God's 'Nevertheless'

‘Success breeds success,’ they say. In the 1960s, sociologist Robert Merton coined the term ‘The Matthew Effect’ to describe the way in which the successes of eminent scientists received a disproportionately higher degree of recognition and accolade than the comparable achievements of lesser-known researchers. He saw a correlation between this trend and Jesus’ words in Matthew 13:12: ‘to the one who has, more will be given…’

But the problem with success stories is that they turn the world into winners and losers: King Saul felt threatened when he saw how successful his newly promoted commander David was in battle, and David’s success made him feel a failure, poisoning their relationship (1 Samuel 18:6- 16). Because we are fallen human beings, it is all too easy for success stories to breed pride in the heart of those who ‘make it’, and envy in the heart of those who don’t. But God is not in the business of categorising people as successes or failures – and that is good news for those of us who sometimes feel as if we have failed. Rather, our God is in the business of redemption: where we have gone wrong, he loves to put us right: that is how he reveals his righteousness.

That’s why I like what Karl Barth had to say about God’s righteousness being his ‘nevertheless’ in his commentary on Romans: ‘The righteousness of God is that “nevertheless” by which he associates us with Himself and declares Himself to be our God. This “nevertheless” contradicts every human logical “consequently”, and is itself incomprehensible and without cause or occasion, because it is the “nevertheless!” of God…He pronounces us, His enemies, to be His friends…it is the miracle of resurrection. The righteousness of God is our standing place in the air – that is to say, where there is no human possibility of standing – whose foundations are laid by God himself and supported always by Him only…’

God’s saving righteousness breaks the human chain of cause and effect: our actions no longer bring inevitable consequences in their train – we are governed by God’s grace, not by any notion of ‘karma’. So our God redeems our failures, answers our guilt with his righteousness, gives us honour in place of shame, and turns our propensity for evil into potential for good. This is the God who in his righteousness brings us out of darkness into his marvellous light, as it says in Isaiah 9: ‘Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honour Galilee of the Gentiles … The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.’

For the Apostle Paul, God’s ‘nevertheless’ characterised his entire ministry: ‘We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned, struck down, but not destroyed’ (2 Corinthians 5:8-9). Many of us will have found ourselves up against it over these past months in all sorts of ways. But…what has God’s ‘nevertheless’ been for you?