Success or Faithfulness?

Hello from my fifth week of divinity school! As a way to keep me sane and slay the threat of vanity, I have decided to start a series, "Notes from Seminary." Over the next three years I will share nuggets from the wild community I just stepped into. My prayer is that in sharing, what I learn in divinity school might bear fruit in more lives than mine. Seminary is awesome, but it means nothing if kept within the tower. So, here we go!

Success or Faithfulness?

Yesterday, in class at Wake Div, I heard a lecture by ethicist Dr. John Senior exploring a theological account for systemic injustice and evil. How can we make sense of this ever persistent problem of social inequities?

Reinhold Niebuhr, noted 20th century theologian, came up in the discussion. Dr. Senior explained that, basically, Niebuhr thought groups of people have no real shot at an ethic of love. Individuals might be transformed by the love of God to truly move in love toward another, maybe. But human groups will always participate in power play.

Talk about a depressing and demotivating idea.

When I voiced this concern, Dr. Senior’s answer surprised me in its profound simplicity.

The witness of Christian faith is that God is not interested in success, but faithfulness.

God’s call on our lives is not to be perfect, but to keep trying.

Victory is the Lord’s—and we get to participate.

How easily I forget this truth. How easily I assume the responsibility for the whole world.

Now, to be sure, I am privileged. As such, my duties are larger than others’. Because I have food to eat, it is my duty to secure food for those who have none (change systems, partner with the oppressed in their work for empowerment, etc.). Because I have margin to stop sending things to landfill, it is incumbent upon me to learn, sacrifice, and otherwise change my habits to stop sending things to landfill.

But it is not my job to heal the world. God is faithful to do that. My job is to respond to that holy movement.

I don’t know about you, but faithfulness is harder when success seems impossible. What is the point in working hard for social justice if human groups are not capable of wholeness in the first place (as Niebuhr seems to think)?

What is the point of faithfulness if my community does not change for the better, when nothing seems to make any real difference?

The world, with its markets and relationships and policies, is complex. We are all implicated in systems of injustice and violence. In the grand scheme of things, what does it really matter if I continue to use plastic or continue to look away from my siblings’ suffering? What do my attempts, great or small, mean in the face of global crisis?

Not much.

However, God does not ask me to succeed. God asks me to be faithful--to keep trying, continue the process of making all things new, to seek the kingdom...

My efforts alone will not suffice. But I encounter the divine when I work and resolve to see more clearly the pain and joy of this world.

I glimpse God on the move.

Maybe Niebuhr is right. Maybe communities and nations will always miss the mark. But we are assured that God is on target.

The One who began a good work in you will see it unto completion (Philippians 1:6).

God is faithful, so we keep trying.