Golf has its own language. I don’t mean eagles and birdies and bogies. I’m talking about the unofficial lingo that players use to tease each other, to highlight their own accomplishments, and to keep a running commentary on the game going. If there’s a tree in between you and the green, someone might say, “That tree is 90% air…just like a screen door.” If you hit a bad shot but get a good kick and it ends up better than it should, you say, “That’s an O. J.; I got away with it.” A hard pull to the left off the tee is a “Thurman Munson,” which means “a dead Yank.” Each regular group has its own vocabulary, and these shorthand expressions keep things jovial on the course.
Over and over, when something remarkable goes a player’s way—like a chip-in from 70 feet or a deflection off a sprinkler head that sends the ball careening in the right direction—the player will often say “I just can’t catch a break,” or “I must be living right.” On the surface, the player is trying to politely apologize to the other players for a fluke. “Guys, I’m sorry about that. Pretty amazing shot, but we all know I couldn’t do it again if I tried.” But, beneath the surface, the comment reflects a sentiment that there are forces at work beyond the player’s control and, more to the point, that those forces are benevolent when the player deserves it.
No one really thinks that a 70-foot chip in or a helpful deflection off a sprinkler head is the result of righteous living. No one really thinks that there are golfing gods looking down from above, blessing those who “live right” and cursing those who hate puppies and rainbows. But we all get what the golfer is saying because that same attitude sneaks into the rest of our lives. We’d like to deny it, but at some level we can’t help but believe that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.
That’s a belief that Paul is fighting against in Romans 5:1-11. He writes to a community that had experienced substantial hardship. Christians in Rome had been through hell. These were a people who looked around and how bad things were and thought, “We must be doing something wrong; God must be angry at us.” But Paul takes that logic and turns it on its head: “We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts.” For Paul, persecution is not a sign of bad living or wrong belief. God threw that way of thinking out the window with the gift of his son: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.” In other words, if God sent his son to redeem us before we deserved it, how much more certain we should be that he will save us now that we are redeemed.
I write about karma pretty often—about how attractive yet totally hopeless and anti-Christian it is. Christ is the anti-karma, and karma is the anti-Christ. Human nature looks for explanations, and we will posit them upon a circumstance even when the connections don’t make any sense. When things have been going badly enough for long enough, we start to believe that something must be the cause of this, and we invent a disease to match our symptoms. That’s karma. That’s “I must be living right,” or “I’m sure I deserve this.” In Jesus Christ, God declares an end to that. Suffering does not come to those who are unrighteous. In Christ, salvation comes to the unrighteous. Likewise, blessings don’t always come to God’s elect. Sometimes the righteous suffer for no reason at all. But Paul reminds us that because of Christ our suffering is not empty. Even in our trouble, we find hope—a hope that depends not upon how we live our lives but upon a God who loves us regardless.