Thinking Anew – ‘I will fear no evil, for you are with me’

God’s promise is a way through trouble rather than a way to avoid it

‘The devil can cite scripture for his purpose. An evil soul producing holy witness is like a villain with a smiling cheek, a goodly apple rotten at the heart. Oh, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!” These lines from the Merchant of Venice suggest that Shakespeare was familiar with the story told in tomorrow’s gospel, the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. In one exchange the devil tempts Jesus with words from psalm 91 which also features in tomorrow’s liturgy to reassure him that no harm will come to him because God “will command his angels concerning you, to guard you” – an expectation that many cling to in troubled times only to be disappointed and left wondering why God let them down.

God does not allow bad things to happen in the sense that he sanctions them; his promise is not one of immunity from trouble but one of solidarity. The psalmist explains: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” God’s promise is a way through trouble rather than a way to avoid it, something made clear in the events of Holy Week followed by Easter.

The misuse or misunderstanding of scripture is an ever-present temptation. It allows for a made to measure religion which can cloak personal prejudices and promote self-interests despite being contrary to the teaching of Jesus Christ. We find this among white supremacists in America and Europe who justify extremist language and obscene activities by claiming to defend Christian values. The former US president Jimmy Carter recognised the threat to the integrity of the gospel and the good of society in his book Our Endangered Values (2006). He explains their rationale: "Since I am aligned with God, I am superior and my beliefs should prevail, and anyone who disagrees with me is inherently inferior". Carter, a man of faith, saw this as a challenge for Christians who believe that following Christ points in the direction described by St Paul as a "a more excellent way" – the way of love. He wrote: "That tendency (extremism) has created throughout the world intense religious conflicts. Those Christians who resist the inclination towards fundamentalism and who truly follow the nature, actions and words of Jesus Christ should encompass people who are different from us with our care, generosity, forgiveness, compassion and unselfish love."

While it is easy to recognise and condemn the ugliness of sectarian and racial bias Shakespeare’s reference to “a villain with a smiling cheek” suggests a wider audience. We all like to make a good impression and present a positive image but the reality is we modify gospel expectations to serve personal interests and desires. For example, we demand that politicians look after the homeless while insisting they do not increase our taxes. We say that immigrants and refugees should be welcomed but not in our town or street. We agree that God’s wonderful creation is threatened by the way we live but are not prepared to go without that extra foreign holiday or are too busy to walk to the local shop. We are like St Paul who, writing to the Romans, said: “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.”

The Christian life is a process of becoming and there will be times when we follow the way of Christ more faithfully and others when we do not. But these lines by John O’Donoghue suggest it is worth trying to keep at it: “Scrape from your heart/ All sense of yourself/ And your hesitant light…If you remain generous, /Time will come good; /And you will find your feet /Again on fresh pastures of promise, /Where the air will be kind /And blushed with beginning.”

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