My friend and I were chatting recently about how the church of our youth offered a boxset version of God that we all bought into, hook, line, and sinker. All of it boiled down to a logical statement: “If you do X, God will do Y.”
If your first sexual encounter is on your wedding night, then God will bless and keep your marriage strong.
This was ground into us as truth all through high school. There was no other way. Those that were sexual outside of marriage would pay a steep price, which may not be evident until years later. It was as if sexual purity somehow insulated you against the messy onslaught of life, instead of treating it as honoring God, each other, and ourselves. Nonetheless, we took it as the gold standard.
If you are obedient to God’s laws, then God will reward that.
If you followed the Bible to the letter – black and white, there was no gray area with God, they said – blessings will rain down from heaven upon you, in the form of health, wealth, wisdom, knowledge, stability, a godly spouse, children, or some other Christianized version of the American dream. Again, the fairy tale got wrapped up in the gospel; it was taught that you can do things to keep the pain of life away, as if praying the prayer of salvation kept the bad things from happening, an insurance policy against poor decisions or things beyond your control. There were walking talking examples of this in the church – although no one bothered to pay any attention to the prodigal son’s older brother, apparently. And the good people who weren’t living the dream? Their time would come, surely, God would reward it. You know, in His time. There was no room for the pain of unanswered prayers, shoddy luck, or a medical diagnosis without a silver lining.
I have another friend who is going through a bit of a deconstruction of her faith, as the platitudes of her youth didn’t hold up when life happened. The seemingly well-engineered structures crumbled under the strain. The bulwark gave way slowly at first, and then washed away in a storm. And when the raging waters surrounded her, many said, “Try harder. Pray more. You’re obviously not doing something right.” But she did everything “right” – she even sacrificed her well-being, her sense of self, and denied her own needs in effort to make the situation better. And it only made the situation worse. For a woman who was the poster child for Christian obedience and a shining example of sexual purity, she got robbed of it all and then some.
Does God reward obedience? Absolutely. Do sexually pure marriages honor God? Yes, all day long. But I think it is amusing how we assume that obedience yields a reward. Our on-going discussions wonder where God was in the midst of all this. The fervent and frequent prayers yielded nothing of substance, only destruction and lament. I know that feeling, as I went through the infertility phase. “Not my will, but yours,” was constantly on my lips, hoping God would do a miracle on my behalf, as we gave Him plenty of opportunities. I also recognized He could keep us infertile for reasons beyond me this side of heaven – which appears to be His chosen path for us. This wasn’t something I could pray myself out of, although I tried.
God, as my friends and I have found, is not a lawnmower parent. Lawnmower parents are those parents who remove all obstacles from their children, so they never struggle, never suffer, never have to try again. They “mow” the course in front of them so the path is evident, free of rocks, and easy to navigate – the child never has conflict. Of course, helping children, especially the littles, is one thing, but never letting them learn how to work through a problem – or *gasp!* fail! – whether that is feeding themselves, learning a new skill, or straight up frustration when they don’t get their way – they become complacent. It’s learned helplessness. They fall apart if no one is there to “mow down” the obstacle. And many times, we expect God to “make the paths straight,” especially if we accepted Jesus.
I do not believe God abandoned my friend in the midst of her struggles, but I do believe God is not a lawnmower parent. The reason for her pain and rotten outcome may be evident in the years to come; perhaps it will not be fully realized until she is face to face with Jesus. Like a homesteader, I know God uses ever last bit of life – nothing goes to waste – perhaps not all of it for the goodness of our earthly selves. Compost is nothing more than decaying organic matter (it’s full of bugs and smells), but it nourishes the plants like nothing else. Life not always going to turn out like a Christian movie. Sometimes the “right one” never comes along. Sometimes the marriage doesn’t happen. Sometimes the ailing marriage isn’t saved. Sometimes the biological baby never happens. Sometimes it’s not going to ever be okay. Sometimes we will go through life maimed. And we as a church need to accept that and make room at the table for people who don’t get their Boaz and are rejected by their father when they return home, not even worthy enough to be a slave in their household.
Just because we follow the Lord does not mean life is going to be one big beautiful story where we can Pollyanna the pain away. Life is so complex, so rewarding, so disappointing, so painful, all rolled into one amazing story. Our triumphs as well as our pitfalls are all for the glory of God.
Even if we won’t know that glory on this side of the river.
While He never said the path would be a groomed one, He did say would never leave us to be alone in the forest. No matter what.