Monday, February 15, 2010

Prosperity or Presence?

Passages of scripture like Psalm 91 make it easy to see how things like the "prosperity gospel" get started.  You know, the whole idea that if you pray hard enough then God will give you a luxury vehicle, perfect health, and a large house.  After all, the Psalmist says things like "no evil will befall you" and that God will command his angels so that you won't even strike your foot against a stone.  If Psalm 91 was the only part of the Bible we had, then we might conclude that those who are faithful to God never suffer any misfortune ever.

Of course, simple human experience teaches us that the faithful do indeed suffer and clearly Psalm 91 is not the only passage of scripture in the Bible.  Just like any other passage of scripture, we have to allow the words of Psalm 91 to be interpreted by the whole of scripture.  Are the words of Psalm 91 true?  Yes, I believe wholeheartedly that God is with and watches over those who make God their refuge.  I've seen too many instances of this in my own life and in the life of the Church to not believe it.  But Psalm 91 is not the whole picture.  We must understand the promises of Psalm 91 in light of everything else that is said in the Bible rather than creating out entire theology out of a single verse or passage.

In fact, anyone who isn't already convinced of this should consider the New Testament passage in which Psalm 91 is quoted.  In Luke 4:10-11, verses 11 and 12 of this Psalm are quoted by none other than the devil himself.  Satan is tempting Jesus to take short cuts in his messianic mission, a mission which Jesus knows will include suffering, and he uses scripture to do it.  If the devil can quote scripture to support his own evil purposes then surely we can recognize the fallibility of putting too much weight on any single verse or passage of scripture.

Even the words of Psalm 91 itself cause us to consider carefully the promises that are made there.  The final words of the Psalm read:
"He will call upon me and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble.  I will rescue him and honor him.  With a long life I will satisfy him and let him see my salvation."
The Psalmist assumes there will be trouble.  The promise is not that God will keep us from all trouble but that God will be with us in that trouble.  There is a promise that God will rescue and honor those who seek the Lord but perhaps for some the rescue will only come on the other side of death as it did for God's own Son.  The Bible and the Church's experience are filled with stories of God's protection and deliverance of his people but even as we re-tell those stories we must be ever mindful of the fact that God did not deliver his own Son from the pain and suffering of the cross.  But neither did the Father finally abandon Jesus.  He rescued Jesus when he seemed to be beyond the point of rescue; when he had already been laid in the tomb Jesus was raised to new life.  It is the resurrection which is the ultimate refuge that God provides.  It is not sheltering from every trouble or even from death itself but a promise that God will never abandon us and that death will not have the last word.

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