The easy answer is not the same thing as the right answer.
It seems like a pretty self-evident statement, but when you stop and think about it, we conflate the two all the time. When there are no easy answers to a vexing problem, we behave as if there are no answers at all. When we are confronted by an issue without easy answers, we throw our hands up in despair, and ask ourselves what can possibly be done.
Perhaps there is no better illustration than that of climate change. Scientists have been warning the world for decades about measurable changes to our natural environment and calling for us to alter our behavior and practices in order to avoid massive, global, environmental destruction. Now climate change is no longer a prediction that is 30 or 20 or 10 years off. Now it is happening. Now sea levels are rising. Now once reliable weather patterns are changing, effecting people all over the world, from farmers in increasingly drought-stricken land, to city dwellers facing massive heat waves that were once rare but are now common, to people who live along the coasts and for whom flooding is becoming a regular and severe problem. Now climate change is here, and we are well past easy answers—changing out your light bulbs for newer, energy-efficient models is a good thing to do, and it will not move the needle on the magnitude of the problem before us.
Now climate change is happening, and our politicians who have spent my entire life denying that it was a real thing are now acknowledging that it is real, but there is nothing to be done about it. Climate change is a real problem, but there are no easy answers, so what can we do?
Yes, climate change is the poster child for our conflation of easy answers with right answers. But it is not the only place we do it. From massive problems facing our society, like immigration reform and income disparity, to problems much closer to home, like what does it mean to be the church in a world that is increasingly uninterested in religion, we are quick to throw up our hands when we find that there are no more easy answers to our problems and declare that nothing can be done.
Easy answers and the right answers are not always the same thing.
Joseph was looking for an easy answer. Mary, his betrothed, had revealed to him that she was pregnant. The news made him angry, but when Mary went on to tell Joseph that she had seen an angel and then shared what the angel had told her, well Joseph didn’t know what to make of it. He didn’t know whether to believe what the young woman told him, or to believe that she was crazy. He wasn’t sure which option was scarier, and either way, it was a bit too much. And when he thought about what the community would say if they found out, it filled him with shame and embarrassment. Joseph started looking for a way out of the whole situation, to get as far away from whatever was happening as possible. He was looking for an easy answer.
To be clear, Joseph was looking for an answer that would be easy for him. The solution he settled on was going to be anything but easy for Mary, who would now have to carry out the pregnancy very publicly and raise the child without the social safety net of her husband and his family. The best that Mary could hope for from Joseph’s easy answer was that her own family would take her back in and not force her and her child into homelessness.
Having resolved to take the easy answer, Joseph rested, he rested deeply, and he rested well. Joseph slept until none other than an angel of God appeared and set him straight. The angel appeared to Joseph and led him from the easy path to the right path.
Whether it is Joseph debating what to do with the news that his betrothed is pregnant, or our leaders debating how to confront climate change and any number of other pressing social concerns, or we ourselves facing problems that feel immense and insurmountable, there is a reason that we want the easy answer. In fact, the easy answers have a lot to commend them. They don’t require us to be vulnerable. They don’t cost us much, whether in time, resources, or money. They don’t require us to change what we have grown accustomed to—the patterns of behavior and life that make us comfortable. And they don’t open us to criticism, ridicule, or even worse.
And yet, for all their benefits, the easy answers are not the ones that God calls us to. God does not call us to do the easy thing because God calls us to do the right thing, and that is very often a hard path to walk.
Here is the interesting thing, though. When the angel sets Joseph on the right path, the path that he very much did not want to take, Joseph did not protest. He did not protest because the angel promised that Joseph and Mary would not walk this difficult path alone. God was with them. God would always be with them, and so what did they have to fear?
It was the good news that Joseph and Mary needed to hear. It is the good news that we still need to hear today. God calls us to do the hard thing, but we are not alone. God is with us.
We are facing many big and difficult problems in our world and in our lives. What is more, we have exhausted all the possible easy answers to those problems. But that does not mean that there is nothing to be done—do not give in to the temptation of nihilism!—it only means that the right answers, the right paths, are going to be the difficult ones.
But God is with us, so what do we have to fear? God is with us and leads us on the paths of righteousness. God is with us, so even though we walk through the deepest valley filled with shadows and the terrors of night, we have nothing to fear.
And when we no longer fear to pursue the right answers, to walk the right paths, imagine what we will find there. At last we shall set our eyes upon the kingdom of God, like a little child born into our midst on a cold winter night.
Preached by Adam Yates