I do know it’s more than this, but part of our trouble with the way that God is running the world is that He’s too generous.
That remark will infuriate all sensitive non-believers and many believers but nonetheless I believe it’s true. In a world with multiplied millions hungry and abused the word “generosity” isn’t the first word that springs to mind. That makes sense but the sense it makes takes in only part of the story of the human race and the conclusion to that hasn’t been told. [Think noble things of God—see God in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ and think noble things of Him.]
In the meantime we hate to see villains prosper and the righteous and innocent (babies and such) suffer. Sometimes we hate it that God is generous to the evil and thankless; they shouldn’t be blessed at all. Many of us who talk a lot about His generosity are quick to say it should be limited to people like us. Well, we’re careful not to be that crass but we understandably link righteousness, kindness, compassion, generosity, gentleness, integrity and such with blessing. I’m not talking about earning! I have in mind the truth expressed in Psalm 1 (though that text needs developed and discussed at length).
Antonio Salieri had that problem. Salieri served Emperor Joseph II for thirty-six years at the court in Vienna as the master of the chapel, though he’d been around the court much longer. He was a great composer who produced thirty-nine operas, seven secular cantatas, eighty-six religious compositions and an assortment of other pieces. He remained friends with Franz Joseph Haydn and Ludwig Van Beethoven throughout his life and had given Beethoven lessons on counterpoint. Beethoven dedicated the three violin sonatas, Opus 12, to Salieri.
When he was a teenager Salieri dedicated himself to God. Ignoring its serious distortions of fact at times in favor of drama, the movie Amadeus tells the story this way: one day Salieri prayed, “Lord, make me a great composer. Let me celebrate your glory through music. Make me famous, dear God; make me immortal. After I die, let people forever speak my name with love for what I wrote. In return, I will give you my chastity, my industry, my deepest humility, every hour of my life.” He thoroughly believed that God gave him his gifts!
He became the toast of Europe, and on the 16th of June, 1816, he celebrated the golden anniversary of his debut in Vienna. Everyone who mattered was there and some of his famous students, including Franz Schubert, played pieces in his honor. Life couldn’t have been better for him. Invitations flooded in from everywhere, his opinion was sought and the praise never ceased and he was a part of every tribunal of consequence; but one thing troubled him deeply and his life soured and shriveled.
Turn the clock back more than twenty-five hundred years before Salieri, to another musician and composer called Asaph. When David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, Asaph was one of the lead singers. He was (perhaps) the “master of the chapel” and prophet for the most revered king in Israelite history (1 Chronicles 16:4-5, 37; 2 Chronicles 29:30). Today, three thousand years after he wrote them, the songs Asaph composed are still being sung and read in the presence of millions. Twelve psalms bear his name to the glory of God.
What did Salieri and Asaph have in common? Both were troubled by God’s generosity, though they probably didn’t realize that that was the case.
Both were troubled not by bad things happening to good people but by good things happening to bad people!
In Psalm 73:1-16 Asaph said he almost lost his footing in faith when he saw what was happening in the lives of the flagrantly wicked. They prospered and people sang their praises and even asked them the secret of their success. What kind of a sick world is it when they behead a Paul and a Nero rules the world?
In the movie, the success of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart nearly unhinged Salieri. Mozart is regarded as “the most sheerly musical composer who ever lived” and the famous Goethe saw him as “the human incarnation of a divine force of creation.” Mozart began composing at the age of four and he continued furiously with hardly a breath until he died at thirty-five.
It isn’t surprising that Salieri would be jealous, even though the Viennese public preferred one or two of his works. On the whole, people were thrilled by Salieri but they were dumbfounded by Mozart whose name was never off their lips and whose music left them speechless with pleasure. Not only did Mozart write more than Salieri, the movie has his scores written perfectly the first time—he never revised!
As the movie tells it, Salieri described Mozart as “a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy!” Every time he heard the name of Mozart he became incensed and every time he heard him praised it drove him nearer to madness. Finally, obsessed by his jealousy and after looking at some of Mozart’s perfectly written scores, he throws a crucifix into the fire, saying to God, “We are enemies you and I, because you are unjust, unfair, unkind. I will hinder and harm your creature on earth as far as I am able.”
God—unjust and unkind? Why, because He was generous to the happy pagan? God is unjust because He is generous? (Compare Matthew 20:1-15.) Darkness closed in on Salieri; he shriveled and died long before they put his body into the ground. In spite of his still making the rounds, receiving respectful nods from the aristocracy, despite being recognized and praised he was the shell of a man—a cancer called envy had eaten his soul.
If we weren’t troubled by jealousy, if we didn’t know the pangs of envy when we heard someone praised—someone we knew some dark secret about—if we weren’t profoundly unsettled by the good things that happen to bad people maybe all the above would be of dramatic interest, but no more than that.
If we weren’t inclined to stand in for God as judge of all who “should” or “should not” receive good in this life then the dramatized Salieri and Asaph would be just another tragic figure. But like the composers we too can burn in a fever and everyone loses.
Salieri offered no help to Mozart to lift him to a moral life that matched the generosity of God in creativity. It didn’t matter to him that Mozart and his young wife would waltz on bare floorboards in their freezing apartment just to keep warm (which is true to fact).
When we’re in the fever of jealousy no beauty or depth or honor or giftedness of our “enemy” makes a difference. No, that’s untrue—these things make matters even worse; their presence only increases our bitterness for then we realize others have reason to praise the one we view with life-destroying envy. Others are lifted nearer to God and to the higher life by the one we choose as an “enemy”—others, but not us! We’re too consumed with our correct views of his/her shortcomings, too filled with bile because we’re aware of his/her sinfulness and too busy dissecting him/her to be uplifted by the gift God is offering us through him/her. Their gifts are gifts to all the Body that all might profit (1 Corinthians 11) so that God’s purpose might be forwarded.
So even God loses!
We become so sour that everything in life—every gift from God in life—is lost on us or if not completely lost, at least cheapened (“let no root of bitterness enter” said the Hebrew writer). I need hardly rehearse the bah humbug approach to life that marked out Ebenezer Scrooge. (What a name for Scrooge. “Ebenezer”. “God has helped me to get this far.” Dickens knew what he was doing.) He was miserly and when he was transformed he became not just fair, he became generous.
Generous like God who gives riches to the evil and thankless; like God who spreads His generosity around even through people who have no time for Him and who wants His children to be generous as He is generous (Matthew 5:44-48).
(Holy One, help us, please, to be more like you, Envying no one and generous to all; even the thankless and the evil. Help us please to live more graciously upright that we might not hinder your work of grace by dishonor or envy. Cleanse our hearts that we will not begrudge the blessings you give to non-believers or those who seek our hurt. This earnest prayer in Jesus Christ.)
[I’ve borrowed this and adapted it by permission from my little book Celebrating the Wrath of God. Permission from Waterbrook Press (a division of Random House)