1. The chance of a lifetime
2. Futility and majesty
3. The road to nowhere
4. Watching the world go by
5. In awe of his hand
6. In an ideal world
7. Losing it
The chance of a lifetime
Have you ever seen a miracle? Is it true that miracles happen? I wonder how many people believe they have witnessed a miracle?
Most often we think of miracles as things which are impossible, yet happen. But if something hugely improbable happens, we might also call that a miracle.
I do not gamble for money – I think for me personally it would be unwise. It is also true that the chances of winning Lotto are extremely small – in New Zealand, about one in a million for the top prize. If I did gamble, and won Lotto, and said, ‘It’s a miracle!’, few people would argue with me. Especially if they knew I very much needed the money (which I do not).
But we know that someone has to win Lotto sooner or later so, far from being a miracle, it is as good as a certainty. But what is a certainty for someone, we tend to consider a miracle if we ourselves are that someone. By specifying the winner as me, with my one ticket, I am back to the one-in-a-million scenario. We also tend to think of miracles as fortuitous. Outrageous misfortune is not usually termed a miracle, unless we harbour the most uncharitable designs for the one who receives it.
If I won Lotto twice, there would perhaps be more real justification for calling it a miracle. If I won every week for a year, I would probably be locked up for violating the laws of nature, or fraud. The sheer improbability of such a series of events would most likely be sufficient to convict me. DNA evidence is frequently presented in court on the basis of probability. At the very least, people would feel nervous standing by me – perhaps nervous with excitement if I had my cheque book out. And no argument now about the miracle diagnosis. Although mathematically it is not at all impossible to win Lotto every week for a year, and in fact no more improbable than any other of the millions upon millions of possible outcomes of a year’s Lotto draws.
Yet every week, every day, I witness a miracle. I myself am that miracle. It is a miracle that I exist. Because you see, not many people do. To have life, to be born a human being, is fantastically improbable.
Let us consider how many people have been blessed with the miracle of life. According to an organization called the Population Reference Bureau, in 2002 about 106 billion human beings were thought to have ever lived. That great authority, Wikipedia gives a range of estimates of 100-115 billion, up until about the present time (2011).
One hundred billion is a big number. Counting one number every second (which would be impossible when the numbers became sufficiently big, but most of us would give up long before then) it would take more than three thousand years to count to 100 billion. But in our world, our universe, how do we judge what is big, and what, consequently, is probable or improbable? 100 billion is only about a quarter of the number of stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way. And of galaxies themselves, it is estimated there are more than 100 billion in the universe, perhaps as many as 300 billion. Stars are vast objects, yet there are more of them than the all-time population of Earth multiplied by itself again.
Comparing people with stars, however, is a difficult concept. What about living creatures? Over-fishing aside, there are probably about thirty-five times more fish in the sea today than people that have ever lived. And many fish do not live very long, so over the course of time that is quite a few. But the number of people who have ever lived is only about one tenth the number of bacteria living on the surface of your body right now. Within your body, the number is ten times greater again: one hundred times more than all humans who have ever lived.
On a similarly personal level (though few things could be so personal as bacteria on your body) the number of neurons in one human brain, yours or mine – well, yours anyway – is about 100 billion, the same as our all-time population. In the context of our world, the number of humans to have lived is small, and to be born a human being is a rare event. And among creatures, if one were to be born, but it was left to chance of what species, to be born human would be at least a thousand times less likely than winning Lotto. It is a miracle. Though personally I do not believe it is chance. That is another thing about miracles – some kind of purpose or intent is implied.
Even at the point of our conception, when against all odds, the nuclei of our being struggled to unite in our creation, probably half a billion or more sperm competed with that one which, together with the ovum from our mother, initiated our being. If we regard that as a chance event, each sperm is 500 times less likely to be successful than you or I are to win Lotto. Referring to this fact, Tony Campolo pointed out that none of us has any justification for feeling like a loser. We already won the greatest contest of our lives, and an inestimable prize, a human life.
Actually the chance of being born a human being is beyond mathematics. It is possible to estimate the chance of one particular sperm fertilizing one ovum, if the number of sperm present is estimated, and if such things are considered chance. But personally I do not think human lives are drawn from some cosmic pool of potential like balls from a Lotto drum. To not exist has no substance, no count, no number, so neither it, nor it’s opposite – life – can be considered probable or improbable in a correct sense. But rare, yes. In the case of human life, unthinkably rare. It is a miracle.
So here we find ourselves, recipients of the greatest prize in the known universe. And though I have compared this most wonderfully fortuitous of events to the much greater possibility of winning Lotto, another factor makes it far more stunning. For this lottery I did not even buy a ticket!
Everything that concerns us in life, everything we worry about, is contingent on our being alive. Sometimes this is brought home to us by the death of a loved one. We realise the insignificance of the myriad aspects, circumstances, and endeavours of life, compared with the surpassing importance of life itself, once that life is lost to us. Yet none of us did anything to arrange our lives in the first place. The creation of my life, my being, was not my idea. I could neither prevent nor ensure the event. I did not even encourage it.
Having life, the most we can do to obtain what we desire, and avoid what we dread, is exercise capabilities which were given to us without any of our input. Even the valiant endeavours of the aforementioned sperm and ovum arose from their genetic design, and the similarly miraculous existence and procreative faculties of our parents and all those from whom we are descended.
I did not create my stomach or my desire for food, or hone the sublime abilities I possess to taste or feel hunger. I did not arrange the existence of food substances perfectly designed to satisfy my senses, my hunger and my physical needs. Buying or preparing food is merely obtaining and rearranging materials that I could not have imagined if they did not already exist. For example, what would the world be like without fruit? Who could imagine such a thing if there were nothing like it? And there is still nothing ‘man-made’ to compare with it.
I did not ask for ten fingers or ten toes, or the ability to laugh, cry, or love. I did not know I needed lungs suited to the atmosphere of my planet home, or eyes that would enable me to be filled with wonder, beholding this planet. Many creatures lack such eyes. (Perhaps they take equal pleasure in, for example, the texture of mud on the sea floor?)
Without such body and brain that I have I could not work, yet I go about arranging my career as if I alone am the architect of it. In fact I am the least actor in the drama, for neither what I am, nor what I can do, is of my doing. This, I believe, is what Jesus meant when he said, ‘you cannot make one hair white or black’ (Matthew 5:37). The ‘beauty’ industry has no doubt expanded its array of devices considerably since Jesus’ day, but I doubt that it was impossible to dye one’s hair even then. But we cannot change the type of being we have been given, nor did we in the first place request it.
‘We can at least keep fit,’ I imagine some would say. We can even change the shape of our bodies, decreasing fat and growing muscles (I tend to do the opposite but without any intention). We call this ‘exercise’. And that is what it is: exercising abilities we were given, and employing our body’s physiological response system, also designed and given to us without our input.
What would it be like to behold life, if one did not have it? (Excuse this excessive contradiction for now.) I imagine myself a child in outer darkness, face pressed to the perimeter fence of the most wonderful fairground, watching the great melee of dancing lights, colours, sounds, smells, the thronging people, shouts, laughter, crying, and all kinds of interactions, emotions, objects and activities. How wonderful would that fair appear! Even pain and sorrow might seem exquisite delicacies compared with the absence of all place and being.
