When bad thinks happen to good people
By the Rev. John Wagner
"Do I deserve to be happy?" he asked.
It was a sincere question from a sincere man. He was genuinely curious to know if, in the vast scheme of things, it was permissible for him to expect some happiness in this life.
He's a nice guy. Some say too nice. For 40 years he has endured a marriage most men would have cast off long ago. At this point, it's like a penance to him, like suffering for some horrible but unexplainable sin. Like Job, the "good and upright man" who endured great humiliation, pain and tragedy, he's considering whether or not he is being punished for a reason.
"Do I actually deserve to be happy?"
I know these people are out there on Sunday mornings. They may not look any different from other folks, but in their minds they are waiting for me to say that one thing that will confirm the grim but unavoidable truth that they are bad, bad people. I could repeat a thousand affirmations, and these folks would still find the critical word, the one statement that indicts them and their unwashable sin.
Some say this sense of our own sin, our own worthlessness, is ultimately what brings us to God. Deep down, we know we need forgiveness. We see how sinful we are, and cling to the only offer of redemption that can keep us from the punishment we most certainly deserve.
I go along with this to a point. We are indeed all of us sinners. No exceptions. Furthermore, I say a sense of unease in our relationship with God isn't always such a bad thing. Personally, I don't care for those religions that rely only on declarations of unconditional love uttered by an infinitely indulgent heavenly father. It doesn't seem real somehow. I know I'm supposed to celebrate amazing grace, but sometimes it seems as if we only want cheap grace. Superficially happy people need a scare every so often, and I'm all for giving them a vision of hell and upsetting their complacency.
Nevertheless, as a pastor (and I expect most pastors understand this), there are always those who go way too far on their guilt trip. They don't deserve a better job, a better life. They don't deserve a night out on the town, or a nap in the shade on a warm afternoon. They don't even deserve a good marriage.
Because they are so very, very bad.
I've got an old book on my shelf with the unpretentious title "Ideas for Prayer." It's sage advice from a very practical priest named Hubert van Zeller. "Distrust of oneself, " as he calls it, can be healthy. We should understand we can't make it on our own, that we need some divine assistance. And yet there will necessarily come a point of diminishing returns. "It is when the sight of our sin robs us of hope that we lose our bearings. ... Hopelessness is not a virtue but a negation. ... Helplessness has no part in prayer. ... False humility makes for listlessness, dispiritedness, and defeat. ... Anything which weakens belief in God's mercy is bound to be wrong."
And that's the advice I want to pass on to people like my friend with the bad marriage: To despair of oneself, to consider oneself irredeemably unworthy, isn't humility -- it's wrong. This is worse than most other sins because when we do this we place limits on God, and God's love.
We have an essential worth in the eyes of God, and yes, in the end, we deserve to be happy.
I believe that if we truly accept this as an article of faith, everything changes. We finally take in the genuine affirmation God sends our way. Yes, we will still experience trouble in this world, but even if it is partly of our own making, we endure. We allow ourselves to feel forgiven even if everyone else condemns us. We even find strength in dealing with something like a difficult marriage. Just knowing God is on our side, that we aren't being punished, can make all the difference.
The Rev. John Wagner is a United Methodist minister from Dayton, Ohio.