Cynicism, envy and God

Cynicism denies God’s goodness. Envy denies that the earth is His, and the fullness thereof.

These are the lessons winsomely teased out by Father Stephen in blogs 20 months apart, the congruence of which I happened to notice.

First, in Cynicism and the Goodness of God, he grabbed my attention by opening with this:

I admit to being a child of the 60′s … I have lived through a period in American history marked by assasinations, abuse of power, incompetence and unrelenting and outrageous pieties from the lips of the impious. As such, like many in my generation, I am tempted by cynicism – an assurance that things are never as they seem but that things seem mainly because someone wants them to seem that way. Of course, cynics rarely have to repent because history frequently supports their suspicions.

As they say, “I am sooooo there.”

The difficulty comes, however, when cynicism becomes rooted in our hearts. It’s cold distance from the world can also dampen the warmth of love – it’s constant position of suspicion robbing us of the joy of simple wonder.

On a theological level, cynicism is largely irreconcilable to a belief in the goodness of God. It is true that the world is filled with sin, and that other people and our institutions fail us. The Scriptures tell us to “put not your trust in princes nor in the sons of men.” However, the same Psalm that warns us about such false hopes, is an exceedingly hopeful Psalm:

Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD, O my soul! While I live I will praise the LORD; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. Do not put your trust in princes, Nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help. His spirit departs, he returns to his earth; In that very day his plans perish. Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help, Whose hope is in the LORD his God, Who made heaven and earth, The sea, and all that is in them; Who keeps truth forever, Who executes justice for the oppressed, Who gives food to the hungry. The LORD gives freedom to the prisoners. The LORD opens the eyes of the blind; The LORD raises those who are bowed down; The LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the strangers; He relieves the fatherless and widow; But the way of the wicked He turns upside down. The LORD shall reign forever — Your God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the LORD! (Psalm 146/145)

Like so many other aspects of our spiritual life, emptiness cannot replace fullness. To trust in God and to rejoice in His goodness is an act of fullness, an act that fills the heart with good things. However, to refuse to put our trust in things human is not a command to cynicism. It is, instead, a commandment to center our hearts and lives on the goodness of God rather than placing our hope in the works of man.

“Put not your trust in princes nor in the sons of men” I’ve got down pretty well (political phone solicitors take note). “To trust in God and to rejoice in His goodness” is a real chore.

This is not prosperity gospel, Crefalo Dollar crap. It’s the trust in God and his goodness evidenced by the Three Holy Youths who declined to bow to the image of the great king even when he personally called them on the carpet and gave them one last chance:

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

(emphasis added) They trusted in God’s goodness even if He didn’t deliver them! There are fates worth than death, as countless martyrs attest.

This makes little or no “logical” sense, at least to me. But I’m increasingly convinced that there are truths that while not logically provable, are nevertheless doxologically true:

Cynicism may refuse to believe what is false, but it does not possess the virtue of seeing what is good. Such virtue only comes because we rejoice in the good [Doxology] and set our hearts on God. Though we put not our trust in princes nor in the sons of men, we nevertheless recognize the goodness of God,  Who keeps truth forever; Who executes justice for the oppressed; Who gives food to the hungry; Who sets the prisoners free; Who opens the eyes of the blind; Who raises those who are bowed down; Who loves the righteous; Who watches over the strangers and relieves the widow and the fatherless.

Such hope does not disappoint nor does it poison our heart with the cold wisdom of those who cannot be fooled. The wisdom of the world is never the same thing as the wisdom of God – one offers only an emptiness while the other is the very fullness of God’s own goodness.

Skip forward 20 months, and we get from Father Stephen what seems to me a variation on the same theme: Envy and the Fullness of God:

We are … told in Scripture that Pilate perceived that Christ was being handed over to him “for the sake of envy” (Matt. 27:18). Thus, it seemed important to me to offer this small meditation on envy, or at least one of its sources – for it is rooted in false beliefs about God and His world and the hardness of our heart that keeps us from seeing the truth.

