03 January 2014

Let's Talk Exegesis: Laura Strong's "Mercies in Disguise," Platitudes, and Truth

So there are some songs that can really rub a person the wrong way.  For some people that song is "Ice, Ice, Baby", because Vanilla Ice stole the beginning of Queen's "Under Pressure".  For me, right now, that song is the worship song "Mercies in Disguise" by Laura  Story.  

Shortly after I decided to start listening to more worship music, "Mercies in Disguise" became popular on my local Christian station.  Musically the song is fine — worship music is rarely exceptional, but then that's not the point, and in fact, as my friend pointed out, exceptional performance would run contrary to the goal of worship music which is worship of God, not of the artist.  No, my beef with the song is the lyrics.  The idea that our present sufferings are God's mercies in disguise is atrocious and, frankly, libelous.  

Now, Christians are often guilty of doling out meaningless (and harmful) platitudes like "God helps those who help themselves" (not Biblical AND victim-blaming BONUS!), "God only gives you as much as you can handle" (not Biblical, and blatantly horse hockey if you've spent any time with people living in poverty, unless you believe that single mother with a drug problem leftover from her violent boyfriend/pimp to be WAY stronger than you are).  Then we come to "Mercies in Disguise" which asserts that our suffering is actually mercy, that evil is actually good.  Whew!  That's a load of excrement.  

Before I dive into why the belief that our present sufferings are God's "Mercies in Disguise", let's take a look at where this belief stems from.   Romans 8:28 states
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. [NIV]
"And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. " [KJV]
There are two major ways to interpret this text, and the repercussions of each reading are enormous.  Because of the context of this verse (which concerns predestination and the Holy Spirit interceding for us), the most popular reading and interpretation goes something like this: "Since God predestined/called Christians, and for those HE called, HE works for their good, then everything that happens to a Christian is God's Will.  Since God's Will is good, then everything that happens to a Christian is somehow good."  The second interpretation is "God can take the rubble leftover from a bad circumstance and make something good out of it."  

This first interpretation that everything that happens is good (or "everything happens for a reason") works just fine if the worst hardship you've come across is having an empty pint glass in the pub.  Problems arise when one experiences a real hardship, like the death of a loved one – particularly if that death was traumatic or especially tragic.  The "All things that happen are Good" interpretation of Romans 8:28 compounds the pain of great loss by saying that somehow it was God's Will that person die, that somehow it's good that person died.  So now the God that we've been told is gracious and all-loving has dealt a deathblow to your heart, but, no, no, it's good, really.  

The "All things are good" interpretation comes less from Christianity than it does from Positive Thinking/The Law of Attraction/New Thought Principle (the idea that expecting good things makes them happen, Religious Scientism, not really religion, since the belief is in the abilities of humans ultimately, and definitely not really science).

The second interpretation comes from a slightly more complicated exegetical process, but pulling this interpretation from Romans seems more in tone with the rest of Romans.  Consider Romans 5:3-5, we rejoice in our suffering because that breeds perseverance – perseverance is good, but there's no implication that suffering is good because of the result.  In fact, if we look at other verses about God's provision, most notably Luke 11:5-13 in which Jesus tells us to ask, seek, and knock, and that if we do that, then God will receive, find, and the door will be opened for us, then there is no doubt that God doesn't want evil to befall us.    

Now let's go back to the lyrics of "Mercies in Disguise".  In the final stanza:
Cause what if Your blessings come through raindrops / What if Your healing comes through tears / And what if a thousand sleepless nights / Are what it takes to know You're near / What if my greatest disappointmentsOr the aching of this lifeIs the revealing of a greater thirst this world can't satisfy / And what if trials of this life / The rain, the storms, the hardest nights / Are Your mercies in disguise
                                                    "Mercies in Disguise" 27-34, Laura Strong, emphasis mine   
Can you imagine telling a mother who just lost her daughter to a drug overdose that her loss and pain was actually a mercy in disguise?   There's no context where that would get a positive result, because "Mercies in Disguise" is a meaningless platitude: "Hey, it could be worse!" "Look on the bright side" "Every cloud has a silver lining".  In moments of extreme emotion, we as humans all too easily cling to these sorts of sayings, but they can't provide real healing or real comfort.  And in this case, wherein we call pain God's "mercy in disguise", there is a very real potential for harm, because if we believe that nothing happens outside of God's control (a topic for another time) then it would be TOTALLY reasonable to be completely PISSED at God for our current circumstances,  because HE wanted these bad things to happen.  

Thankfully, as I mentioned above, there are ample data that God doesn't want evil to befall us.  Jesus says in John 10:10b "I have come that they may have life and have it to the full".  

I'll leave you with one positive from Laura Story's song, "Mercies in Disguise": the line "the aching of this life is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can't satisfy" comes from good exegesis.  We are on this world but not of it, and there is hope in the future for a new creation and, yes, for Heaven, too.  

Thanks for reading. If you have problems with my interpretations or opinions, please leave a comment; I'd be happy for an open discourse.  

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