But we are not excluded. We are the recipients of the most magnificent favour: the chance of a lifetime.
Futility and majesty
I remember a holiday once staying with friends in an old farm house at a place with the delightful name of Ruakokoputuna. After passing through small Wairarapa towns the road to the place entered more serious farming country, the lifestyle blocks fewer, then the farmland began to take on a marginal look. Backcountry land, scrubby, the fences in need of repair. Finally as our destination approached it was clear the pasture was giving way to regenerating bush.
The durable remains of great totara trees, which escaped the loggers but not the fires, lay or stood as monuments to ancient forest grandeur. Much sweat and toil was expended in the overthrow of that leafy world, no doubt some blood as well. Millennia in the making, the time to level it was as the blink of an eye in forest time; yet lifetimes were exhausted in the task.
Human lives – a generation? Two? How many eyes looked with hope on the slopes of this one valley, pictured choice pasture springing obediently to blanket the hills in a more domestic green? Did it ever get that far? Were there years when glasses were raised to the battle won? Did those same eyes first detect the turn back of the tide in favour of exiled wilderness, or was that the lot of a later generation to face the mighty truth: nature would win. Perhaps another lesser, mysterious process, the ebb and flow of money in a fickle and far-spread economy was the unlikely partner of the land’s first occupiers, the forest giants, in reclaiming their right?
It is seldom that one who achieves great success in worldly schemes is wont to say, ‘I was lucky’, or even, ‘I was blessed’. Not infrequently such will pay tribute to others who have toiled alongside them, graciously making space on the podium for the ‘unsung heroes’ of the work. But the message is clear: we got what we worked for – it is no more than our due. We were clever, we were diligent, and we reap the rewards. By implication, those who fail were foolish, lacked commitment or strength, and success was denied them.
‘Cease ye from man, whose breath is in his nostrils’, says the Lord (Isaiah 2:22). How can we, who cannot guarantee our next breath or heartbeat, look upon our achievements and say, ‘I knew it would be so’. We are but grains of sand, the forces around us as mighty and unpredictable as ocean waves by comparison. Cities come to ruin in seconds of a volcano’s blast. Civilisations wither as rains fail or enemies overwhelm. What of our schemes then?
Will I feed the nation if the crops fail? For most countries this means, if imports are withheld. Will I alone be fed while others starve? If an enemy comes against us, will I turn them back alone? Or with ten thousands of my fellow citizens if they number a million, or if they send against us devastating technology?
Our best laid plans are flights of fancy. None of us knows tomorrow, and seldom have we learned from yesterday. As I looked upon the bushy ruins of a Ruakokoputuna farm, I learned a little.
Nonetheless, as we need food and water, so we need work. Let us treasure our work, but not only its fruits. Work is both a privilege and a necessity denied too many in today’s world. Regimes whose authoritarian grip over their people seemed an impregnable fortress are toppled by the frustrated poor and especially the unemployed, or those whose work was rendered futile by restrictions. The desire for profitable work drives those to batter themselves against the violence of brutal and sinister security forces until the tide becomes unstoppable. At the time of writing, Tunisia is apparently a recent example of this.
That does not mean those revolutionaries demanded only to be more wealthy. They needed to labour effectively to that end, or to some end. They needed hope of progress or change, to have potency, no matter how small.
But in the popular world only the outcome of work matters – ‘unsuccessful’ work is considered useless. In reality this world is already an outcome. It is the fruit of God’s labour, his creation. We his people and our labours are a moving sculpture, an exhibition of beauty beyond the skill of any artist except the Lord himself. Work is a sacrament, we the priests to administer and receive it.
Seeing work in this light, the reason for our work, its purpose, and the way in which we work, take our focus more than the outcome. When we feel good about our work we take satisfaction in it, not only in work done.
But good work done well does have an outcome, and not only an uncertain worldly one. The apostle Peter, listing a number of qualities to be desired and attained – diligence, faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, and charity – asserts, ‘if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ How could Peter know this? He has not even said the reader should do anything, only how and why it should be done.
Furthermore in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he states, ‘our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.’ (2 Corinthians 4:17)
All of us suffer some affliction, but it may be news to most that it ‘works’ anything. Paul does not mention here what we normally consider work, but he does say that our attitude in affliction is important: an attitude of faith, focused on unseen things of eternity. This attitude, not work, brings the outcome. And what an outcome it is!
Jesus’ way is not a master list of things to do, a path of events or locations – at least not for our understanding. As Jesus prepared to die and to return to the Father he said to his disciples, ‘where I go you know, and the way you know’. Questioned by a bewildered Thomas he explained, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man comes to the Father but by me.’
Jesus’ way is a motivation, a reason, a means, an attitude, a way of approaching whatever comes our way, the little things as much as the ‘great’. Jesus himself is that means, the reason and the motivation.
The greatness of life is in its essence, not its achievements. The materials of life – people, and the created world – are so magnificent that no failure can deprive them of glory. Like sunlight – on anything. Like a sunset, the myriad moving, changing fragments of which can be chaos, a mess, with every type of incongruous shape, style and form jumbled together and against each other, united and glorified by one light shining on and through them.
The most significant and wonderful thing in life, and the great work of life, is living. Life cannot be wasted. Life itself is the most important thing we ever accomplish. It is far beyond anything we could attempt purely by our own efforts. The greatest scientists have no way of creating human or any life from scratch. It is beyond us.
A great irony is that while our lives are wondrous in themselves, this fact can be lost to us in the very act of living. Bathed in glorious light, we use that light to identify and find dissatisfaction in specks around us, forgetting the existence of the light itself and the great illumination of our world. It is ‘not seeing the wood for the trees’ taken to the most unthinkable and tragic extreme.
In the failed farm of Ruakokoputuna there is glory after all. Then, as those ambitious pioneers wondered at the forest, rejoiced in pasture and livestock, savoured toil, pain, rest, elation and resignation, reward and loss, and praised their Creator, as perhaps they did. Now, as we contemplate their work, and the magnificent resurgent forest, and praise him still.
The road to nowhere
It was reported in the news today, as I write this, that the singer Amy Winehouse has died at the age of 27. It had long been feared that her apparently uncontrolled use of alcohol and drugs might lead to her death. At the time of writing it has yet to be confirmed if in fact that is what happened.
Amy recently attempted a ‘comeback tour’ after her career was interrupted for some time due to personal problems. Recalling how the tour was called off after she was reportedly in bad form, mainly too drunk, in the opening show to give a reasonable performance, one of her associates had this to say: ‘everyone wanted to do everything they could to help her get back to her best.’
My impression is that those who held these apparently good intentions for Amy would not have considered ‘her best’ to be anything other than a continuation of the stellar musical career she had begun. And so a problem emerges: Amy’s ‘best’ was all about her performance. If not in her own eyes, then certainly in the eyes of those around her.
And what a performer she was! A stunning young talent who, unless incapacitated by substance abuse, could scarcely be less than magnificent if she tried. But where do you go from there? Even more powerful songs, better performances, bigger audiences, bigger sales? The fantastic becomes normal – where to then? It cannot be sustained. Because what was greatest about Amy – the woman herself – had been overshadowed. The imbalance grew ever greater, the foundation undermined, as those who knew nothing of her became engrossed in her works, the media peddled her public image as merchandise.
