad choices: grumbling, debauchery, drunkenness, orgies, idolatry, backsliding, and near-revolution. Now that the end is near and they’re ready to receive the promise, Moses lays the choice starkly before them again. God has remained faithful through all their bad choices; will they keep up their end of the deal?
I don’t know about you, but in my life I’m constantly in situations where I have to make a choice. Maybe it’s the option that’s more attractive (for what reason?). Maybe it’s the one that offers the least resistance, that seems to present fewer landmines or hurdles, that doesn’t rock the boat, that’s more socially acceptable, that offers the promise of more personal advantage.
Is my faith, my commitment to the way of life Jesus marked out, strong enough to choose what’s right rather than what’s convenient? Will I be able to lay down my life, my psuche, all that constellation of traits that make me a unique personality, and choose what I believe but don’t know is right, even though I’m not certain where it will lead in the end? Even though it may lead to more suffering than I’ve ever known before?
Will I lay thirty years of ministry on the line if I’m called to do the right thing, like Frank Schaefer, Tom Ogletree, Steve Heiss, and many others did? I don’t know. Will you risk what’s most valuable to you for the sake of something greater than you? You may not know the answer to that, either.
But this I do know because all the years of my life affirm it: The choice keeps coming to us whether we get it right or wrong; whether it brings us ease or suffering; whether we’re ready to make the choice or not. And in every one of those choices, God is there, offering life.