At one point in the movie “Pretty Woman,” beautiful street hooker, Vivian (played by Julia Roberts) and multi-millionaire Edward (played by Richard Gere), upon discovering that they might be in love, are sharing an intimate moment during which Vivian reveals her heart to Edward by sharing with him how she got into prostitution in the first place.
“First guy I ever loved,” she begins, “was a total nothing. Second was worse. My mom called me a `bum magnet’. If there was a bum within a mile radius, I was completely attracted to him. That’s how I ended up here. I followed bum number three. . . So here I was: no money, no friends, no bum.”
“And you chose this as your profession?” asks Edward.
Reasons Vivian, “I worked at a couple of fast food places, parked cars at wrestling. And I couldn’t make the rent. I was too ashamed to go home. That’s when I met Kit. She was a hooker and made it sound so great. So one day I did it. I cried the whole time. But then I got some regulars and, you know – It’s not like anybody plans this: it’s not your childhood dream.”
“You could be so much more,” Edward says.
“People put you down enough,” Vivian counters, “you start to believe it.”
“I think you are a very bright, very special woman,” Edward tells her.
Replies Vivian: “The bad stuff is easier to believe. You ever notice that?”
Why is that? Why is it so hard to believe the best about ourselves?
Why does it always seem – as Vivian said – that the bad stuff is such an easier sell?
The great British philosopher and author G. K. Chesterton wrote: ““If man is not divinity, then man is a disease. Either he is the image of God or else he is the one animal which has gone mad.”
And certainly, one could make the argument that, at times, there seems to be much more evidence to assert that the latter is more feasible that the former.
But determining which to believe – how to answer that question – I suggest, is one of the most primary issues of our faith. Because who we see ourselves to be also ultimately reflects who we think God is.
That’s basically the conversation Satan and God were having in the opening pages of Job. It was a debate concerning the essential nature of human beings.
One day all the angels gather around God, “present themselves before the Lord” scripture says; and lo and behold, Satan shows up with them.
Now, if you’ll remember, Satan was a `fallen angel’—fell from grace by trying to assert himself over and against God.
Not all angels are created equal.
So, God sees Satan amongst the heavenly beings and wants to know, “Where did you come from?”
“Oh, just walking around—down upon the earth,” says Satan.
“Did you check out my man, Job, in your travels?” says God. “There’s no one like him in the whole world. He is a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil.”
Satan – the original cynic – retorts, “Yeah, but that’s only because you’ve made him the richest man in the country. Take all that away and Job would curse you to your face.”
“Well, I don’t think so,” counters God. And then thinks about it a moment, “but, you know what . . . give it your best shot.”
The conversation seems a bit capricious, considering a man’s life hangs in the balance. But, the important thing to note here is that – according to this bible story – it is Satan, and not God, who then goes on to wreak havoc upon Job’s life.
That’s important to keep in mind because, back in that day, the Hebrew people believed that good health, wealth, and general prosperity were all signs of God’s blessing in one’s life. While the lack of such things, then, was an obvious sign of God’s displeasure.
Of course, many of us would dispute that Old Testament theology—justification, as it has been, for cultural hierarchy, oppression, and social inequality.
Although there are lots of folks who still believe that sort of thing today.
When I was serving as a student chaplain at Norton-Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville, KY, I had to carry the `beeper’ home to be `on call’ for the weekend about once a month. And on one such weekend – around 2 a.m. one cold and rainy October morning – I received an emergency page calling me into the hospital.
When I got there, I was directed to offer pastoral care to a young Appalachian couple who were understandably distraught over the fact that their 3 year old little girl – who had just been Life-Flighted from their home to the hospital in critical condition – was suffering from Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. By the time they had gotten her to the hospital, she had become unresponsive.
And the young mother was absolutely convinced that God was punishing her by inflicting this dreadful disease upon her daughter.
“It’s what she was raised to believe,” said her husband, shrugging his shoulders and shaking his head. “Could you please talk some sense into her?” he petitioned.
So I tried to reason with this young mother. I told her that our God is a God of love and mercy and would never bring such suffering on his children. I told her that our sins are forgiven in Jesus Christ, so we are all covered by that divine grace. God does not so punish us.
But she was having none of it. She continued to cry and wail and carry on something awful; completely focused on herself and what she believed God was doing to her.
Meanwhile, her 3 year old daughter was lying all alone in a stark, sterile ICU room; now on a ventilator, with all kinds of IV tubes sticking out of her; her little body all swollen and purple with painful looking sores from head to foot.
Finally I asked this young woman (frankly, in a bit of exasperation): “What in the world do you think you – or anyone else for that matter – could possibly have done that was so awful that God would take it out on your precious little girl?”
Well, as it turned out, that was probably not the thing to say.
But the answer was so obvious to me. And apparently the answer was obvious to her as well. Although, not at all the same answer.
She level a blank stare at me, and with tears trickling down her face said: “Could you please just call me a Pentecostal pastor?”
Problem was, I couldn’t get any Pentecostal pastor-types to come out at that ungodly hour of a cold and rainy October morning. In fact, I got balled out a couple of times just for calling that late.
The fundamental theme of Job’s story has to do with his struggle of the soul to maintain his faith in the goodness of God – even in the face of personal tragedy – and to refuse to deny his own integrity (as Satan wanted him to) with respect to that belief.[i]
All the while with Job’s wife – herself no doubt also in despair over their losses – is telling him to just go ahead and “Curse God and die”. And his friends all suggesting that he must have really screwed up big time – must be a real crumb-bum – to make God this mad at him.
