Friday, October 14, 2011

Seekers and Searchers

Whoever diligently seeks good seeks favor, but evil comes to the one who searches for it. (Proverbs 11.27)

For Good

Last Sunday our pastor, Joy Douglas Strome, challenged us to define the dynamic governing our lives. Do our lives grasp for grace? Or do they lead from grace? It was a new question—well, actually, a new way of framing a question as old as our faith and the obligations attached to it. Her explanation brought the dilemma into sharp focus.

A life that grasps for grace is never content… always striving… always mildly disgruntled… always seeing either the wrong of those around them, or blaming all the problems of the world on themselves. If only I could get it right… If only they could get it right… Concern for self at the center of every formula. A life that leads from grace may not always be content, either. But the discontent fuels a response… that sense that a gifted life must be working in partnership with God for good. And, as one resource put it, not concerned with are we saved—but what are we saved for?

With that, the differences between the for-grace life and the from-grace life were so vivid I’ve found myself reevaluating the tiniest things, wondering, “Am I doing this for my benefit? Or am I pursuing it for good?” It may very well be that our thoughts, actions, and beliefs will prove beneficial for us. Indeed, it’s foolish and self-destructive to adopt mindsets and behaviors that result in unnecessary loss or harm. But are we as far as it goes? This quandary strikes me as something more probative than thinking through avenues to share goodness we receive, whether unanticipated or obtained. In other words, it’s not simply a matter of generosity or “paying it forward.” (Though both typically come into play.) It’s daring to test our desires and aspirations for value they present to people we love and live and work among. If what we strive to accomplish produces unfavorable results for others, what’s good for us may not be for good.

I say “may not” because not everyone responds favorably when we grow and prosper. The values, beliefs, and expectations of many near and dear to us may create conflict. Their perceptions may be clouded by personal experiences or deeply held social standards. To be blunt, some may envy goodness we achieve and receive, or resent our confidence we will find goodness. Coming out is a prime example. Often we delay honoring our God-given identities for fear some will react with dismay, possibly even hostility. Yet a closeted existence breeds dishonesty and deception. It’s no good to anyone—not people who love us, not people we know and love, and certainly not us. So while we lament and forgive the limitations of those who reject us, we rely on God’s grace to lead us from fearful denial to seek goodness born of self-acceptance, trust, and gratitude for our making. Belief that enforcing our integrity will result in good that reaches beyond us steels our resolve.

Shorting Dreams

So our quest begins with assessing goodness we desire. Will it make us better people—more caring spouses, more attentive parents, truer friends, finer citizens, and so on? Will it enable us to be clearer examples of grace, more faithful disciples, and more compassionate witnesses of God’s love? Will what’s good for us surpass us to be favorably received in our homes, communities, workplaces, churches, and extended relationships?

Proverbs 11.27 expands on this notion of a life leading from grace and one grasping for grace when it says, “Whoever diligently seeks good seeks favor, but evil comes to the one who searches for it.” It divides us into two camps: seekers and searchers. The language characterizing each is bold and revealing. Seekers are diligent. They’re consistent in how they approach every situation in life, rather than applying situational approaches that make for an inconsistent life. They seek good by seeking favor, looking beyond immediate concerns and personal longings to ascertain their merits in a wider context. And seekers diligently use these criteria for everything they undertake. There are no big deals and little deals. Seeking good by seeking favor in all they do is how they live.

Searchers never see past the good stuff to consider how what they’re looking for may affect the lives they touch. More often than not, grasping ends up shorting dreams that inspire their reach. “First Spouse Syndrome” is classic case. A couple starts out dreaming of a financially secure, happy, and healthy family. They work hard and cut corners so one or both successfully land on a high rung of the business ladder. But things go awry during the ascent. Sacrifices cause fractures in the relationship. Fatigue and anxiety engender selfish behavior and resentment. Work and family become increasingly distant universes that fight to eclipse one another. By the time searchers arrive at their goal, those they dreamt of benefitting from their efforts are left behind. There’s a new spouse, new family, and new life. And it’s all because they lost sight of favor that goodness provides for people beyond the one who finds it.

No Guarantees

We catch a glimpse of Proverbs’ profound wisdom by noting how it equivocates about results. It offers no guarantees that seekers of goodness will always find it. Yet it explicitly warns searchers they’re asking for trouble by not looking past their own desires and ambitions to envision how they’ll impact others. Why doesn’t Proverbs promise goodness will come when it’s sought in the larger context of favoring those we love and serve? Because life’s not fair. Our purest, most selfless motives won’t always meet with everyone’s approval. Indeed, seeking what’s right and good—“working in partnership with God for good,” as Joy put it—will likely set us at odds with searchers among us. One of the first things that seekers discover is that’s just how it goes. Psalm 34.19 tells us to anticipate turbulent times, while also urging us to remember Who our partner is. “Many are the afflictions of the righteous,” it says, “but the LORD rescues them from them all.” Jesus backs this up, reminding us God makes the “sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5.45)

If seeking goodness that favors others isn’t a sure thing, we may wonder what’s the point. It goes back to evaluating how we live. If our search for goodness starts and ends with us, we’re bound for disappointment. When what we seek is driven by a desire to bless others, we’ll find more than enough goodness to offset occasional shortfalls. On that we have Christ’s word: “But strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6.33) It doesn’t get any surer than that.

Once again, O God, Your Word calls us to a reckoning with our motives and desires. Increase our depth of vision to look beyond ourselves to seek goodness that favors those around us. Draw us into partnership with You, working for good. Amen.

Seeking goodness by seeking favor for others requires us to look past our own desires and aspirations. It’s the difference between a life that grasps for grace and one that leads from grace.

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