I have a high level of discomfort with what I call “pop comfort theology.” I don’t know what else to call it. This is the “God has a plan for your life” sort of thing. Almost always it is a good plan, even when it is rough in certain places, and everything that happens is part of the plan and, well, what’s left to do but just give praise to the Lord?
Sentiments of this sort fall into a theologia gloriae, a theology of glory. One good thing happens after another and the Lord is leading the triumphant way the whole time, “from victory unto victory,” as a hymn has it. We’re only along for the ride, trusting, faithful, and confident of the Lord’s unerring guidance.
No doubt God does have a plan, but I frequently question whether it includes any regard for our personal comfort, preferences, desires, or even what’s good for us. I think, instead, we make more plans for God than God makes for us. His plans, the real ones, frequently are so disturbing as to suck the wind out of us.
The edgier conditions of life just don’t get mentioned, not in a theologia gloriae. We are told instead we can eliminate, say, the negativity in our lives, starting with the negative people who annoy us, and move ever upward, all with God’s help. Something like that.
That edgy stuff, that’s the stuff of a theologia crucis, a theology of the cross. In a theologia gloriae, the cross is nothing more a speed bump to the empty tomb, hardly a real problem at all.
How, for instance, can we otherwise account for John 9, the man blind from birth encountered by Jesus as he and his disciples pass by? Who sinned, the disciples want to know, the man, or his parents, to be born blind? Neither, asserted Jesus. He was born blind that God’s work might be perfected in him. And with that, Jesus gave him sight.
That’s a plan? He endures blindness from birth – cursed for his sin his whole life and his parents humiliated for it – only so he can become an object for God’s work? Even in receiving his sight matters become distinctly worse. He is subjected to ridicule and derision by the opponents of Jesus, a foil for their use against the Nazareth preacher, and his parents refuse to defend their son. The perfected works of God upon examination sometimes appear far less than perfect. Get used by God and there may be trouble ahead.
Theology, of course, is just a way of talking about God and everyone ultimately is a theologian, though not always a good one. Theology helps us explore who God is, what he is like, what he wants for us and what he expects of us. Yet theology must begin somewhere. For the Church, theology always begins with Christ. Jesus, as a theologian, is God explaining himself. That explanation is always an encounter with the cross.
A theologia crucis compels us to speak of life and God from the view of the cross. A theologia gloriae puts on a Christmas pageant but drops the curtain before Herod shows up to kill the children of Bethlehem. A theologia crucis, however, must account for the blood of the innocents.
Margaret Fishback Power’s Footprints 50th Anniversary Treasury: Stories of Compassion, Kindness, and Courage Inspired by the Beloved Poemdrips little but glory.
Laying aside the poem’s disputed authorship, unmentioned in the treasury, the poem itself features a man looking back at his life along the beach – you know this already, right? He finds two sets of footprints traveling his life, his and God’s, side by side. Yet at every low and lonely moment, there is but one set of footprints. Seemingly he was left to pick his own way through his own troubles.
So, where was God? Not to worry. Those were the times, God tells him, that it was he himself who carried the man over the most desperate circumstances.
Fit that with the cross, Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” God is silent. “I cry out by day, but you do not answer.”
Footprints appeals to millions of readers. The treasury is a compilation of inspirational sentiments related to the poem, short-short stories, and testimonies to the power of the poem. It is intimate, evocative, sentimental, and even romantic. It does express a certain Guideposts notion of God, though it is one I regard as far from biblical. God is not a hiking buddy to help you over the rough spots. Nowhere do we hear of sin, death, and the devil in defeat.
If scripture is read through Christ, as for Christians it must, then God is in Christ from the cross and it is from there we find God. It is there that your troubles, my troubles, and the deaths of Bethlehem’s children will find deliverance and redemption.
A former Lutheran pastor becoming Roman Catholic, Russell E. Saltzman is a web columnist for First Things magazine living in Kansas City, Missouri. He can be reached at email@example.com.