The irony is, the greater the accomplishments of our lives, the more those same accomplishments are liable to obscure the greatness of life itself in us. Amy Winehouse’s life was neglected.
The famous are idolised via the very pages in popular magazines that expose in their lives the same hurt, grief and turmoil that afflict us all. Why are we captivated by celebrity even while its superficiality is laid bare? Fame is unrelated to substance in life.
The satisfaction of a desperately poor rickshaw driver who receives a large tip is not less than that of a star performer receiving a standing ovation from thousands of fans. Exceptional success and achievement in the life of each is measured against their experience. And who can say that one has worked harder or is more talented than the other? Only God knows of what we are capable, what opportunity we have received, and who has ‘excelled themselves’. But the one at the bottom of the heap is elated with little; the one at the top of the heap can only eventually fall back.
Love, the greatest fulfillment, can be given and received to the utmost extent between only two people. A stadium of fans, if indeed they can love their idol at all, cannot exceed the love given by a single truly loving soul. Love is infinite, it is not limited by the numbers of those who love. The adored idol may find no true love at all. The best ‘known’ may find that he or she is not known well by anyone at all. All of us indeed are limited as to the number of people we can truly know, and we can only love whom we know.
In the material world we find ourselves assaulted by the same distortions that assault our personal and emotional worlds. The continual advertising of bigger, ‘better’ things – TVs, holidays, houses – denies the truth, that the wonder of life is in fundamental everyday things: a smile, a glass of water, eating an orange, a slice of bread – the simple experience of breathing, moving one’s body, seeing, feeling, and experiencing the world.
Advertising claims that richer, bigger, better, makes you feel better, but if you do not feel wonder now in the face of such astonishing everyday experience, then you have lost the ability to wonder. How then will bigger, better things fulfill you? The illusion that they are better soon fades, leaving a hunger for even bigger, even ‘better’. Even further from the truth, even more devoid of substance.
A well known rugby hero, coach and ex-player, who has suffered from depression, exhorts us that to beat depression we must take joy ‘in the little things’. This is the healthy and balanced view of life. It is delusion to think that big things will satisfy, if little things do not, for all things are overshadowed by the greatness of life itself, all filled with the greatness of the Creator of all, equally present in all events and circumstances, great and small. If we miss this in the small things, we will miss it in great things too; but the disappointment is far greater because of false expectations. Bigness deceives and distracts.
To find life’s fullness, God leads us not up, but in, to unlock his wonder and greatness in the smallest things – for he is ‘all in all’ – therefore nothing and nowhere is too small a place in which to find all of him, and there is no limit to him, and there is nothing and no one greater or more wonderful to find anywhere.
We look for more – God offers us more in the things we already have. We ask for another helping when we have taken only a couple of mouthfuls of the meal already on our plate. Our take on life is superficial, focused on what first presents itself as important, attested by the attitudes of unseeing millions of our fellow human beings, as we overlook the significance, meaning and sustenance offered by familiar objects, activities and people in our lives.
I have more than once heard it said, ‘God is interested in the little things that concern you.’ But what was really meant was (or maybe rather my own compromised understanding of it), ‘God is so loving and magnificently condescending that he gives consideration even to the pathetically trivial things that concern only you.’ But what Jesus teaches in the ‘Lord’s prayer’ is that the things we often consider trivial or mundane, or that we take for granted, actually are the most important. That is why we should pray about them.
Looking at this prayer, what do we find? ‘Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed by thy name…’ This is first: God is important. There is nothing trivial about that. If we do not get any further than that, everything will come into perspective, and we will have fulfilled our foremost purpose by ‘getting it right’ about God.
As for things which concern ourselves, food comes first. ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ When did you last pray to be fed? So long as we are fed, we scarcely give it a second thought other than, should we make chilli con carne tonight or buy pizza? The only way to really appreciate the importance of food is to stop eating for a while.
Food is an everyday miracle that slips under our radar. The ability of ourselves and our planet to produce and distribute food is tenuous. Every year millions starve. Food security is a growing preoccupation of governments around the world. The inevitability of being fed is an illusion, one to which Jesus was not subject. Water, oxygen, and heat are also ‘daily breads’. But this is really about God. It is about not forgetting that it is God who feeds us; it is therefore not inevitable, it is a miracle. Back to point one: God is important.
Having addressed the needs of the body, we turn to the soul, and our broader worldly circumstances. ‘God give me the intelligence and wit to succeed in my career’? ‘God show me the best way to improve my financial position’? ‘God make me attractive to those who gratify and excite me, those I depend on, those that make me feel good’?
None of the above. Sin – that is the biggie. ‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’ Sin – God get me out of it, and stop me getting into it. I forgive. Big things? Small things? No difference. Forgiveness is huge, always. Will it make things go well for me? That issue does not make it onto the priority list of the Lord’s prayer. Dealing with sin, however, comes before ‘deliverance from evil’, and whatever we think about sin, most of us do not want to be on the receiving end.
Why is sin a big deal? Back to point one: it is a denial of God, and God is important. It denies his holiness, and it is certainly not ‘his will done on Earth as it is in heaven’. Getting ahead of ourselves to the conclusion of Jesus’ prayer, it is also an affront to the kingdom, the power, and the glory of God.
Forgiveness? Just like daily bread. We sin so far as we breathe, day in, day out, scarcely knowing and seldom acknowledging it, and God forgives. And as with our food, we flick him a quick ‘cheers’ when we happen to realise and remember, and on we go. Every day of our life is given only because God has forgiven. Without Jesus’ sacrifice there is only death for us, the punishment for all our sins ‘big’ and ‘small’. The surpassingly important act of all history, Jesus’ sacrifice, is continually manifest in the ‘smallest’ things of our lives.
So this is the stuff of life: the very greatest of all things, all principles, all acts, and the greatest person, God, manifest and recognized in the daily experience of life, in basic needs, in all matters ‘great’ and ‘small’.
I must admit I have cringed a bit singing in church the Christian praise ‘hit’ God is Great, as I am informed it is a direct translation of Allahu akbar, a proclamation of Muslims which has particularly featured in western media as a popular saying of militants and terrorists. But it appears to be not a bad summary of the Lord’s prayer.
In fact, God only is great, and the challenge of our lives is to view the importance of all things great and small, not by their worldly popularity, but by their relation to God.
Watching the world go by
I have recently been having a ‘mid-life crisis’. To identify this has perhaps been a little more difficult for me than for most who suffer such a thing, as I also appear to have been having a whole-life crisis. Not that I have suffered more than most, but I have certainly made more of it.
I might have hoped having got in early, even from the start, with a substantial horror and bewilderment at the misfortunes and ineptitude of my life, that I would be spared the mid-life editions of such. Indeed I would approach it as an old hand, see it coming, bring to bear my long experience of trauma and chaos to head off the new manifestation even before it arose. But no – mid-life descended on me as a duck to water, as if my arrival at the phase had been long awaited, my peculiar susceptibility to crisis heartily anticipated.
