Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Bad Side of Good

What separates you from God? Perhaps, considering Paul's resounding affirmation in Romans 8 that nothing can separate us from the love of God, a better question would be to ask what inhibits your ability to experience God's loving presence in your life. Sin, of course, is the short answer. But what does that mean? What gets in the way of our discipleship? What prevents us from knowing fully the love of God?

Maybe it's alcoholism or the abuse of narcotics. Maybe it's lust or pornography. Maybe it's prejudice or bigotry. Maybe it's gluttony or laziness. Maybe it's pride or ego. Maybe it's self-centeredness or cold-heartedness. Or maybe, as Jesus puts it in this Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 10:17-31), it's wealth or possessions. Take a minute and think about all of those things. And take a minute to think about which ones plague your life. Think about which vices I haven't mentioned. Think about them and ask yourself, "What's so wrong with that?"

A glass of wine can be wonderful. Pain-killing drugs can be miraculous. Love, including sexual intimacy, is a gift of our createdness. Familial ties and closely knit communities should be celebrated. Food is necessary for life, and rest and relaxation are in too short of supply these days. Confidence and self-awareness are spiritual assets, and sometimes it's best to have tough skin and not let the abuses of this life break us down. And having wealth, of course, means a safe place to live with enough food to eat and the security of self-preservation. What's wrong with any of that?

When people come to me and confesses a struggle with something like alcohol, I usually ask them to what extent that issue has begun to inhibit their lives. What makes your drinking a problem? Is it interfering with your professional life? Is it damaging your personal relationships? Is it getting in the way of you being the person God has created you to be? There is no exact number of drinks per day that makes a person an alcoholic. Instead, an individual, with the guidance of the community to which the individual belongs, must figure out on her/his own where the line between "social drinker" and "alcoholic" lies.

With most of the vices that inhibit our relationship with God, there are distinguishable lines where a potential good becomes sinful. Though there may not be clear and exact definitions, society as a whole has figured out more or less where those boundaries are. Although not unique in this way, wealth stands out as one good-turned-bad where society hasn't figured out where to draw the line between blessing and curse, and, as demonstrated by Jesus' conversation with the man who asks him what must be done to inherit eternal life, it's a problem that isn't new to our generation.

Money is power. Money is independence. Money is freedom. Money is opportunity. Take away money, and so many things that we enjoy disappear. We like those things. We want those things. And, because we haven't learned how else to have them, we accumulate wealth as the means by which we obtain those good things. But God has another plan. God's power, God's independence, God's freedom, God's opportunity are always more substantial than what we can acquire with our own means. And those things can't be bought. In fact, as Jesus makes clear in his instruction to the man who is searching for eternal life, money actually stands in the way of us getting them. Why? Because our dependence on money has inhibited our ability to learn how depend on God instead of ourselves for those good things.

The rich people, whom Jesus describes as having a harder time getting into heaven than the camel who attempts to fit through a needle's eye, aren't those who obsess about wealth. They aren't the super-rich who have more money than they can spend. They are us--all of us--those who don't know where to draw the line. Most of us know how to limit our consumption to one or two drinks. We know to take oxycodone only when we're recovering from surgery and not when we're feeling anxious about work. We know that sex within the bonds of marriage is a beautiful thing and that sex outside of marriage is a misplaced search for affection. But most of us don't know what it means to depend on God alone because we haven't learned to let go of our possessions.

Let go. Let go of your wealth. How much? Should you sell everything and give it to the poor? Maybe. If that's what it takes to learn to depend only on God, then, yes, you should sell it all. That level of self-dispossession isn't right for all of us, but all of us are called to let go of enough of our wealth to discover what it means to depend only on God. That sort of poverty is a spiritual discipline. We take on that discipline in order to learn what the world cannot teach us. We cannot save ourselves. We cannot take care of ourselves. We cannot protect ourselves. Only God can, and that's a lesson we must become poor to learn.

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