Why doing the wrong thing might be good for you.
Ever since I was a child, I was taught and I believed that doing the wrong thing would get you into trouble. If you lied or you cheated, it wouldn’t end well. Someone would find out, your guilt would drive you mad, something. Unfortunately, this has not been my experience in life, and I’m willing to bet it hasn’t been yours. Do the people who do the right things always come out first? Do the diligent, honest, hardworking employees always get the raises? No, they don’t. More often than not, they’re pushed aside or overlooked. Maybe doing the wrong thing is the better choice.
This morning I read a sermon by Frederick Buechner about that scene in the Old Testament where Jacob wrestles God. In it, he surveys Jacob’s life and makes a point I had never considered directly, but is remarkably accurate. Whereas we want each story in Scripture to come out as some variation on the theme “this guy did the wrong thing, and he was punished for it,” Jacob’s life paints a different story. Jacob is assertive, manipulative, and aggressive. He gets what he wants through deceit and charisma. He tricked Esau into giving away his birthright by conveniently having food prepared exactly when Esau was starving from working in the fields to grow the ingredients for said food. He tricked his father into giving him Esau’s blessing, which he had secured through manipulation, by dressing up like his brother and lowering his voice to trick his blind father and misrepresent himself as Esau. And what happens to Jacob after doing these things? Not much. His parents still love him, God still loves him, his friends still love him. He inherits his father’s wealth and he gets not one, but two girls to marry him. Esau hates him, but who cares? Esau’s a sucker. Esau’s the nice guy who finishes last and ends up becoming angry and obtuse for it. Jacob lies and cheats and has a happy, wealthy, and respectable life.
And then God wrestles him. And Jacob starts winning. He fights God face to face, as he has been fighting God’s rules his whole life, and he starts winning, as he has been winning his whole life. At this point, he’s got to be feeling pretty good. But then God lightly touches his hip and knocks it out of its socket. He brings the powerful Jacob down in a moment, and all that remains is a weak, broken, husk of a man struggling to grasp hold of God to ask for a blessing—like when a child doesn’t want you to leave and cleaves to your leg when you try to walk. All his power and manipulation and charisma are nothing to the touch of God. And then he receives God’s blessing. He tried to get it in the same way he got his father’s blessing: he tried to pretend to be better and stronger than he was, and maybe he almost convinced himself that he was stronger and better. But he didn’t get the blessing that way. He got it by being broken by God, and then asking, knowing that he didn’t earn it.
This is not, however, a satisfying ending to the story. See, in this life, Jacob got and kept riches, marriage, prestige, and status by way of doing the wrong things at opportune times. God is not trying to tell us that doing the wrong thing will end up poorly for us. Quite the opposite. In this life, you get only what you’re given by other sinners, and they are not looking for someone who always does the right thing. Just like us, they like people who remind them of how they perceive themselves, and also like us, they are remarkably susceptible to manipulation for it. So if you were sitting alone asking yourself why that lying, cheating, adulterer of a coworker is getting raises and promotions all while keeping his marriage and extramarital relationships secure and hidden from each other, this is why. It’s because doing the right thing is decidedly not the best thing. It’s not the best thing for your career, for your friendships, for your momentary happiness. People won’t always “value your integrity” and “speak well of you.” Some will, but most people are petty, jealous, and vindictive. They’ll notice you’re an honest, hard-working, loving person, and they will hate you for it.
Once we start convincing ourselves that we should follow God for our own benefit, we will swiftly find that we’re severely mistaken. Following God isn’t about benefiting yourself. Following God is about following God. Love, faith, perseverance, joy, and a happiness that lasts all come from following the road of dejection, rejection, spite, and persecution. At least for most of us. God wants us to know two things. First, that he can break us in a moment of all that fake arrogance we’ve built up for ourselves. And second, that doing the right thing is only worthwhile because it is the right thing to do, not because it brings us earthly achievement. You’re not happy? Maybe you’re looking for happiness in the wrong place. Maybe you’re serving the wrong master. It sucks; but to be truly happy, to have joy, to find love, you have to not want any of those things. The tricky thing is, when you do live for yourself, you will get everything that the world around you has taught you is valuable. You can’t make a choice to follow God for your own good. It’s not about you. It’s about God.
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.
- T.S. Eliot