I only live once, prior to a hoped-for eternity – yet it seems I have entirely failed to do anything exceptional with this present life at all. It is falling inexorably towards the great pile (and what a vast pile it is, how completely anonymous) of entirely unremarkable lives. What is worse, if my life is not to accomplish any memorable feat or notable contribution to humanity, I might have at least indulged to the greatest degree in things I enjoy in the present – but I have not! It appears my miserable toil has been guided not by personal pleasure or satisfaction, nor by any noble goal or cause, nor even by the providence of God – but rather by the callous, unrelenting hand of necessity. Well I suppose it was I who yielded to it.
So it happened that just when I began to feel it was high time I finally decided which major activities, purposes and objectives should characterise my life, I realised it had already been settled. The spontaneous jumble of attempts, mistakes and disasters, and limited successes of which my life has consisted to date, have set the course (or rather constrained it) without my intention or even awareness of the fact.
With difficulty I could start a new career – if could summon the energy and find time and resources to prepare and qualify myself for it. But I would only be old and qualified, no match for the young and equally or better qualified. Still I must provide for my own needs, and the number of other souls and causes I must consider has not declined throughout my life but increased. My record of mistakes and regrets made when I was sure and determined hardly prepares me to seize any new opportunity or goal now that I am weary and apprehensive. I know what I did wrong; I have no idea what I might do wrong next. The only mistakes I feel somewhat better able to avoid are those I have already made, not the vast hidden array of pitfalls which might await my dim and aging senses now.
Yet if I cast aside all caution and trepidation and determine to break out of my half-assembled coffin before it envelops me, I cannot escape the knowledge that it would better have been done long ago, nor the feeling it will not now amount to much. It is downhill from here. Whether I will jolt to a halt in the midst of decline, or ease to a stop as the slope levels far down at the latter base of my journey I do not know. Either way there is little I can do to prolong it, the end will not linger. What can I now make of my life?
In truth, mistakes, failures, and loss have a noble purpose in life, if and where their lessons find fertile ground. They are no elevators of our worldly self which the Bible terms ‘the flesh’ but they can make fine executioners. The life of worth begins where the life of self ends.
No being finds fulfillment in itself alone. Even our Lord finds fulfillment in the will of the Father, and in the people he has loved and purchased. The clamour of ourselves, our great plans for life, our agonies of struggle, quieten in the awareness that we are made by and for another.
As Jesus’ disciples battled a storm on the Sea of Galilee, and awoke their master from peaceful sleep to address their panic, his unfaltering acknowledgement of the Father’s provision and protection of his life is evident. (And this from the giver of life.)
‘Why are you fearful, o ye of little faith?’, he said, then calmed the winds and storm with a few words.
Why was Jesus not fearful? Because he could end the calamity with a word? But he had made no attempt, and then only acted to indulge the weakness of his friends.
Did Jesus not fear death because he had, he was, everlasting life? But Jesus still had an earthly life to live, and few circumstances in this life can be so important as its imminent end, or that of our friends, whether we fear it or not. That at least is worth staying awake for.
Rather, Jesus’ message is, The one who makes this storm also made you. You had no say in either event. He has also indicated a purpose for you, as you see from our present position here together in the boat. Will he then end your life by accident? He who created you – is he not able to preserve you? But if he choose that your life should end here, will you indeed prevent that? Whatever practical measures you can take here will not be decisive, so don’t lose sleep over it. But the one important thing you could have done – acknowledge that in all of this, God will prevail, and take comfort in the type of God he is – that, you have failed to do.
‘Without faith it is impossible to please God’, the Bible teaches. ‘This is the work of God: that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ (Hebrews 11:6; John 6:29.)
What we do reflects what we believe about God. We struggle to make something of our lives, yet the unsurpassed triumph which we did nothing to accomplish, and ultimately can do nothing to preserve, is our life itself. A great and successful life is one that unwaveringly acknowledges and proclaims this fact, and God, the author of it.
The concerns of life which distract us from our Maker are not all so dramatic as the disciples’ experience of the storm. There are also everyday dramas. Jesus taught that cares, riches, and pleasures of this life choke the seed of his word in us. Riches to save us from cares, riches that bring pleasures, and new cares that we might lose the riches and the pleasures. More demanding more; thorns in a field.
‘Dost thou not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?’, demanded Martha of Jesus, as Mary sat at his feet to hear him. This was not about work, nor the necessity of a meal – it was about Martha, though she, consumed in the service of others and of the Lord himself, did not see that. Worrying ascribes too much importance to the things which concern us, which is a symptom of ascribing too much importance to ourselves. Overwhelmed by necessity and decisions about what to do, and with doing it, Martha failed to notice Jesus’ majesty. How can we act when we see him not?
We are finite beings. Good things prevent better things by crowding them out. ‘One thing is needful’, said Jesus. Mary, who sat at his feet and heard his word, chose that good portion.
‘Let him that glories glory in this, that he knows and understands me,’ says the Lord. We cannot act wisely while unconscious of the fullness of God in everything. Watching, seeing God, knowing God, is more important than anything we do.
That is all very well, we might say, but if I favour some spiritual quest, the worldly demands of this life are not ready to let me go even if I should give up on them. Does the New Testament not also teach, ‘If any man will not work, let him not eat’?
And did not Jesus say, ‘If a man love me, he will keep my words’, and, ‘he that loveth me not keepeth not my sayings?’ Is this not about how we live and what we do – the practical stuff? ‘Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!’ – that was the message of John the Baptist, and subsequently of Jesus himself. To the soldiers: ‘do not extort money’. To the tax collectors: ‘collect no more than is due’. What is spiritual or supernatural about this, we might ask? This is nothing more than common justice, though surely our world often lacks it, and the message remains urgent. But it hardly appears to require much deep contemplation of God or the Bible?
Yet even John’s ultra-practical approach to life hung entirely on seeing the unseen: ‘for the kingdom of God is at hand’. How we see things, especially the unseen, guides every choice we make. It is the only reason we do things which are ‘right’ but do us no present good. It the reason John the Baptist said things which led to his imprisonment, then to his lonely and unjust death.
But to the patient, labouring Ephesians, the church of integrity and discernment, the Lord says, ‘I have somewhat against you, because you have left your first love’ (Revelation 2:4).
The Ephesians both obeyed, and laboured, and sought God, and as Jesus testifies, knew more of him than many. How exactly are we to labour patiently, bearing ‘the heat and burden of the day’, yet continue in the freshness of our first revelation of God, in his love?
Moses of the Bible is described therein as a man of passion and zeal and of mighty achievements. He had little taste for worldly success however, as he chose to identify himself with the oppressed Israelites of Egypt rather than bask in Pharaoh’s favour and the great opportunities that would bring. Yet after his flight in peril from Egypt was brought about by his own rash efforts to help his kinsfolk, he did not soon afterwards return in the power of God.
Apparently Moses was a relatively young man when he became a shepherd in the beginning of his exile. He was eighty years old when, after his return to Israel, he spoke to Pharaoh to demand the Israelites’ freedom. That is a long time for an impulsive man to lead his father-in-law’s sheep in the ‘backside of the desert’. It is a lifetime of labour, harder than most of us can imagine. And it made him no farming magnate – after it all the flock was still his father-in-law’s, and Moses still slept under the stars, or at most a nomad’s tent. Safe to say the reckless passion that characterised Moses’ early life was beaten out of him the hard way, the slow way, by daily grind. Yet when he came across the flaming bush that did not burn he said, ‘I will now turn aside, and see this great sight.’
