Castor Oil

I wrote a novel a few years ago called The Wrong Side of Morning. The title describes the fact that in this day-to-day experience of existence we are living somewhere past midnight, but before the dawn. As Christians we look to a coming city, a coming kingdom, and know on some level that we are pilgrims here, traveling toward the celestial home where we will dwell forever. But we are not there yet.

Our mistake comes in forgetting that this journey we call life is not the destination. And when we make that mistake, as it is oh so easy to make, we grow discouraged and depressed and overwhelmed, because the journey sometimes has potholes, and sometimes we face robbers, and we are wearied by the walk, and the sun is hot, or the wind is cold, or the rain is wet, or the snow gives us frostbite or the mountains seem too steep.

So much of what happens to us seems to make no sense at all, coming upon us without rhyme, reason, or warning. Several years ago someone commented to my wife over lunch at the hospital, while we were waiting for a friend to give birth to a stillborn baby, that “you know, good things come to good people, and bad things come to bad people…” And my wife looked at her lunch companion aghast and asked, “What possible bad thing has she done that it would cost the life of her baby?”

The disciples of Jesus confronted a blind man one day—a man blind since the day he was born. They asked a simple question: “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” And what was Jesus’ response? “Neither.” It was for the glory of God, he told them.

Yet how many still believe what my wife’s lunch companion had to say? This despite the fact that Job’s friends had the same opinion, which happened to be the opinion of Satan (a good clue that the friends might be mistaken). Satan asks the following at the beginning of the book of Job:

“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.” (Job 1:9-11).

Job’s friends ask the same question, with great fear. If good doesn’t come to the good and bad doesn’t come to the bad, then what is the point of being good? Job was trying to argue the obvious, yet radical notion that being good or bad doesn’t matter. God treats everyone the same.

Job’s friend Eliphaz is horrified and comments: “But you even undermine piety and hinder devotion to God.” (Job 15:4)

But Job and God both knew that a blessed life of prosperity is not the reason for worshipping God. Satan asks, “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan’s assumption, the assumption of Job’s friends, the assumptions of many Christians and non Christians alike, despite all the evidence in the Bible and in life to the contrary, is that if you do what’s right, if you can find the magic spell, if you keep God happy, then you’ll be happy and your life will be swell.

So many Christians go on believing that the reason they are not happy and “fulfilled” is because there is something wrong with what they are doing. “If only I wasn’t screwing up so badly in my life…” If only I could find the right seminar, teacher, preacher, seven step program, book, video, then I would have the answer I’m missing. I just need to know what I’m doing wrong, change it, and start doing it right, and then my life will be wonderful. God is just waiting up there for me to find that secret. Once I do, he’ll unleash all the blessings that up till now he’s been prevented from sending my way because I’m, well, just too stupid to figure it out.

Of course this is all nonsense.

Stephen Crane, the author of Red Badge of Courage, also wrote poetry. In one of his poems, entitled The Wayfarer, he speaks of the enormous trouble people have with accepting the truth, however much they may claim they want it:

The wayfarer,
Perceiving the pathway to truth,
Was struck with astonishment.
It was thickly grown with weeds.
“Ha,” he said,
“I see that none has passed here
In a long time.”
Later he saw that each weed
Was a singular knife.
“Well,” he mumbled at last,
“Doubtless there are other roads.”

Instead of truth, people seem mostly to want very tasty lies. The truth tends to taste like castor oil.

Seminars and preaching that are simply a list of things to do, when combined with the promise, either explicit or implicit, that if you just “do these things, you’ll be happy and wealthy and your kids will grow up right” turns out to be appealing to the vast majority of people. It is obvious that such drivel tastes great and is less filling to boot. It seems to be what people want and hunger after: it is the meager fantasy that attracts. Like Jacob, they imagine eve-rything is against them, and so they strive to find things they can do that will fix the mess that they see their life as being. And so teaching about love and grace, by contrast, seems just not practical, just not a solution to what ails them.

