A few months ago, I had a conversation with Juanetta, a homeless woman who occasionally collects money for her shelter outside of our local Target store. She told me of her heartbreak when her son was sentenced to prison, but how God had helped her finally surrender the burden to Him. And she was full of joy, with a smile on her face and words of kindness to everyone who passed by. “God has something wonderful to give us and all we have to do is open up our hearts,” were her parting words to me, and as always when I talk with her, I didn't just feel enriched, I was enriched.
But if Karl Marx had still been alive and leaving Target at the time of our conversation, he might have said that it proved his point:
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.Getting rid of the vale of tears is a noble goal and one that Juanetta and I share. We agree that it is not a good thing when children end up in prison, and that people should give generously to the poor. (She was after all collecting money for her shelter.) But did Marx really think that he could eradicate car accidents, terminal illnesses, poverty, broken marriages, and the rebellion of children by simply demanding that people give up those things? And since he could do precious little about the vale of tears, it seems rather backwards to demand that people give up its "halo."
I don't for a moment concede that faith is an illusion, but Marx correctly observed that it helps people get through difficult times. In fact, I would say that there is a positive correlation between faith and poverty. How does the Bible explain this correlation? James 2:5 says: "Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?" He has set up this world to function according to the survival of the fittest, but He has set up the kingdom of God in such a way that only the humble can receive it. "God is opposed to the proud, but He gives grace to the humble" (James 4:6). And that means the poor and disadvantaged have a distinct advantage.
Like Juanetta said, God has something wonderful to give us, but we have to open our hearts to receive it. And if our hearts are full of other things, we won't. Augustine agreed. "God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full—there’s nowhere for Him to put it."
In her Magnificat, Mary, the humble young girl with great faith who was chosen by God to carry His Son, said: "[God] has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and He has exalted those who were humble. He has filled the hungry with good things; and sent away the rich empty-handed" (Luke 52-53). At the end of the Gospels, God exalts another Mary with the honor of being the apostle to the apostles—the first messenger of the resurrection of Jesus. Who was Mary Magdalene, the mystery woman who received the spotlight at such an important moment, but is hardly mentioned elsewhere? Luke 8:1-3 indicates that she may have been wealthy, but that Jesus had cast out of her seven demons. We are not given any details, but we can safely say that this means she had major issues and would have really needed Jesus.
To the early Christians, the order of the postmortem appearances of Jesus was significant, with some non-canonical Gospels claiming the first appearance for whomever they admired most. For example, the Gospel of the Hebrews says that Jesus appeared first to James. The importance of the order is not lost on Paul, who doesn't mention Mary Magdalene in that patriarchal society, and goes through the list and concludes with, "and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God" (1 Corinthians 15:8-9).
Saul of Tarsus was neither poor nor disadvantaged in any way. He was an upwardly mobile, self-righteous Pharisee, who believed that he was doing God's will by destroying the church. But God could still use him. Paul continues: "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me" (1 Corinthians 15:10, italics added).
And those words highlight what it is that God wants to give us if only we open up our hearts: the grace of God—that is, the power of God through the Holy Spirit. It was the grace of God that changed Paul from a proud, hate-driven man to a humble, hardworking man who called himself the least of the apostles and penned some of the most well-known, eloquent, and powerful verses about the preeminence of love: 1 Corinthians 13. And it is the grace of God that gives Juanetta joy in spite of her circumstances.
But even though Paul was God's chosen instrument for bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles, he continued to struggle with pride, and in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, he says that he was given a "thorn in the flesh" to keep him from exalting himself. When he asked God to take it away, God replied: "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness." In other words, as great as Paul was, the power of God was greater in him in his weakness and suffering. Then he was able to come to God with empty hands and an open heart and be filled with the power of Christ.