Is that our frame of mind also? Do we turn aside to see the wonders of life? Or are we too weary and burdened to be bothered with everyday miracles? ‘Take time to smell the roses’ – do we? Do we take time to listen, even when we are in a hurry? People are the greatest wonders of creation – do we see the image of God in them? Do we have time for them?
Survival was Moses’ daily concern, he needed every ounce of his strength to accomplish it. But he would not be cheated of life’s wonders, else why bother to survive? Moses’ zeal for his own plans, his own achievements, his own life, had long since died a tortuous death; his zeal for life itself was keen and fresh. And in that remaining impulse – the impulse of wonder – began the Moses we celebrate: the leader of a nation, the miracle worker, the one next to God. For as he drew near the flaming bush there came to him the voice of God, ‘put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.’
Here then is the inner sanctum, the ‘holy of holies’: a moment of wonder in the midst of daily routine. Do we see it? Do we hear God speak? Or do we walk through the midst of it roughshod, desensitized and blind?
Yet for Moses, the daily burdens of his life were set to increase. For the next forty years he was driven to the brink by the recalcitrance and contrariness of the people of Israel. The Bible describes how the cares of Moses’ calling rode crushingly upon him, in the anguish of which he cried out to God, ‘Why have you afflicted your servant? Why have I not found favour in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Have I conceived all this people? Have I given birth to them, that you should say to me, Carry them in your bosom, as a nursing father bears the sucking child, to the land which you swore to their fathers?’
If Moses’ lifetime of desert labours as a shepherd did not curb his zest for life, surely his labours as leader of a nation should have. And when God called him apart into his intimate presence, one might imagine Moses would have had some reasonable requests: a new job, for example; a few comforts? Just a little peace and quiet? Maybe a holiday? Yet this was Moses’ request: ‘I beseech Thee, show me thy glory!’
Rather than being dulled by the everyday grind, which for Moses was the weighty grind of an entire nation, his keenness to experience the glory of God, which is the keenest of all keenness for life, was sharpened and remained fresh and full of wonder. The burden of his world did not consume Moses because it did not drive him away from God but towards God. God is in the storm, ‘a door of hope in the Valley of Achor’, and not just ‘in green pastures’ and ‘beside still waters’. There is a place at his feet in every place.
Moses according to the Bible was ‘meek above all people that were upon the face of the earth’. Moses kept things in perspective – he never made himself the focus, and though he lived a life of utmost service to God and man, he never let that service usurp God as his focus. Moses was the greatest of labourers, and truly he laboured for God, yet to Moses God was not a God of labour, but a God of glory.
And when Moses enquired by what name he should refer to God when speaking to Israel, God said, ‘I am that I am; say unto the children of Israel, I Am hath sent me unto you.’
Consider how else God might have identified himself – he is the Creator, the Saviour, the Lord; a thousand great titles are his. If God had wanted to identify himself with an act or a role, no one has greater acts or roles to use. God chose instead to identify himself as he is, not as he does. And so it is for us: being, not doing, is the basis of life. God is I Am. Therefore, ‘He Is’ is the title that should best describe ourselves. Everything we do, and everything we are, is to proclaim who he is, and that he is.
So here is an irony – just when it seems the great opportunities of our lives have passed, whether we made good of them or not, and we prepare to grow old – now the real calling of our lives, the door to the greatest opportunity of all is wide open, and in fact is only just coming into focus as our own self fades. This opportunity cannot be taken from us, because it is within us, and in everything and everyone in our lives: to see God, to know him who is ‘all in all’.
Like wheat in a field, as the rank growth of our youth hardens and then becomes worn, and mortality stakes its claim, nonetheless at this unlikely juncture the ear of grain emerges, and in it is revealed our purpose – the lasting fruit of our lives, ripening even as the leaves fall and the stem shrivels, until the promise of new life is all that remains.
In awe of his hand
‘Merge like a zip.’ One car from the right lane, one from the left, and so on. I let the car beside me in the other lane move across in front, then the next car from the same lane hustles up behind it to take my turn in the line. I hustle up as well, beginning to play chicken with my opponent as the lanes merge. My car is old and tatty, a clear warning to his shiny new SUV. It is obvious who has more to lose if we collide. He is wondering if I have any insurance. Furious, he relents. Relents? It was my turn anyway. Haha! I win! Justice is done. I taught him a lesson? Perhaps not.
There is something about detached interaction that nurtures offence. Somehow we feel less empathy for others when we are each insulated within our own vehicles, yet when treated rudely by other drivers we feel it just as keenly as if we were face to face. Emails are similar – we take them personally, but not long after we hit ‘send’ on our response, we realise we have added fuel to the fire with too strong words.
I taught my driving opponent nothing. I reinforced his behaviour by acting the same way myself. In fact, he taught me how to act, not the other way around. But I wanted to make things right. I was right! (Petulant stamping of foot.) I wanted to put him in his place. The right place!
If we can be infuriated by something so trivial as an inconsiderate piece of driving – or whatever it is that annoys you particularly – what about God?
God is perfectly sensitive. Much more, he is holy.
What annoyed me most about my fellow driver was that I was right and he was wrong. How dare he! But in fact we all make mistakes and drive inconsiderately at times. I may have been behaving better on that occasion (before I succumbed to ‘merge rage’) but it is not true that I am better. We are not talking good versus evil here, just fluctuating degrees of evil. A faint glimmer in the dark, soon extinguished, versus no discernable glimmer at all. Yet the supposed gulf between our attitudes was enough to infuriate me.
What gulf then exists between ourselves and God?
‘God is light’, the Bible teaches, ‘and in him is no darkness.’ He is right, always. He is perfect. How then does he feel about our wickedness?
We are made in God’s image. Everything we do reflects directly on him, like the way our own children’s behaviour reflects on us. We have done many things to cause our children to misbehave. We have inflicted our own failings on them from birth, and before, even passing our faults into their genes.
God has done nothing to cause us to misbehave. His conduct toward us is perfect. He has not only done everything he should do for us, but everything he could do for us, and he has done nothing wrong. He deserves absolute honour. How does he feel when we act like children of the devil? When we perfect the things he most loathes? And he loathes them not for selfish reasons, but because he knows those are the things which cause most suffering. How does he feel when we even deny his being, our own Creator? Or blame him for our vile and voluntary acts.
And if God should execute most just vengeance upon us, heinous offenders, vandals of creation, how perfectly and how instantly he could do it! Thine is the power! A cartoon image of a lightning bolt striking down we sinners springs to mind. I am sure I have seen or heard many such pictures painted. But if anything we are bewildered at the lack of retribution in the world which might be attributed to God. Even unbelievers seem surprised, and hold this up as evidence that God is not, yet still find it hard to shake the feeling that something is amiss.
If another driver’s inconsideration upsets me, how much more would even that small offence (and my retaliation) upset God? But he and I drove on, the road did not open and swallow us. Yet offences in the world today are more than upsetting even to dulled senses such as our own; they are stunningly evil. There is no point to catalogue such things. Take just one example from a few weeks back: a twelve year old boy mutilated and tortured to death over the space of several weeks by the authorities of law and order in his own home country. His crime: he attended a non-violent, unarmed protest, calling for democracy, because he was taken there by his father. One among hundreds, maybe thousands in the same wider incident. One among millions suffering extreme abuse in the world today. The suffering of women and girls beggars belief; no description I could give would be adequate, it seems evil even to describe.