Finally, Job gets fed up with the lot of them. “Miserable comforters are you all!” he says [Job 16:2]. Calls them all “worthless physicians.” For they are all misdiagnosing Job’s spiritual condition; and are professing to him an errant theology with regard to God [Job 42:7].
We have all endured, at various times in our lives, those belittling, mixed messages from others. People who – in the effort to justify themselves, assert themselves over and against us, or simply separate themselves from us – have intentionally, or inadvertently, inflicted us with negative labels: a parent who – out of ill-conceived childrearing – told us we were a failure, or a bum; a friend who, in a moment of anger, called us a fool; a teacher who, in so many words and actions, informed us that we’re stupid because we couldn’t keep up with the rest of the class; a pastor who told us that we are sinful, simply for striving to become who we were born to be.
Politicians and pundits – in order to cover their fannies or boost their ratings – inundating us with messages like: we’re divided, we’re deplorable, we’re extremists, we’re trouble-makers, we’re polarized, we’re victimized. “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.” “We’re all going to hell in a handbasket.”
Messages that seek to demonize and demoralize, rather than elevate and lift up. Messages that seem to pander to and mobilize the very worst aspects of what it means to be a human being.
Take heed: For not all cultural messages are created equal.
`Satan is the father of lies,’ Jesus would tell his disciples. `Don’t believe anything he tells you—about yourself, about the world, or about God.’
Writing from a Nazi prison, Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer described the cynic as one who claims to tell the truth . . . but in reality he is just a consistent liar. The cynic wears a halo as “a zealot for truth” but he ends up destroying reality. Writes Bonhoeffer, the cynic “desecrates the mystery, breaks trust, betrays the community in which he lives, and smiles arrogantly over the havoc he has wrought and over the human weakness that `can’t bear the truth.’”
Concluded Bonhoeffer, “Cynics feed on hatred against the real—against the world created and loved by God.”[ii]
Cornell West calls it nihilism: “a disease of the soul . . . [which] can never be completely cured. “But there is always a chance for conversion,” says Professor West, “a chance for people to believe that there is hope for the future and a meaning to the struggle. Nihilism is not overcome by arguments or self-analysis: it is tamed by love and care. Any disease of the soul must be conquered by a turning of one’s soul. This turning is done through one’s own affirmation of one’s worth—an affirmation fueled by the concern of others. A love ethic must be at the center of the politics of conversion.”[iii]
Job continued to wail and lament and carry on something awful, until finally a wise young man from the neighborhood, by the name of Elihu, who had been observing all that was happening in Job’s life, finally works up the courage to prophetically intervene. First he rebukes Job’s imprudent friends for their misperceptions, both about Job’s situation, as well as about God’s intentions. Elihu then goes on to chastise Job for his presumptuous self-defense and accusatory attitude toward God. In the end, God ultimately enters the fray to untangle the mess, and to be revealed to Job in a new and powerful way. “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,” Job confesses to the Lord, “but now my eye sees you . . .” [Job 42:5].
God then calls Job’s `miserable comforters’ to repentance, and restores Job’s fortunes to “twice as much as he had before.” “And Job died, old and full of days” [Job 42:17].
Perhaps we Christians should pattern our own interventionist’ role after Elihu, as well.
At the very heart of Christianity is the mandate of a Gospel that – in the midst of suffering, despair, oppression, confusion, contention and conflict – must be pronounced as good news to all.
In his landmark book A Theology of Liberation, Gustavo Gutierrez writes, “the annunciation of the Gospel, precisely insofar as it is a message of total love, has an inescapable political dimension, because it is addressed to people who live within a fabric of social relationships, which, in our case, keep them in a subhuman condition.”[iv]
The Gospel message – in the person, life and teaching of Jesus Christ – was God’s own loving intervention into this fallen world. As such it will always have direct consequences in the world’s socio-cultural and political life, as well as in the individual’s personal and private life.
It is, perhaps, a bit ironic that it was a politician, Abraham Lincoln, who heralded the clarion call of the Christian faith and the good intentions of God, during one of the most critical times in our nation’s history. The “better angels of our nature,” was an idea Lincoln expressed while presiding over a congress that was immersed in their own spiritual struggle of identity.
Lincoln concluded his first inaugural address by attempting to lift up his countrymen: “Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance of Him, who has never yet forsaken this favored land, are still competent to adjust, in the best way, all our present difficulty.”
And then Lincoln concluded his address with these words: “I am loathe to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
We, as God’s people – perhaps today more than ever before – are called to speak the truth, in love, to power. Called to remind our nation’s leaders of the better angels of their nature—angels which gave birth to this country, blessed with greatness through compassion and hope of prosperity for all; refined through the endurance of much suffering and many hardships; preserved always by a steadfast faith in the goodness and the grace of God.
Vivian only began to believe the best about herself when she started to see herself through Edward’s eyes. She found her better angels when she discovered that she could be truly valued and fully loved by another human being.
We, as God’s people, are called to announce God’s healing love and grace to those we encounter every day who are suffering physical, emotional, or spiritual anguish.
Indeed, I believe that it is the better angels of our nature which draws us to this place together as God’s people. And that our presence here at least begins to answer the question of who we believe ourselves to be in God’s eyes. And therefore affirms – whether in the face of personal tragedy, unrelenting suffering, private spiritual struggle, or all the negative cultural messages in the world – our enduring faith in the essential goodness of God
[i] Boyle, John H., “God’s Awful Grace,” Sermon given on October 8, 2006.
[ii] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Works, Vol. 16, Fortress Press, 1974, pp 604-605..
[iii] West, Cornell, Race Matters, Beacon Press (Boston), 2017 (3rd ed.).
[iv] Gutierrez, Gustavor, A Theology of Liberation, Orbis Books, 1988 (Revised).