Father Stephen then turns in the unlikely direction of the Orthodox funeral service:

We stand mournfully around the grave, letting the strains of the hymn find their resolution in the final chord. The priest approaches the coffin, now closed and ready for lowering into the grave. The closing of the grave begins with a single handful of dirt. The priest tosses the dirt with the words: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

Fullness seems strangely contradictory to the mood of a funeral. The pain of loss and the emptiness of a life that seems to have gone from the midst of us speak not of fullness but of scarcity. I will not hear that voice, hold you close to me or listen carefully for your footsteps.

No setting could be more stark in which to proclaim “fullness.”

But it is at the grave that we are perhaps most clearly confronted with the claims of our faith. For it is here at the grave that God made His own final assault on the myths and fears of a world dominated by death. This world of death always proclaimed the sovereignty of sorrow, the ascendency of scarcity.

… Is the world I live in one of scarcity or abundance? The answer to the question has much to do about almost every decision I make. The threat of scarcity tells me that whatever I have, like my own life, is limited. Nothing is ever enough. There is not enough money, enough food, enough love. The abundance enjoyed by another is always at the expense of myself and others because the world is governed by scarcity. Thus I must fight; I must wrestle to gain whatever I can and cling to it ’til death wrests it from my cold, dead fingers.However, if the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof – if every good thing comes from God who is without limit – then scarcity has been defeated and abundance reigns within the Kingdom of God, now and always. In this abundance there is not just enough, but more than enough. I can share. I can give. I can love without fear that there will be too little to go around. The abundance enjoyed by another is not at my expense for those who have much are not the rulers of this world. Thus I need not fight; I do not need to gain or to cling. God knows “you have need of all these things.”

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. The emptiness of death has been filled with such an abundance of life that it has been trampled beneath the feet of those who walk the way of Christ. In this fullness we can do more than give – we can love even to the excess of forgiveness. My enemy has stolen nothing from the abundance that fills my life.

This proclamation of abundance has nothing in common with the prosperity gospel which is all too often driven by the fear of scarcity and the need to amass material things to prove the goodness of God.

Instead, as proclamation the abundance of the Kingdom needs no assurance greater than the resurrection of Christ. He is the abundance of Life.

Again, the necessary caution, so prevalent is the twisted, cynical prosperity gospel today. Believing in God’s ownership of the earth and its fullness is not a magic incantation to assure that your coffers are full of money. “Christ is the abundance of life,” we affirm doxologically.

We’ve had a long run of economic prosperity in the U.S. It’s no secret that I think that prosperity is forfeited, and that our house of economic cards is apt to come crashing down soon. I am no prophet, and I claim no divine sanction for this conviction, which may arise from my spleen more than from my soul.

But we’re producing so very little that’s real in the U.S. anymore. “Synthetic credit default swaps” don’t feed, or clothe, or shelter anyone’s body. But that’s the kind of stuff that make up our GDP today. (Hmmm. Imagine all the things “GDP” could stand for besides “gross domestic product.” One of them could end in “Ponzi scheme.”) Our economic doom seems sealed because nobody in power seems willing to admit the unreality. As far as they’re concerned, the solution is to regulate synthetic credit default swaps more carefully. “It will be different from now on. Trust us, Charlie Brown.”

And yet, as those who have visited economically poor but culturally rich parts of the world attest,”there is not enough to waste but more than enough to share.”

The abundance found in the Kingdom of God is not the same as the abundance imagined by a planet enmeshed in its own cycle of scarcity and envy. The abundance proclaimed in the Kingdom of God in which the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, is an abundance in which there is not enough to waste but more than enough to share. The abundance flows from the enlargement of our heart as we expand our very existence to include the other. A world constituted by love rather than the envy of individualism will always have more than enough.

Logic versus doxologic. I think it’s no coincidence that Father Stephen, who often stretches his listeners to see what the present order incites us to overlook or deny, ends each podcast with the very doxological words “Glory to God.”