Thursday, July 16, 2009

Why Be Good? Part 2

At the opposite end of the philosophical spectrum from the Stoics are the Epicureans, who believed that freedom from fear and the absence of pain were the ultimate in happiness and that happiness was the highest good. Epicurus himself said that the best life was found in simple pleasures and that a person should not pursue those desires which might not always be satisfied (e.g., a desire for rich food or sex), because the resulting disappointment and frustration would upset a person's tranquility and happiness. In sum, he believed that best kind of life was one which maximized pleasures (even if they are small and simple) and minimized pain and difficulty.

It seems to me that, just as certain strains of Christianity lean toward Stoicism, certain other varieties lean toward an Epicurean view of life. I am thinking here of those Christians who believe that it is never God's will for a person to fall seriously sick and not be healed, never God's will for a person to suffer his/her entire life with a chronic illness or handicap, and never God's will for our desires to be frustrated for the greater glory of God. The "name it and claim it" folks probably wouldn't state their beliefs that baldly, but certainly their operational theology seems to veer awfully close to this. It's as though those of us who follow a crucified God can somehow expect to have the king's X over every negative aspect of our lives, with God as some sort of cosmic genie who grants us far more than the three wishes of Aladdin's lamp.

As a pastor, I have known many people over the years who think of God in these terms, and I find this kind of belief system both sad and dangerous. Sad, because it totally misunderstands the greatness and glory of God, who not only uses suffering to accomplish great good (of which the Cross is the supreme example!), but also is present with us in our suffering. Besides which, this kind of theology of God makes Christianity into the kind of mercenary enterprise that Satan accused Job of being involved in (i.e. "Does Job fear God for nothing?...But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face" -v. 1:9-11) It's also dangerous, because when, inevitably, God doesn't deliver in the way that those who follow this line of thinking believe He should, very often it shipwrecks their faith, a situation from which many never recover.

But Christian behavior is supposed to be motivated by more than mere duty (Stoicism) or the continuation of pleasant circumstances (Epicureanism). More tomorrow...

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