Every person lives because God has ordained it. This applies to every person alive today. ‘He giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; and hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation’ – Acts 17:26. God does this in perfect foreknowledge of the character of every person; every breath, every heartbeat is by his command. His patience is staggering.
As we contemplate the awesome longsuffering of God – and how we ourselves are not dissimilar to those who most deserve his immediate and utmost wrath – it is an opportune time to consider our own response to such who fall short of our more arbitrary standards. The perfect Judge of the Universe forbears to act at this time, but you and I demand immediate and complete (or rather more than complete) recompense for all wrongs against our unworthy selves. ‘Thin ice’ is too generous to describe our position here.
When viewing one of our fellow offenders, first and foremost we need to see God. The image of God in their person; the longsuffering of God in their continuing, infuriating life and conduct; the patience of God in contemplation of their eventual salvation, and his own perfect, immutable justice. We need to show respect.
Once, trawling through the extensive meditations upon God and his Word found in Psalm 119, I came across what seemed an unlikely statement: ‘Great peace have they which love thy law: and nothing shall offend them.’ (Psalm 119:165.) It struck me that seldom had I encountered a less intuitively correct statement in the Bible. Are not they which love the law, God’s or anyone else’s, most prone to be offended by the breach of it? The apostle Paul said as much in his letter to the Romans: ‘the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression.’ The ‘wrath’ Paul associates with the law appears to me exactly the type of offence which Psalm 119 declares the lovers of God’s law to be immune to. So the law engenders both great anger and great peace.
At some point by the grace of God I found a new understanding of the above scriptural puzzle. The lovers of God’s law are not offended by the breaking of it, because they know that every single breach, from the greatest to the least, is fully answered for. The judgement of God is absolute, complete, and certain. From the inconsiderate driver’s conduct, to my inflammatory response, to the worst atrocities of mankind – everything, absolutely everything is known, and punished, in the most perfectly fitting way, not one fraction more or less than it deserves.
Seem unlikely? ‘Life’s not fair’ is a mantra we live by, and attempt to ingrain into our children to inure them (though it has the opposite effect) to the arbitrary and apparently unanswered grievances we encounter daily. But the punishment suffered by Jesus for our transgressions was not an arbitrary dollop of pain, or even simply the most he could endure, but the exact price of the entire offences of mankind measured to the smallest speck in spiritual dimensions we cannot comprehend. No wonder he ‘sweated, as it were, great drops of blood’ as he contemplated the task in the garden of Gethsemane the night before. ‘He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.’ (1 John 2:2.)
And what if those who offend against us are pardoned, not punished, because of this enormous, unfathomable saving sacrifice of our Lord? Should we who cast ourselves in desperation upon that same saving grace take offence that we also, who in any case deserve the worst that could be done to us, suffer at the hands of others? Rather this is the perfect opportunity to demonstrate the faith we claim to have, and blithely confess while it requires nothing of us, by celebrating the pardon of the unknowing and ungrateful, rather than trying to claim some recompense which we perversely consider to be ‘our due’. God help us if they and we get what we are really due.
Furthermore (this should cause us more dread than gladness) it appears from the Bible that those who reject the already complete and absolute payment by Jesus Christ on our behalf for our sins, still stand to pay in full for their own meticulously recorded offences. ‘And the books were opened…’ (Revelation 20:12.) Though, as none of us can offer the perfect sacrifice for sin, defiled as we are, such payment would never be complete. (This is also one reason why Jesus had to complete the payment for everyone, not just those who accept it, because otherwise the universe would have continued to groan under the burden of unanswered sin, even while the suffering by sinners for their own sins continued.) Either way there is no crime unknown, no offence unrecognized, no punishment incomplete, in the fullness of time. But to those of us who believe, God offers unmerited favour so much greater than mere ‘fairness’ as the heavens are above the earth.
Life at the very least is fair. God has made it so. And that even this would not remove his incomparable love from us.
In an ideal world
The title to this chapter is a statement of how the world is not. People use the phrase ‘in an ideal world’ to indicate that a particular scenario, while desirable, is unlikely to occur. Because our world is not ideal, it is far from it. That is conventional wisdom, and it does not seek far for evidence.
If the world is ideal, why are there criminals, and victims of their crimes? But if victims indeed have justice in heaven, does that make their present suffering ideal? And what about the criminal? How can the course of a criminal’s life, and the world that fostered it, be ideal?
Even without the perverse workings of human beings, the natural world apparently also leaves much to be desired. Were all the victims of the recent Canterbury earthquakes deserving of their fate? I have heard it preached that we are all deserving of such things, but if so, why were the rest of us spared? God is not only just, but the Creator of the natural world, yet earthquakes appear entirely destructive. It is difficult to reconcile an earthquake with any kind of ideal. But having raised the prospect that God’s justice is alive and uncompromised, that life is fair – where in the world today is that fairness?
Does the peace we have from knowing God’s ultimate justice, and forgiveness, rest only in eternity? Is the world today merely a chaotic forerunner to the main event, a heap of lego pieces awaiting assembly, each for their right place in the eventual, eternal design? Is there any merit in the current order other than the preparation, perhaps moulding of these same pieces?
A question I dimly recall from a personality profile questionnaire, part of some kind of TV contest or beauty pageant is this: if you could change one thing to make the world a better place, what would it be?
While there can be few forums more banal than a ‘beauty’ contest, the question is a fair one. Many of us would like to think we have done at least one good thing in our life, something to make the world better. It seems not uncommon for people to adopt some form of this resolve as guidance and motivation for a large part of their lives, either by career choice, supporting charity, or some other course.
A less likely question is this: can the world be a better place? Or, if you could change anything, should you?
In the book of Jude we read his exhortation to ‘have compassion on some, making a difference’ (Jude 1:22). That might seem fairly obvious advice to anyone who seeks good, but it is rare to find specific teaching in the Bible that we can do anything to make a difference to the world at large. We can certainly help to meet people’s worldly needs, such as food and shelter, even their desires which may well be good – but does that make things better? If so, why does God himself not shower food from heaven to feed the hungry, such as the millions in Somalia and nearby regions who are currently suffering in the famine? God is good, so if that would make the world better, why would he not?
To see the hand of God in our world we must recognize his holiness. This is not to say God will not touch our situation because he is too pure for us – ‘holier than thou’. Jesus proved once and for all that is not true by sharing a life like ours on Earth. Rather, God gives everything, himself included, its proper value. This, for want of a better phrase, is the divine economy.
Addressing the people of Israel in his day, Jesus put it this way: ‘The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with the men of this generation, and condemn them: for she came from the utmost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and, behold, a greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here.’ (Luke 11:31,32)
Jesus understood that every blessing demands a response of appropriate measure. ‘For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required’ (Luke 12:48). Even Jesus’ own ministry could bring a blessing or a curse depending whether it was received or rejected, as in the above examples. Therefore by the grace of God I can do good to others, but only their response determines whether I have made things better for them, or worse. Indeed some of the greatest characters of the Bible, and those of our world today, are not those who have received good, but evil, yet have themselves responded with good.
