How do we feel about what the Christian Science Monitor called, on October 19, a "long, steep drop for Americans' standard of living"? Our answer is likely to determine the course of the nation's future. Will we frame it, in the coming days, in the most useful and effective way?
That will depend on who we think God is. The older I get, the better I understand that most of our basic conclusions about life are reflections of who we believe God to be, and how we think He operates. This is not really a question of whether we think of Him as an active, provident Father rather than a disengaged "prime mover." Evangelicals naturally think of Him in the former guise. It is instead a question of how we interpret God's character.
The human tendency is to think of Him as a God of rebuke and punishment. This informs all our ideas of cause, effect, good, and evil. When bad things happen, we assume there is a rebuke or punishment in progress. We posit a need for rebuke and punishment, often to a grimly determined degree. Our vision of the dynamic of consequences tends to stop at the point where the consequences kick in, so that we see only endings: loss, decline, sorrow, disaster, condemnation, death.
According to this mindset, the decline in Americans' standard of living represents, in essence, the outworking of God's principles to punish our nation for its sins. Some Christians identify these sins as abortion, divorce, promiscuity, while others suggest that the chickens are coming home to roost for what they regard as an unsustainable, overly materialistic American lifestyle. Social conservatives posit that people borrow too much, have no self-discipline, and want something for nothing. Environmental advocates focus on the amount of natural resources Americans use, deeming it an example of greed and poor stewardship.
There is assuredly an element of truth in most of these suppositions—perhaps, to one degree or another, in all of them. But what we think we're supposed to do with this information is a greater test than how well we can identify and process it.
Will we approach the question in terms of the system of law? By that system, there must be rebuke and punishment. Restoration—of a limited kind—cannot begin until sin or wrongdoing has ceased and some atonement has been made. The legacy of lawbreaking persists for a long time, often affecting lives for generations.
Or will we approach it in terms of ideological schemes? According to ideologies, only certain arrangements of law and human material relationships can produce desirable results. We all have ideological preferences of one kind or another. Point by point, these ideas can have merit in some ways and be foolish or unproven in others. In spite of their disputable nature, we tend to dismiss the possibility of any positive consequences for society if the prerequisites of our ideologies are not met.
Thinking ideologically is not without value, and the reality is that we all do it. But there is a cost to thinking only ideologically. It's the same cost we pay for thinking only in terms of law and punishment. Both modes of thought ignore the significance of the character of God, focusing instead on deterministic systems. Both modes of thought discount grace, mercy, and God's true purpose in informing us about what is wise and good, and warning us about what is foolish and evil.
His purpose was not to set up a system of punishment, or establish a narrow set of conditions from which we could not stray without incurring wrath and catastrophe. He didn't tell us about good so that we could be tantalized and disappointed, or about evil in order that we might understand exactly why we are being punished, and lay blame more efficiently. Nor did God give us our capacities for industry and invention, or our aspirations to improve our lot, as a means of tripping us up. The gifts He has given us are intended neither to frustrate our spirits nor to preserve our material condition in amber, as if it should never have progressed from the circumstances of 3,500 years ago.
His gifts are intended rather to improve and prosper us; to change us for the better; to offer us, in the words of Jeremiah 29:11, "hope and a future." This principle is established with remarkable clarity in Deuteronomy 30. With two simple words, God illuminates for all the ages what He is about. After setting before the Israelites blessings and curses, He sums it up in Deuteronomy 30:19-20 (NIV, emphasis added):