In her recent book, For the Time Being, Annie Dillard, although herself a woman of mature faith, raises a series of hard questions about faith. For example, at one point, she asks whether what is expressed in Mary’s Magnificat is in fact true:
Many times in Christian churches I have heard the pastor say to God, “All your actions show your wisdom and love.” Each time, I reach in vain for the courage to rise and shout, “That’s a lie!” – just to put things on a solid footing. “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty!” … [Yes, but] I have seen the rich sit secure on their thrones and send the hungry away empty. If God’s escape clause is that he gives only spiritual things, then we might hope that the poor and suffering are rich in spiritual gifts, as some certainly are, but as some of the comfortable are too. In a soup kitchen, I see suffering. Deus otiosus: do-nothing God, who, if he has power, abuses it. (Penguin Books, Toronto, 1999, pp. 85-86)
Dillard herself, as is evident from the rest of this book and her writings in general, does not have a problem in understanding or accepting that God’s blessings flow into us mainly through our poverty (so don’t let this one quote put you off her excellent book). Her protest is precisely in view of, as she says, putting “things on a solid footing.” We believe that all God’s actions show forth wisdom and love, but that is not, as she points out, immediately and everywhere evident – which is not quite the same thing as saying that it is not everywhere true. It is.
How so? If in fact we do see people who are materially comfortable and also spiritually rich (and the reverse) then how is God sending the rich away empty and filling the hungry?
The first thing that needs to be said is that this cannot be understood except through faith and real faith does not share the shallow, cynical view that spiritual riches are in fact a feeble compensation for the goods of this world. The promise of a spiritual inheritance is not poor pittance when stacked against actual material comfort, the enjoyment of luxury, good looks, sexual attractiveness, achievement, fame, and admiration by the world; though from Marx, through Freud, through millions of people today, the view is out there that what the gospel promises is, if one has the courage to face it, a huge rationalization for missing out in life, a poor excuse for living. Dillard does not share that view. Neither do I.
Even outside of faith, simply with the eyes of this world, ultimately this truth already makes itself plain. The poor do get fed and the rich do go away empty. How?
What becomes more evident every day as one grows older is that, already in this life, happiness, meaning, family, love, and joy are dependent upon the acceptance of a certain vulnerability, an emptiness in the biblical sense. Whenever we have the sense that we are not poor and hungry – when we feel self-sufficient, rich, in possession of what we need, satiated, and in control – then, whether we want to or not, we begin to push people away and many of those closest to us, all on their own, simply begin to move away from us. That is why it is so often the case that after years of sweat and effort, when we finally arrive at where we have wanted to be for so long, we find ourselves frighteningly alone and surrounded by the wrong kind of people. At the summit of our successes, at our proudest worldly moments, we look around for real family, for old friends, and for the type of simple joys we once took for granted and find that these aren’t there any more as they once were. If we’re honest, we soon realize that we have, even if we didn’t want to, jettisoned these along the way because, in the illusion of strength, we began to travel alone.
It’s no secret that we admire the rich and the strong, but we hate them too, unless we sense in them a poverty and a vulnerability that lets us be close to them. At the end of the day, we can only get close to each other when we are vulnerable. It is no accident too, but rather a testimony to a deep truth at the heart of the gospel and at the centre of life itself, that material comfort, money, good looks, worldly success, and being admired by the world, do not translate automatically nor easily into happy family, reliable friends, peace of heart, and a sense of security.
When we are rich, we do go away hungry and mostly alone – unless, of course, our poverty, vulnerability, and emptiness remain the true ground of who we really are.