God Is Smiling on Me
As I was shopping the other day at my local discount megastore, I overheard one employee chatting with another. She was speaking so loudly that I couldn't help but overhear her (we'll call her "Evelyn"); I was only a few feet away. Evelyn was telling her intended listener--and everyone within earshot--about a younger female relative of hers (we'll call her "Sue"). Apparently Sue was going through one of life's rough patches.
Evelyn said she'd suggested that Sue turn to God for help, and that Sue had asked for but not received divine assistance. Evelyn then said that perhaps Sue didn't really believe. Maybe Sue didn't believe that we rely on God for everything. God gives us our bodies, Evelyn expounded, air to breathe, clothes to wear, and jobs. And if Sue didn't believe that we are totally reliant upon God for everything, then why should God give her anything?
She said all this straight-faced and sincerely. It is what she believed. It was how she explained life.
Evelyn reminded me of a preacher I'd heard once tell his congregation that God was smiling on those of us attending because we'd had the strength to get out of bed that morning, dress ourselves, and transport ourselves to the church. I wondered then if God were frowning on the bedridden and ill who could not get themselves to church that morning. I wondered if God were smiling on me, attending church with my extended family, despite the fact that I didn't believe in the Christian God at all.
Additionally, while preparing this essay, I discovered that there is a "Prosperity Gospel" being preached in the churches today. God will bless believers with prosperity, it says, so that they can bless others with their gifts. And if a believer isn't blessed with prosperity, he should examine his own motives; after all, "God loves a cheerful giver."
The propositions that God rewards the righteous and punishes disbelievers--in this life as well as the next--can be supported Biblically. It is, in a nutshell, the entire thesis of the Old Testament. According to the text, apostates and others disobedient to God met with horrible consequences. The righteous and obedient either avoided God's wrath or profited because of their loyalty. As for punishments, ancient Israel and Judah were conquered by their neighbors because the people repeatedly turned away from God.
But is this how life really works? Do disbelievers really suffer more than believers? Do believers reap more rewards than disbelievers? We do not have to search very long before finding examples that undermine these assertions. Historically, innumerable Chinese and Egyptian people, for example, lived long, healthy, prosperous lives--indeed, their whole civilizations flourished for centuries--despite a lack of belief in the Judeo-Christian God. The same could be said for the ancient Greeks and Romans. That some non-Christian empires eventually fell is no indication that God abandoned them; it was not their belief in God that sustained their empires. If a belief in God was prerequisite for prosperity, they never should have prospered in the first place. But they did.
Here and now, if there were even scant evidence that a belief in God provided more health or prosperity in this life, preachers would be exclaiming the material rewards of Christian belief from every pulpit. People would be lining up for baptism. Churches would be packed every Sunday with people attempting to share in the bounty. But this is not the case. Less than 50% of American adults attend church regularly, and the turn-out is far less in other western nations.
But, in fact, there is no evidence that Christians benefit in any tangible way from their belief. Perhaps they can claim psychological benefits (emotional comfort, for example, might be a direct result of their faith although it does nothing to prove that comfort was supernaturally bestowed), and the benefits of being a member of a social group that might support them in times of crisis are easy to see, but these are not the benefits implied by the Bible or by the assertions made by the believers discussed above. Those believers assumed supernatural protection from their enemies, from illness, from want, from unemployment. When these calamities do befall believers, they assume they will be rewarded with a quick recovery due to their faith that God will see them through. Then they credit God with their recovery without blaming him for the problem, regardless of whether that recovery came quickly or slowly. The problem was only due to their lack of faith.
Clever system, that takes credit for the good regardless of its actual origins but blames the user for the failures inherent in it. But God is apparently smiling on this disbeliever, who lives a comfortable suburban life in the most prosperous country in the world. If God doesn't smile on you, it's your own fault.
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