Kind of sad, really. But nothing new. Paul wrote:

But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. (2 Corinthians 11:3-4)

And of course the new three or six or twelve part plan to the abundant life doesn’t work much longer than the ten week course, or the time it took to read through the books, and yet that rarely cools the desire for the search. So people keep going from this hot thing to the next hot thing, always in search of the list, the word, the promise, the plan that will give them the abundant life. Few seem ever to consider that perhaps the treadmill that they are on is the actual problem, and that what they really need is simply to get off altogether. And what is that treadmill? The idea that there’s something they need to DO. The truth is, they already have it—the abundant life—just like Jacob did when he made his complaint. If they could just shift their perspective a bit and stop running about, if they could lift up their eyes long enough and look at what reality is, from God’s perspective, then they’d understand that they’re just letting people sell their own wallets back to them. Too easy and too hard, both, despite what Peter writes about the condition of Christians:

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promis-es, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corrup-tion in the world caused by evil desires. (2 Peter 1:3-4)

People are always pleased to find something which tells them that they can have a better life if only they do three simple things, or even three hard things. Unfortunately, reality is something else altogether, even in the land of ministry and serving God. I read so many books where au-thors give examples of people having “successful” ministries as a consequence of saying a special prayer, or learning a certain lesson, or following some program. And what is a successful ministry? One where a lot of people get involved, one where there are lots of converts. And certainly lots of people getting saved, lots of people getting involved, lots of money being raised are good things. But success is not necessarily a matter of numbers. There’s nothing wrong with numbers, but it doesn’t always work that way. And not having the numbers doesn’t mean that you’ve done anything wrong.

There needs to be an understanding that simply doing God’s will is a success in and of itself; that having a relationship with God, that loving him and loving people is all that is asked and that there are no guarantees that you will see anyone saved, any ministries grow, any increase in growth either spiritually, in numbers, or in money. It could all go south on you. After all, look at the prophet Jeremiah as an obvious example: he did exactly what God asked him to do; he performed God’s will. But in his lifetime, no one paid attention to him. And he kept getting thrown in prison.

Or how about Isaiah, another of God’s faithful prophets? How did it work out for him? According to tradition, King Manasseh stuffed him in a log and sawed him in half.

We need to take seriously what the author of Ecclesiastes wrote:

I have seen something else under the sun:

The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.
Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come:
As fish are caught in a cruel net,
or birds are taken in a snare,
so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them. (Ecclesiastes 9:11-12)

In the early years of Christianity, all its leaders but the Apostle John were killed for their faith. When John wrote the last book of the New Testament, Revelation, as near as he could see, everything he’d spent his life on, everything that mattered to him, was wrecked. Everyone he loved and cared about was dead and gone: his family was wiped out, Jerusalem was a smoldering ruin, the temple of God was destroyed. A very odd way, it seemed to him, for God to be treating his servants.

Hebrews 11 ends by pointing out that many of the great people of faith never received success or saw God’s promises fulfilled; from their perspective, everything did not work out.

Others were tortured and refused to be re-leased, so that they might gain a better resur-rection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goat-skins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. (Hebrews 11:35b-39)

Does all that mean that God doesn’t want us to be happy? Does it mean he wants to see us fail and fail and fail and to be forever miserable?

Of course not.

Paul writes, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” (Philippians 4:11)

What it means is that we need to reevaluate what it is that we value. A teacher approached Jesus once and asked him, “what is the greatest commandment?” Jesus’ response is profound. He told the teacher that the greatest commandment was to love God. Then Jesus said there is a second commandment that is equal to it and complements it: “love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus explained that those two commandments contain everything that the Bible is all about. It is the Bible’s theme. Later, Paul makes the same point in Romans 13: “The commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”

So how does this help us now? We need to once again consider what loving God and loving people means in the context of our lives. We need to remind ourselves to think of the nature of faith and freedom, of grace and peace. And most of all, we need to catch our breath, open our eyes, and really take a look at reality afresh. We need a new perspective. We need to realize that what God asks us to see is the world through his eyes, to see our lives through his eyes, to realize that because we love him and he loves us, and through us, we love others, that we have joy and satisfaction and success, even in the midst of the gloom and apparent failure that surrounds us. We are God’s children, and we will live with him forever. The short years of our time on Earth will become an ever smaller percentage of our existence as eternity rolls on.

There is no secret to abundant life; we have abundant life. The secret, if it is a secret, is just that we have to believe that God hasn’t been lying to us, and that he really and truly does know what he is doing, even when everything is crashing down around our ears. We need to remember and rediscover what our situation really is, not just what our current, very limited point of view tries to make us think it is.

I keep thinking about why so often we are told to “encourage one another” in the Bible. If life was really guided by our fidelity to a seven part program that promises peaceful, prosperous living, I don’t think we’d need that constant reminder to encourage.

Instead of an easy step by step plan, a simple set of principles, a list of boxes to check off, life is hard and what we see around us can confuse us and throw us off balance. I need constant reminding that the world is not really spinning around me out of control. God hasn’t gone away. My dizziness is temporary and subjective, after all. And so I make a conscious choice to be reminded of that bit of non-dizzy reality.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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