Is God Good All The Time? Or Only When We Feel Blessed?

  Our home flooding in Hurricane Isaac

Forty thousand Louisiana families lost their homes this week to what is being called the “Great Flood,” and more homes are about to go under as I write. Meanwhile, I’m reading posts on Facebook that are saying things like: “God is so good! He spared our home. We are so blessed.” And I’m asking very seriously: Really?

So if your home had flooded, would God be less good? And where does that leave the forty thousand now-homeless families in our state? Are they cursed instead of blessed? Or maybe just less blessed than those whose homes were spared?

One of my pet peeves in life is how often we Christians equate “the blessing” with our own physical and material prosperity, and God’s goodness with how well our lives are going on any given day. Without being cognizant of it, we have somehow bought lock, stock and barrel into the “prosperity gospel,” which purports to guarantee blessing in the lives of those who are favored by God—those who pray hard enough, have potent enough “prayer warriors” in their camps, and do this thing called Christianity just right.

This convoluted approach to the Christian faith has seeped deep into our collective Christian psyches, and it seems to reverberate everywhere we turn. It’s also a message that I personally experienced as a despair-provoking battering ram in the midst of multiple life calamities; during the long, painful years I spent with clenched fists asking God: “What does it take to get the flippin’ blessing?”

After many years and much suffering, I finally came to the conclusion that I was asking the wrong question completely. It was then that I began to ask instead: Lord, what IS the blessing?

So what does Jesus actually have to say about “the blessing”? There’s only one place in the Gospels that Jesus repeatedly invokes the word “blessed,” and that is in the Beatitudes. In Luke 6, Jesus uses the word “blessed” four times in a row (nine times in a row in Matthew’s account in Chapter 5). In every case in Luke’s Gospel, the word is followed by an adjective that describes people that most of us would consider anything but blessed: the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated, the excluded, and the insulted—those we would probably quickly deem “cursed” today.

I’ve pondered much about Mary—the most blessed woman that ever lived—and how her life would be judged were she alive right now. She was apparently widowed; and then lost her only son to a brutal, violent death upon a cross between two notorious criminals. And that was only after her beloved son was publicly accused of being a blasphemer, a lunatic, and possessed. In spite of this, we find the word “blessed” used repeatedly in regard to Mary; starting when Elizabeth proclaims to her in a loud voice: “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb…blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled” (Luke 1:42-45). We hear those words again in reference to Mary when “a woman from the crowd” cries out to Jesus saying, “Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed” (Luke 11:27-28). Jesus’ response—“Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it”—is an implicit reference to his mother’s unwavering faith in God that echoes the words spoken by Elizabeth.

Mary’s life gives us a glimpse of what the blessing looks like, and it is not based on the fact that her life went “well”—at least as the world defines “well.” Instead, her beatitude was found in her steadfast trust in God no matter what trials life brought, in her continuous “yes” to him in the face of great adversity, and in her constant cooperation with his salvific plan, no matter how much it suffering it involved.

This is the blessed state of being to which we are all invited to participate as Christians—a way that defies this world’s way of thinking. It is a way of living in peace and hope that comes only through faith, trust and surrendered abandonment to a God we believe is always good, no matter what happens.

This article was previously published at Aleteia.

The Hidden Glory of the Cross: What the Blessing Looks Like

the-pieta

Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.

Luke 1:42

“What does it take to get the blessing?” I asked my spiritual director, Sandy, two years ago as I walked through the front door of her home in a huff.

“The question is not what it takes to get the blessing,” Sandy replied pointedly. “It’s what you perceive the blessing to be.”

Her comment came after I’d shared the news that my then-25-year-old son-in-law, Grayson, had just been diagnosed with cancer—the same week Sandy had directed me to beg for the grace to truly know and experience God’s tender love for me.

“Grayson has cancer,” I spit out as I entered her home for our weekly meeting, where she was leading me through the 19th Annotation of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. “Is that how God demonstrates his tender love for me? By sending more suffering?” I scoffed. “I can’t seem to get the freaking blessing.”

“You keep thinking that the blessing means that everything goes well in your life,” Sandy countered. “A Catholic understanding of the blessing is that we know that God is with us and we trust his love for us no matter what circumstances life delivers. You’ve bought in to the prosperity gospel,” she pushed further, “and I want you to spend the next week renouncing that false belief from the core of your being.”

Bam! Sandy had hit the nail right on the head. Needless to say, it was a painful week of renunciation.

Before Sandy confronted the problem directly, it wasn’t so clear to me that I was a card-carrying member of the “Secret Prosperity Gospel Club.” But somewhere, I had definitely bought into a specific idea of what the “blessing” looks like: a happy marriage, successful kids, good health, financial stability, etc.—in other words, a life where all goes well. With that paradigm tucked deep into my mind, I’d spent much time and energy over the years not only comparing myself to others who appeared to have the “blessing,” but also wrestling with God about why his “blessing” had eluded me, especially as multiple tragedies visited our lives. The fact that Sandy pegged the problem so precisely prompted me, at long last, to nail to the cross the insidious lie that a blessed life equals a prosperous life, and that my life was therefore cursed.

Now let’s be clear: I do not attend a church that teaches the prosperity gospel; nor do I follow a single mega-church TV minister who preaches this popular, culture-friendly message. I am Catholic—one of more than a billion people in the world who attend a church where the crucified Christ is the focal point of our worship. In spite of that, a virulent strain of the prosperity gospel somehow seeped into my heart and brain; a “gospel” that essentially looks like this: I believe that my will should be done on earth. And when it’s not—for example, when people get sick, when they die young, when children have serious life crises, when finances crash—I conclude that God’s “blessing” is not on my life.

This false and frankly, un-Christian, belief wreaked havoc in my soul as I grasped for my way, my will to be done in the face of tremendous suffering, which included the deaths of a stepson, two brothers and my husband, Bernie—all in a few short years. It was after our lives imploded with loss—Grayson’s cancer being the last straw—that I finally discovered the paradox that only a surrendered life is a blessed life, with the most blessed life of all being a life that is fully surrendered to God. Those are the terms of God’s kingdom.

I have learned that Christianity is not for wimps or for those who want the soft, easy way. No. It’s strong medicine for those who desire to be Christ-like, which means taking up one’s cross, dying to oneself and uttering the often gut-wrenching prayer: Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.

Christians are called to live in a land where swords that pierce hearts are willingly embraced, where glory is revealed through open wounds, and where the fragrant aroma of holiness pours forth from souls who have been tried and tested—and found to be true. This is the hallowed ground of our Savior, and his Mother. And as their lives clearly tell us, it’s territory that’s accessed only by way of surrendered acceptance of the cross.

“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” St. Paul tells us in his First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:18).

Truly, I am finally being saved. Through the cross and from my own twisted notion of what the “blessing” looks like.   Better late than never.

Note: This article was previously published on Aleteia.