This economy of justice is commonly recognized in the news media and in everyday life. A recent example from the London riots is a man who, having lost his son to the violence, rather than pour condemnation on the rioters, appealed to them as a father to stop, and is credited with achieving exactly that. In other cases we may consider the deprivation and abuse previously suffered by criminals as some degree of mitigation for their actions, depending on our own philosophy.
With faith in the perfect justice of God, his divine economy takes on deeper significance. He is able absolutely to give compensation to those who have suffered evil, and to reward those who have responded with good. He is able also to judge, condemn, and punish those who have done evil, again according as they themselves have received. He can, and will right every wrong. Jesus’ own punishment for our sins does not subvert his economy, but fulfills it, without which we would all be ‘bankrupt’ when it comes to goodness no matter what we have done. Our world is grievous and tragic, yet there is no evidence it is not ideally suited to bringing out the best in every person, and more so in those who are more so inclined.
But indeed, did not Jesus change everything? Not just for himself, but for everyone? This is an important counterpoint to the arguments above about changing the world. Surely no one has done more to change the destinies of all people and all things, to ‘reconcile all things to God’, than Jesus? And he calls us to live as he did, so we are to be agents of change.
Jesus did change everything, though he was ‘the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world’ – his life and sacrifice were not unanticipated by God, and were the basis on which creation proceeded. But it is worth considering how he went about these greatest of works.
Jesus humbly submitted first to live a human life, relinquishing a heavenly one, then to persecution and crucifixion, a fate planned by others (though foreseen by God), a fate made inevitable by their blindness, hatred, and delusion, which he foreknew – God let all of that be – though he laid before them the genuine invitation and opportunity to choose differently, to choose good. Nonetheless Jesus chose his own actions entirely within the parameters set by the freewill of others, which they chose to exercise to the utmost evil.
Such was the purity, love, and sublime wisdom of Jesus’ actions, that he accomplished the salvation of the world, everything he wished in obedience to the Father, without requiring anything from anyone. Jesus changed everything, without changing anything, except his own life, which he lived perfectly and then laid down perfectly. He pulled no strings, forced no one, and relied on nothing and no one else but himself and the Father. He accepted the stage set by blind, wicked men, as the stage set by the Father in every detail.
During Jesus’ lifetime his native country, the promised land of God’s chosen people, was under the violent and unjust occupation of the Romans. Jesus alone had the power to change that. He chose not to, even as daily he saw his people oppressed, some of whom he knew personally and loved. Jesus recognized the Romans had no power to defeat or alter to the smallest degree the work of God in his people.
Are we able to accept our world in this way? Do we pray for the coming of God’s kingdom, or for something convenient for the time being? Do we pray that we might change, to become agents of change, or that things will change for us?
God accepts the world as it has become, not as he made it, but as we have made it, as we have ruined it, in which to accomplish all he does – and he does all he wishes. He does everything without blustering in and changing anything.
God accepts us not as we could be, not as he provided for us to be, but as we are, as we have chosen to be. And through us he can do anything, without even perfecting us first. His humility is so great that he respects what we have become, though it is not good, because it is our choice. His wisdom is so great that he works through us all regardless, without subverting our free will one iota. And because he does that, he is not less, but greater. ‘In your weakness’, he says, ‘my strength is made perfect.’
Indeed, our world is the best place that could be. It is the world we all have chosen, and God accepts our choice. But choose better, and the world will be better. Because it is then right that it should be better. Be changed, and the world is changed. And no matter how oppressive this world might become, it is always our choice who we will be. Believe in Jesus, because ‘this is the work of God, that ye believe in him whom he has sent’. This is what we can do to make the world a better place: live our lives in awe of his.
Much has been made of living like Christ, for example, the ‘WWJD’ slogan printed on badges, T-shirts and who knows where: ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ This is a useful reflection, but there are important differences between the roles and perspectives of our lives, and of Christ’s. He is the Saviour; we are the saved. ‘Thine is the glory’, it is not for us. He has completed the work, we cannot add to it; ‘it is finished’. He has fulfilled the law, we cannot fulfill it more, or even keep it. We are not Christ; we are Christ’s. We are not born holy of virgins; he is as high above us as the heavens are above the earth. It is not our holiness that glorifies Christ, it is his holiness and our salvation. Our ungodliness, acknowledged and lamented by us, glorifies him as much as any godliness we might aspire to by his grace. It is all about him.
Having then received this unspeakable gift of a human life, and having understood that it is all about God – how then should we live? Can I live as Jesus did, do the sort of things he did? In what way? ‘For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things’ (Romans 11:33). My life is of him, through him, and to him – how can I live for him?
Said Paul, ‘I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20). This is a saying of scripture which I suspect we Christians say or sing much more than we understand. It is memorable by its strangeness which becomes familiar, no longer strange to the ‘faithful’, thereby forming part of our Christian jargon and culture, bolstering our feelings of identity and security more than our spiritual understanding. We like to say odd things which no one else understands, omitting to understand them ourselves. What is apparent in the scripture is that Paul is describing a close association, a similarity, even a union between the life he lived and that which Jesus lived: a ‘crucified life’.
Jesus’ life, particularly his last years which are most described in the Bible, and his death, were completely countercultural. He was a misfit among his own people and the foreign occupiers. The religious authorities were enraged, his disciples bewildered by him. The population in general lauded him, then condemned him. He was utterly dissimilar even to those others condemned with whom he was crucified. If our lives are like Christ’s life (he ‘lives in me’) and death (‘I am crucified with Christ’) how can our lives fit comfortably in the unbelieving world in which he found no worldly place? How unusual are we? What is the mark of a ‘crucified life’?
I once felt that God gave me a message for a particular friend with whom I prayed occasionally while we studied at the same institution. I did not tell him the message – I did not dare. It was this: ‘I want to smash your life, to use the pieces to make a pathway for the poor to walk on.’
We were young then and expected great things of our lives, even if we were not sure exactly what. We were training for our future. (My friend was younger than I; I had already made a serious mess of my life, but I was still relatively young, I had changed and felt that great things were still ahead.) I realised then that there are very different ways to view the Christian life.
We can look at our life as a kind of ornament, a work of art, to be perfected and laid before God as an offering. Jesus, after all, lived a perfect life and laid that life down as the great sacrifice, the offering to God for all men and women. Accordingly we may go about constructing the elements of a good life: a wholesome family life, a successful career appropriate to our God-given gifts, some aspect of charity or service to the Church, perhaps full-time ministry, or in a voluntary or part-time capacity as we find ourselves gifted and called, a respected contribution to the community. This might be called the ‘mantelpiece’ approach to life – making a life that looks good, that is put on display for God, to please and honour him before others.
A problem with the ‘mantelpiece’ approach is that God does not view only the outside of our lives, the situation and circumstances we attempt to engineer around ourselves, the apparent success of our ministry or career, the health and state of our family, of our bodies, even our manner of work and the apparent form of our relationships to others. God sees also our inner life, our attitudes, and not only what we do and how well we seem to do but the reasons why we do things. ‘For man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart’ (1 Samuel 16:7).
