God’s Call: Suffering and Happiness

But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Acts 9:15-16

Sometimes I think we’re a bit more poor than we think we are in the United States’ Church.

It’s easy to look at other places in the world and feel sorry for them, to look at their poverty and feel pity, send money, and think that we’ people with so much money, so much material wealth, so many good things in our lives, are somehow more blessed, that we won the cosmic lottery because we were born in this country. We say: “We are blessed. These people are not blessed.” We draw a line between us and them, and mark ourselves as the givers of mercy, charity, and help.

While I certainly don’t think I’ve got my theology all together, or that I know a whole lot about what the Bible really means or anything, but I cannot help but think this line demarcating the blessed and those who are not blessed is a bit more difficult than this. After all, Jesus did say it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Wealth does not necessarily equal blessing. Material goods do not necessarily equal being in God’s good graces.

This week, during Pentecost, it can be easy to slip into the triumphalist attitude, that as long as we’re with God, as long as we’re following Him, everything will be fine. If we’re doing His will, everything will work itself out, and be smooth sailing. When we follow God, we’ll be happy.

But this only leads to another question: what does it mean to be happy? What does it mean to follow God, to be in Him, and to have Him in my life in a “real” way?

Cognitively, we would say that has nothing to do with shallow blessings, such as cars, clothes, nice homes, a good job, popularity and the support of lots of people around us. And yet, from the way we bemoan the fact that we don’t have those things in our lives and ask God to give them to us, along with security, safety, a comfortable life, means that’s what we believe in our heart of hearts. When we pray and ask for these things, make our prayer life about what God can give to us and not about what God can do in us, we’re equating God’s call with our own comfort and sense of happiness.

When the Spirit of God fell on those people on Pentecost, it did not suddenly erase all their problems and make their lives more comfortable. It instead dismantled the lives of those in the early church, radically turning them upside down, inside out, people who lived in closer community than ever before, people who did not have possessions, people who went to the ends of the earth, speaking in languages that they didn’t even know.

When Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus, Paul was struck with blindness. And when Ananias was sent to Paul, to deliver God’s message, it was not a message of comfort. The glory of God that Paul preached throughout the world was also the source of his suffering in death. And yet, Paul in the same breath is able to account his suffering as blessing; he finds joy in God, regardless of the fact that he has been deserted by his people, has been sentenced to death, has been stoned. The plan God had for Paul was fulfilled:

Paul was an instrument of God.

Paul suffered (and died) for God’s sake.

When we align ourselves with God, we can expect the same. When we pray for God’s spirit and work in our lives, we are not requesting an easier or more comfortable life that melds with the rest of the world. In many ways, we become failures in the eyes of the world, cursed, the unfortunates, the people who are labeled “crazy,” “dangerous,” or “pitiable.”

vegetable-garden-planting-06

Something I’ve been challenged in lately is smudging the border between black and white ways of seeing the world and understanding that a lot of life exists in the gray areas, and this is one of those places. Because we live in a broken world, a lot of the work we do for God, a lot of our efforts to do His will looks a lot like unhappiness and misery, the curse of God. But at the same time, I want to see the beauty in that struggle, the beauty of life pushing through the dirt, stretching out its tendrils and leaves through the refuse, the stifling garbage that’s all around us. We may be scraggly, we may be a bit crooked, a bit broken, but that doesn’t make us an object of scorn, an example of failure. And it doesn’t mean we need to get dug up, transplanted to a place that’s sunnier, prettier, nicer, more comfortable, easier to grow in. Because God sees that scraggly plant as part of something beautiful; he sees beauty even in the refuse.

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