No one is good but God: Faith and Reward

What are we to make of these stories of seeming miracle that we hear about in our reading from Job and our reading from Mark? Recall that God had turned Job over to Satan who had said to God: I can tempt your people and make them follow me and they will not follow you. Well it turned out Satan was wrong. Job did in fact follow along with God, despite losing everything: family, house, possession, etc. He clung to his faith in God. Last week we read about him questioning God, challenging him and saying, ‘try me and you will see I am righteous.’ God says to him, as we heard last week – who do you think you are Job, how do you know if you are righteous?

God alone is righteous. God alone is good. God alone knows how all things fit together and so he alone can tell who is righteous and not. God alone restores Job’s fortunes here. The reading from last week clarifies something for us though: God’s restoration and addition to Job’s good fortune this week is not because Job is holy or righteous in his actions. Rather God restores and even increases Job’s riches because of Job’s faithfulness; his clinging to God, his allowing himself to be stripped to be nothing, just as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Joseph, and Moses were; all of these vulnerable before God, coming before him and recognizing their unworthiness to contend with their maker as an equal, say to God: my life is in your hands O Lord, save me. And sure enough, not only does God save Job, he provides more amply for him.

We heard this just a couple of weeks ago: if the sparrows, who contribute just a little bit to the world, are fed and clothed and housed by God, how much more, will God give to you, his faithful ones. We hear this echoed in Hebrews. Listen carefully to what is said: Now faith is confidence in what we hope for (x2). It is assurance about what we can’t see just now. This, we hear in Hebrews, is what our ancestors were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed from nothing at God’s command. By faith, Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save not only his family, but the whole ecosystem of animals and plants. On and on the passage from Hebrews goes recounting the whole history of the people we first hear about in the OT: by faith, these folks went about their service to God.

Here comes the challenging part: every one of these persons were commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. WHAT? Hang on here. It sort of seems like there’s a correlation between being faithful and the expectation of a reward. I mean, if you do something right, good, if you pursue the truth, especially if you make sacrifices, or even more, if you really suffer losses as a result of doing good and being faithful, don’t you deserve a reward?

I mean, our whole society is sort of ordered around this, kind of thing: if I win a mountain bike race, which requires hard work, sacrifice of time, energy, possibly skin, and lots of discipline, I expect a medal and if I’m a pro, I expect a cash reward. If I work hard at my job at bring in clients, or if I save lives, or if I help people, I expect promotions, a salary, more leadership, a bigger place in the organization. If I am a good parent, I expect my kids to turn out well, for them to make money and to care for me when I’m old.

But here’s the thing: as with Job, so Hebrews repeats: your righteousness is not the result of ‘doing good.’ By being righteous, and by doing good works, you do not earn anything. If you think this is how it works, then logically, you’d have to say that doing good is not the expectation for human beings. But this is precisely where we go wrong when we consider ourselves before God. This is the point God is making to Job: when I created all things, I created them to be perfect in accordance with how I made them and for the purpose I made them. Anything else is imperfect, broken, disordered, in theological terms, Fallen.

Does this make sense? You see when God made all things, he didn’t say, ‘well I’ll make some good and some bad stuff, I’ll write an interesting plot where there’s this ‘problem’ or ‘crisis’ that people have to somehow overcome, like your perfect drama script. Nope, when God created all things, he made each part, each person, each tree, each mosquito, each mountain, to be something or someone in particular, that fit into some much larger purpose and so much larger ordering of the world than any of us can see, or even imagine. So each thing and each person has a particular role to play in God’s purpose. And yet of course as I said last week, because all of us live in a world effected by the first human’s sin – Adam and Eve’s – we are not only unaware, but unable to know how to act perfectly in accordance with God’s purpose for us.

And this is where faith comes in. What is faith? Most simply defined, I would say that faith is love. Not passive love, but active love. An active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge, a deeper knowing of who God is. Why, because seeking who God is ends up changing who we are, transforming us so that we start to adopt his own way of acting in the world. And to be perfectly honest, this happens with virtually anything we pursue with longing and desire. One can be transformed into one’s fullest potential as a hockey player, for example, by learning the rules of the game, then practicing, playing, training, studying the game by watching others, asking others for help, training with other people, playing or scrimmaging against teams and players that more skilled or more experienced, listening to one’s coaches, etc.

Indeed, if faith is an active love, it’s actually about a way of life. It’s more like a relationship between teammates, coaches, other teams, or like a relationship between spouses, or between parents and children, than it is like taking a rule book out, following each rule, and knowing that by following each rule, you have ‘been faithful.’ The problem with this last idea is that it doesn’t work very well in real life. It’s too stiff a way of living; it’s too difficult to adapt to new circumstances, or things that the rules don’t necessarily address.

But if faith is an active love, a relationship with God lived out over time, then it’s also much like the relationships of fidelity that we have with other people: teachers with students, employees with bosses, spouses, parents with children. To be in relationship with someone (rather than to selfishly seek to have only your own needs met or to control others) requires getting to know them: listening, hearing, questioning, testing, asking other people for help, and most of all, making yourself vulnerable. It requires that you open yourself up NOT WITH THE EXPECTATION OF REWARD, but rather with the desire to act in a way to sustain your relationship over time. Let me repeat that.

To be righteous before God is God’s expectation for us. Anything less is offensive to him. Why? Because anything less is harmful to our own lives, and it ends up harming others. So to be righteous before God then, requires faith simply because faith is our life long relationship of getting to know who God is and of opening ourselves to God to hear his judgment when we go astray in a way that harms us or others, so that we can seek his wise (although sometimes challenging, and sometimes even painful) correction, so that we can be constantly seeking the best way forward.

It can be so hard to grasp this because of course most of our relationships and most of the things we do in life have become ordered to us doing things because we somehow think that we are going to be rewarded for doing the right thing or the good thing. We forget that doing the right thing or good thing ought to be the default. We forget because we are limited people and because we’re still in a world where sin distorts our perception, our understandings and our actions. It’s very difficult to make heads or tails out of what is good and right. God knows this though. He knows our frailty, vulnerability, and our limitations. He also knows our propensity for thinking we can build a figurative tower or ladder that allows us to just know what is good and right and just. This is why he challenges Job and says, who do you think you are Job, were you there when I laid the foundations. He does this precisely because he loves us and wants to redirect us to the true good for which he made us.

This we find solely as we seek him through worship and prayer and study of the Scriptures. For this is where we find ourselves before God in all the characters he’s given to us in Scripture. I mean, surely you’ve found yourselves in Job’s shoes, or in Mary’s or Martha’s, or in Paul’s either before or after his conversion, maybe even in Abraham’s or Moses’s when people are really doubting you. These figures aren’t just people who provide us with rules we should follow. Rather we can find ourselves before God in them, knowing their stories and their lives, because together, we are able to see who we are and who we are with other people, before God. To have faith as Job did isn’t about gaining a reward; it is, as our blind man did in today’s gospel, to receive the sight of what is truly good for us, and for others, that comes with seeking, pursuing, following, calling out, humbling ourselves, clinging to God, sustaining in relationship with him, over time.   AMEN.

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