Has everything that could go wrong, gone wrong?
Do you feel like you’ve hit rock bottom and have nothing left to lose?
Does your life seem to be a never-ending cycle of misfortune and woe with no hope of end in sight?
Have you repeatedly prayed, asking God for blessings and relief, yet received nothing?
Are you worn out from fighting and just want to give up?
Then you and I have a lot in common. You’ve come to the right place. Take a seat, wrap yourself in a blanket, pour a hot mug of something, and grab that Kleenex box because it’s time for some Hard Truth Talk.
For too long, modern Christianity has preached a gospel of prosperity, promising us rewards for faithfulness and obedience and good behavior and love for God. But you know what Jesus ACTUALLY says in the Bible about us when we’re faithful and obedient and good and loving?
Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here immediately and take your place at table’? Would he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished’? Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded? So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’” (Luke 17:7-10)
What is God saying to us here? He’s saying that we cannot expect to reap the fruits of our labors, to receive the rewards for our hard work done in faith and obedience, until after God has accomplished the plan He sought to accomplish through us. Our obedience, faithfulness, good behavior, and love for Him are the bare minimum requirements of Christianity. How can we expect undue blessings and rewards for fulfilling our job requirements? To put it a different way, doing what God says – “plowing or tending sheep” – are, for all intents and purposes, minimum wage jobs. A cashier cannot expect to make the same amount as a doctor. A child cannot expect praise from a parent every time they brush their teeth or make the bed. There are some things you just do because you’re obligated to, and it’s a thankless job, but it’s only thankless because everyone has to do it. It’s not supposed to be remarkable; doing God’s work is not supposed to be remarkable, it’s supposed to be normal. And why would we get rewarded for normal behavior? There shouldn’t be a trophy for simply participating.
So what does God ACTUALLY promise, if not rewards for our service? Let’s look to the Psalms:
Psalm 46: God, the Protector of Zion
God is our refuge and our strength, an ever-present help in distress. Thus we do not fear, though earth be shaken and mountains quake to the depths of the sea, though its waters rage and foam and mountains totter at its surging.
Streams of the river gladden the city of God, the holy dwelling of the Most High. God is in its midst; it shall not be shaken; God will help it at break of day. Though nations rage and kingdoms totter, He utters His voice and the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; our stronghold is the God of Jacob.
Come and see the works of the Lord, who has done fearsome deeds on earth; who stops wars to the ends of the earth, breaks the bow, splinters the spear, and burns the shields with fire. “Be still and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, exalted on the earth.” The Lord of hosts is with us; our stronghold is the God of Jacob.
Let’s do some quick logic equations.
- “Streams of the river”: Jerusalem is not situated on a river. This description derives from mythological descriptions of the divine abode and symbolizes the divine presence as the source of all life. We also see this echoed in John 4:10,13-14 when Christ says He can give us the waters of eternal life, something that will never cause us to thirst.
- “the city of God”: this could mean Heaven, but St. Augustine of Hippo often equated the city of God with the human soul, or rather that a person should allow his soul to become God’s dwelling place.
- “the holy dwelling place of the Most High”: in light of this, we could again say Heaven, or the Temple of Jerusalem, or even the soul is the dwelling place of God, for we know that the Holy Spirit, the spirit of God, lives within us.
- “it”/”its”: we’ve determined that the city of God/God’s dwelling place is the soul, so these pronouns become particular (I/me/we/us)
- “Be still and know that I am God!”: God, as the definition of perfection, must be all-knowing, ever-present, unchanging, and completely good. Or He wouldn’t be perfect, and therefore couldn’t be God.
- “stronghold”: this is a fortification image, like the wall around Jerusalem. It is meant to be impenetrable, so that enemies cannot get into the city of God.
If we put this all together, we have a very significant meaning to this passage:
God grants us eternal life, thereby quenching the thirsts of our souls. He dwells in us. He is with us. He will not let our souls be shaken; He will help us. Though everything around us is in turmoil and is falling apart, He is still God – perfect, loving, all-knowing, ever-present, completely good, never changing. He is still sovereign over all and evil will not prevail. We are protected within the locked, impenetrable walls and gates of God. Nothing can shake us or break us in here. We are safe.
But let’s be clear: it’s not a safety from bodily harm. It’s not a protection of property. It’s not a guaranteed preservation of the lives of the people we love. Rather, it’s a protection of our souls from evil.
The Lord will guard you from all evil; He will guard your soul.” (Psalm 121:7)
The real danger is not what will happen to your body, nor your property, nor your loved ones, but rather your soul. The state of it determines your ultimate destination after this life; that is why Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? Or what can one give in exchange for his soul?” (Mt 16:25-26) and “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna” (Mt 5:29) The clear focus here is on the state of one’s soul – that is of the utmost importance, and thankfully God promises to guard it. God guarantees that He will protect our souls from evil so that we won’t be “thrown into Gehenna” or “forfeit our soul” to the world. Our reward, then, is eternal life spent with God. We do not have to fear death and punishment if we simply cling to Him, put our trust in Him, and turn to His mercy when we sin. Yes, we must be obedient, but we can rest in the confidence of God’s fortification around our souls. He won’t let us lose them. He wants us to be with Him more than we want to be with Him.
So to recap: Don’t focus on earthly rewards (you won’t really get any from God, or at least you shouldn’t expect to get any from Him). Focus on the reward of eternal life. Stay obedient and faithful, and know that God is vigilant, constantly watching over you and protecting you from evil that could steal your soul. He is watching out for you and guarding you from threats you never even knew were there. He has promised you victory over this life and a place at His table in the next. Allow His peace – the peace that can only come from His protection – to hold you for a moment. Though the storms around you rage, mountains fall and waves crash and you feel you’re going to sink, He will not let you slip. He will catch you and hold you up. You will not be lost to the tragedies, trials, and tribulations of this world. Although it feels like they will pull you under, He is always protecting you and helping you through.
God does not promise that you won’t suffer in this life. He promises that He will be with you through all of life’s hardships and He will protect your soul from the evil that threatens to take it over and drag it to hell.