“‘If a man is carrying consecrated meat in the fold of his garment, and it touches bread, stew, wine, oil, or any other food, does it become holy?’ The priests answered, ‘No.’ Then Haggai asked, ‘If someone defiled by contact with a corpse touches any of these, does it become defiled?’ The priests answered, ‘It becomes defiled.’ Then Haggai replied, ‘So is this people, and so is this nation before me–this is the Lord’s declaration. And so is every work of their hands; even what they offer there is defiled.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
One of the principles that lies at the heart of much modern thinking about religion and morality is that good things should happen to good people, and bad things should happen to bad people. In fact, the question of why bad things happen to good people is of great enough interest that it has been the subject of more than one book-length treatment. What God communicated to the people of Israel through Haggai here doesn’t resolve the issue by any means, but it does offer some good food for thought to folks who are pondering on it.
The way forward for the people of Israel after the exile was hard. Not much was going right for them. Every step was a struggle. What Haggai revealed to the people was that the reason for their struggle was at least in part (arguably the biggest part) the fact that they were putting the things of God second while they tried to reestablish their lives on their own. The result of this not-so-benign neglect was the people were essentially running on a treadmill. They were doing a lot of things, but not getting anywhere. If they would only make a turn and start putting their relationship with God first–a turn symbolized by their rebuilding the temple–then He would get them off the treadmill and even give them a boost on getting down the road.
That’s the first chapter. In the second chapter, He begins dealing with some of the resistance among the people to this call. As we talked about last Friday, the first part of the resistance was simply that the new temple wasn’t going to be as good as the old one. In creating something new, the memory of what was loomed menacingly large in their minds; large enough to keep them from moving forward. God’s response to was encourage them to do it anyway, promising blessings on them and pointing to a time in the future when the glory of His temple would be even greater than they remembered from the past.
That was a resistance rooted in memory. Here He’s dealing with a resistance rooted in wrong thinking. While the temple hadn’t been completed, the people were not necessarily forgetting about their religious practices altogether. As a case in point, one of the two leaders Haggai consistently addresses in his prophecy is Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest. They were doing the things of religion, they just weren’t giving them fully the place and importance God wanted them to have.
“But why can’t we get credit for what we are doing?” they asked. “We’re doing our best here, Lord. Can’t we get some credit for that? Can’t you see the good things we are accomplishing and let those cancel out some of this oversight that’s getting you so worked up?”
That’s how we sometimes think, isn’t it? God, why are all these bad things happening to me? I mean, no, I’m not perfect, but can’t I get some credit for the good things I am doing? I’m doing my best. Take it easier on me, would You?
What lies behind that kind of thinking is roughly represented by the Buddhist/pop cultural idea of Karma. Broadly defined–at least as it appears in most pop culture nowadays–Karma is the belief that the universe acts as a kind of impartial judge rewarding good deeds with good life outcomes and bad deeds with bad life outcomes. Given even a little bit of thought, it is an absolutely terrible response to the problem of evil (which is why the notion of reincarnation is so important in its original, Buddhist framework in order to explain the issue of bad things happening to people who have done much good–they’re paying for their sins committed in a previous life), but on a day-to-day basis it sounds pretty good.
It fits with how we naturally think about how life should go. If I do good, good should happen. The good I do should act as a kind of covering for the bad such that if the former outweighs the latter, I can still expect good outcomes. In this way, life becomes a kind of balancing act where if we slip up now and then, we can just do some extra good deeds and keep ourselves covered; we can keep the scales tilted at least a little bit in our favor. What we see here in Haggai suggests this is kind of how people have always thought. God’s response to it? Not so fast.
He uses an example straight out of the kind of religious exercises they were still observing. Let’s say you’ve offered a sacrifice and come away with some consecrated meat. Meat that had been offered in sacrifice to God (or the gods in other religions) was considered holy. It had to be handled and consumed in certain ways. But, it was meat you wanted to eat because of the spiritual benefits that came from it. Let’s say you have this special meat, if it touches some other type of food that has not been so consecrated, does it pass along its holiness to this other food? The priests answered, “No,” because it didn’t. Each thing (or person) had to be consecrated individually. You couldn’t be made holy on behalf of someone else.
But, on the other hand, if something has been defiled in some way (God uses the example of coming into contact with a corpse which rendered one ceremonially unclean), if it comes into contact with something else, can it spread its impurity? The priests answered, “Yes,” because it could.
Let’s put that in terms that are more relevant to us today. If someone is vaccinated for a disease, they can’t spread their immunity to another person simply by touching them. On the other hand, if someone is infected with a disease, they can potentially spread their infection to another person simply by touching them.
Once the people were nodding along with him, Haggai drops the bomb: This is you. You are impure because of your sins. The faithfulness of a few people doesn’t make the rest of you good. Rather, the fact that you keep putting yourselves first serves to cheapen any worship you try and bring God’s way. You’ve done some good things? Great. Keep it up. But know well that even a little bit of sin can ruin a whole lot of righteousness. If you don’t put God first, the rest of your life is going to be colored by that choice and by the ways it will work itself out through your life.
Now, that doesn’t sound very fair, does it? It goes pretty hard against how we normally think about how the universe should work. Here’s the thing: Just because we don’t like how it sounds, doesn’t make it any less true. You know this is true. Let’s say someone does something good for you. You feel pretty good about them, right? But let’s say they do something good for you after they have betrayed you in some devastating way. Do you still feel pretty good about them? Not so much, right? You may be glad for the good thing, but you’re going to look at it through the lens of the betrayal and not be quite as glad as you might otherwise have been.
What’s the point? A right relationship with God doesn’t happen because we’ve done more good than bad. As long as we are thinking in those terms at all, we are thinking about it in terms of what we can do to make it happen. The impetus for the relationship is resting on our shoulders. That feels powerful in any given moment, but then something happens to remind us that we don’t really have any power at all, and we respond by getting mad at God. This is silly, though, because He didn’t have anything to do with it. We were the ones who were thinking about Him and about being in a relationship with Him all wrong.
The truth is that good things don’t happen to good people. Nor do bad things happen to bad people. Instead, people who are broken by sin live in a world that is broken by sin. In that sin-broken world, the people who are broken by sin commit sins which invariably cause harm to other people who may or may not have had anything to do with the original sin. God in His mercy and grace restrains some of the chaos that would otherwise spiral out of control from all of this, but not all of it because of His commitment to honor the choices of a people He created to be free. As a result, things we define variably as good or bad happen and the cause and effect lines running from one thing to another are rarely clear. And this isn’t just cynicism either. It’s reality.
But the greater and deeper reality is this: The God who restrains some of the chaos has carved out a way through it to a life that is good. It works like this: We trust in the Jesus who overcame this life with all of its faults and failings by His unwavering commitment to the righteousness of God and then gave up His life to permanently etch His path for others to follow by dying on a cross to pay sin’s ultimate price and rising from the grave to break its power once and for all. Once we’ve done this, we will still live in the same world I just described, but we’ll know that we are no longer living for this one. We are living for the next which will be perfect. In the meantime, we are freed to give the people around us a taste of the next by our own commitment to things like kindness, justice, generosity, mercy, compassion, and love–things which are the law of the next world.
When we do this, the good and bad that happens in this life won’t impact us in the same way any longer. We’ll see it all through the lens of grace and the peace of God that passes all understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Is that easier than the tit-for-tat approach we used to take? No, but it is better. I think you should try it.