Superstition imagines that there is a way to manipulate God. After all, I can pour gasoline into my lawnmower, pull the cord, and proceed to make my lawn look well cared for. By my actions, I have control over how tall the grass in my lawn can get. I control, through watering, fertilizing and edging, how pretty it all turns out. So it is not completely irrational that people imagine that there must be something like putting enough gas in your engine when it comes to God: that he’s waiting in our storage shed for us to put in the right octane, and then he’s waiting for us to yank his chain just so, and then push him around, and so we’ll get what we want: a nice, neat place for our children to play and the envy of our neighbors.
Most of us know that we don’t get saved by doing good works. We understand that following the Ten Commandments will not get us into heaven. We realize that putting money in the offering box and attending church will not get St. Peter to look the other way so we can sneak through the pearly gates. On that level, most of us understand that being good has nothing to do with our salvation. And yet oddly, such knowledge seems to have so little practical impact on our day to day existence that it almost seems not to matter at all. We compartmentalize the good news to the few seconds when we mouthed the sinner’s prayer, but it has no effect on how we live today. We lock it away into a nice little box, put it up on a shelf, honor it, think fondly of it and memorialize it. But we live our lives as if it never happened and can’t mean anything to what’s going on now, with my bills to pay, and my wayward children, and tendency to pause too long on certain cable channels as I’m flipping toward the playoffs.
This is very peculiar. Especially given the sorts of lives we are given record of in the Bible. We know that no one was ever saved by keeping the law, and we know that our righteousness is in Christ and we know that Jesus paid the penalty for our sins, and yet we get completely confused when we read something like the story of Lot in Genesis 19.
As the story opens, we discover that Lot is living in the city of Sodom, where he has risen to a position of some authority. Two of his daughters are still living at home with him. One night, he noticed a couple of strangers had come to town and he invites them to spend the night.
A crowd gathers at his door soon after he has taken them into his home, insisting that Lot send them out so they can have their way with them. Lot refuses to turn over his guests, but he tells the mob that they can have sex with his daughters instead.
The crowd refuses, but the strangers, whom we now realize are angels, intervene and get the crowd to abandon their quest by making them blind. The angels then insist that Lot and his family must leave Sodom so that it can be destroyed. He talks to his sons-in-law, but they just laugh at him. He is very reluctant to leave his city, but the angels eventually grab him and force him, his wife and both daughters out.
After negotiating with the angels about just where they might flee, Lot is granted permission to go to a small town named Zoar, not too far away.
On the way, his wife is turned into a pillar of salt when she looks back, in disobedience to the angels’ warning. Lot is too terrified to stay for long in the city of his choice and so he winds up setting up house with his two daughters in a cave.
The daughters are lonely and decide to get Lot drunk so that they can have sex with him, get pregnant, and preserve the family line. They succeed in their plans and give birth to boys who are simultaneously both his sons and his grandsons.
We read that story and we shake our heads and we think of the contrast between poor Lot and his righteous, upstanding uncle Abraham. And we might not be overly puzzled, but for Peter’s comment on Lot’s life:
And if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)… (2 Peter 2:7-8)
Lot is a righteous man? How? He didn’t want to leave Sodom and Gomorrah, his sons-in-law had no respect for him, he offered his daughters to a mob to be raped, and finally his daughters get him so drunk that he has sex with them and gets them pregnant. How can a man like this be considered righteous? What was Peter thinking?
I’ve seen Christians fall all over themselves trying to make sense of something that shouldn’t be the least bit confusing at all. Most Christians try to explain away his bad behavior. They’ll say he wasn’t so bad, really, and in the context of his culture, maybe giving his daughters to that mob was actually a good thing. And so they wind up sounding like God has a scale and that somehow there must be some hidden good deeds in Lot’s life that will get things to tip in his favor so that then he’ll in fact be the righteous man Peter says he is. With that all too common reaction, I realize that most Christians still think that righteousness means good behavior.
The real answer to the problem of Lot comes from a consideration of the well known passage in Ephesians: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:8-10; one might also consider such passages as Galatians 2:20-3:5, Romans 3:21-28, and Romans 8:1-2). Lot’s righteousness is not in anything he did or didn’t do. No one is righteous on the basis of how they behave. His righteousness was the consequence of the work of Jesus on the cross.
We are saved by grace, not by works. We know this, but we keep on forgetting it and so the life of Lot confuses us when it shouldn’t at all. Our own lives in the same way confuse us, when they shouldn’t. Being good is not the path to salvation. It is not the definition of righteousness. Our righteousness is in Jesus. We should know that. Being good is also not the path to prosperity. We should know this too.
But how many people continue to insist otherwise? Like Job’s friends, they remain of the opinion that good things come to good people, bad things to bad people. They want to think that God rewards the righteous and dumps garbage on the guilty because that would so neatly solve the question of suffering in the world and in their own lives.
It seemed obvious to Job’s friends, since Job was suffering horridly, that surely he was a sinner who needed to repent. And if he took that simple step, then all would be well. Job’s insistence on his innocence infuriated and terrified them. In their minds, Job was obviously hiding his sin. If he wasn’t, if he were really innocent, then the world simply no longer made sense to them.
Remarkably, despite the fact that we are told that Job is blameless, that Job was right in everything he said and that Job’s friends were wrong, many Christians will still try to argue that Job was somehow being “disciplined” or “chastised.” They thus miss the whole point of the story, a point that should be obvious! And what is that point? Our behavior has nothing to do with how much God loves us or blesses us. It is superstitious to think that it does, on a level with thinking that if I rub a rabbit’s foot just so, and hang a horseshoe just right, and avoid black cats that I’ll have good luck instead of bad.