However, it may be difficult for us to see how we can bring honour to God by a life which others take a dim view of. So living for God degenerates into living to impress other people, ‘good people’ like ourselves, people that others cannot easily fault, people that surely God must like? People whose approval and respect affirms in us the idea that God must also be pleased with us. Otherwise how can we be sure directly whether God is pleased or not? Whether he lives through us or not? And if we are still unsure, at least we have the benefit of a good standing with those that matter to us and whose standing appears to augment our own, which seems important for the time being, for our worldly success.
Yet there is another, greater problem with the ‘mantelpiece’ approach to life: ultimately it is all about me. It is my life that I am making for God (supposedly by the grace of God) and not only he but I am pleased with it. By contrast the life Christ lived and the death he died were not for himself, but for the Father, and in the will of the Father, for us.
The life Jesus lived did not look good, especially, one would imagine, compared to the glorious appearance of his heavenly life before (‘the glory which I had with thee before the world was’ – John 17:5). Though Jesus healed many people, was credited with many miracles and gained regional renown, Jesus’ ministry appeared unsuccessful in some important ways. He himself emphasized his message as most important, more so than healings or miracles, yet no one seemed able to get his message. He was universally misunderstood, even by those most faithful to him. Jesus also refused to exercise the political clout needed to relieve the immediate suffering of his people, Israel. This was not because such power was beyond him, but because he renounced it. Therefore his people, his beloved, including his mother, his family and closest friends remained oppressed and continued to suffer. Ultimately he himself was put excruciatingly to death, early in his ministry. Such an end is not normally regarded as the hallmark of success.
To many people Jesus looked not only unsuccessful but sinful, because he was at odds with the religious leaders of his day and because he associated with sinners including some notable ones (e.g. Zacchaeus; Luke 19). And because ultimately Jesus was crucified supposedly for evil he had done, though he had done none. But it looked bad.
Jesus Christ was blameless but he lived in disrepute. He was not put on a pedestal but on a cross to die, and was widely held to have deserved it. He lost everything of his life: his reputation, the faith of his friends and family, his wellbeing and worldly standing, every comfort, and ultimately life itself, which he laid down in obedience to the Father. And that is to say nothing of the heavenly life he lost in order to receive and then lose the earthly one. The problem with the ‘mantelpiece life’ is that unlike the life of Christ, it is a life lived, not a life lost.
People trying to construct an outwardly successful life are characterised by stress and aggression, either overt or subtle, even such forms of manipulation as a ‘charm offensive’, because the outward life is competitive and is limited partly by our world. We are each free to choose whom we make ourselves as we find ourselves able, but our collective environment is received and determined by us all, so it can be ‘messed up’ or obstructed by those around us. The successful path of others may cut across our own. We wrestle to dominate forces and fellow men and women around us to make our world conducive to our personal success, which by its nature limits the success of others.
There is only one Head of the Institute, so if that is a model of success you share with someone else, one of you will miss out. We in the ‘west’ are married to one partner, so if the partner who embodies and facilitates the success of your life and love is desired by another, one of you will miss out. There is only one winner of the tour de France, only one first to climb the mountain. And the market is only so big – there is a limit to how many cupcakes can be sold at the school fair, and if they are not mine, they will be someone else’s. Space on the mantelpiece is limited.
The idea that the possibilities and resources available to each person are not infinite or equally shared is so inconvenient to our preferred view of life, so damning to our lust for success (to the glory of God, supposedly) that widely prevailing myths have been created and perpetuated in defiance of this obvious reality of our world. One form of this myth is called ‘the American dream’.
There are as many forms of such myths as the number of people who hold them; I do not pretend to portray accurately here the beliefs of any individual, but rather a strain of belief which I suggest is widespread. The essence of this myth is that everyone’s fate is in their own hands – hard work and wit should and will be rewarded with success. Everyone should be able to ‘do well for themselves’, to ‘make good’. It is a basic tenet of this belief that no one has to miss out, everyone who tries will be rewarded accordingly, everyone can have everything they want if they only try hard enough to succeed (perhaps also in a way that pleases God, to the extent that one’s American dream is a God dream). Anything which limits the amount one person can grab is by definition wrong; anything which takes from one and gives to another (e.g. tax) is wrong, because that person could have it themselves if they only tried. ‘God helps those who help themselves’. It is not only unnecessary but even immoral to help others do better. God has decided their lot, so it must be just, perhaps in some way beyond our comprehension but who are we to argue? God is not only just but kind, so whatever they have must be best, or at least to give them more would be futile, otherwise God would have seen to it.
This image I am presenting of the American dream (which no doubt some will object to) addresses some practical needs of our worldly soul: it offers hope that we can get things we want in this life even when that would appear otherwise unlikely. God will see to it. We have a means – godly effort – to obtain favour from God for the purposes we desire, even when the scales may appear tipped against us. The American dream further banishes guilt from those who already have worldly benefits and wish to keep them at other’s expense, because these things are held to be the gifts of God and are already available in unlimited fashion to all who deserve them. The American dream is a doctrine of selfishness.
Much of the New Testament is a treatise of opposition to the American dream as portrayed above. We are to give, and those who give their last penny on which they themselves depend are most commended (Mark 12:42). “Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). If then the poor are already blessed, what could they have done to please God more, to be rewarded more, to have more now? Godly effort and sacrifice is indeed rewarded by God precisely and specifically, not in any arbitrary fashion – but a trade-off is indicated between worldly and eternal benefits. Those whose godly works are already publicly recognised may have no further reward (Matthew 6:1).
In doing good, worldly and spiritual motives are mutually exclusive, and in fact define what is ‘good’. God is pleased only by faith (Hebrews 11:6; Romans 14:23). But where worldly benefits are present, faith – believing in God in spite of all worldly evidence to the contrary – is excluded.
The American dream demands spiritual justification because its principles are not otherwise consistently evident in our world. There appear to be many who strive and fail, and others who succeed without trying. ‘Why do the innocent suffer?’ But as described briefly above, no such justification – the notion that in spite of appearances, God actually is giving everyone right now such material benefits as they deserve – is offered by the Bible. Lacking such means of reinterpreting the evidence, what is naturally evident is that the pie of world resources is only so big – we can collectively make it bigger, at least more available, but not infinite. The size of my slice limits the size of yours.
The resources of God the Creator are infinite, but if his people hoard what is already given (to fulfill our ‘God-given dreams’) we will only hoard more what is given more. What use then for God to impart infinite resources so that we might infinitely hoard while others still lack? The world has become a machine for extracting wealth from those who have less to increase the wealth of those who already have more. In response, rather than stoke this machine forever, God has set a day of reckoning (James 5:3-7).
The cynicism of the ‘American dream’ is that it denies the inescapable reality that some people are disadvantaged. To attribute this to the provision of a just God is simply to blame those people for their own misfortune. Jesus’ disciples asked the question: ‘who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?’ (John 9:2). The answer implied by the American dream is, ‘both of them’ – because in the American dream we make our own bed, and the size and softness of it represent the present justice of God. But Jesus saw only limitless potential where others sought blame. He replied, ‘Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.’ And he healed him (John 9:3).
The American dream is an outward dream, not an inner one. Our world celebrates outward success: the winner, the champion, the new year’s honours list. Faith on the other hand is ‘the evidence of things not seen’ (Hebrews 11:1). God celebrates the inner: the poor giver, the thankful sufferer, the faithful loser, the secret prayer.
The truly godly life does not always look good. Even the Father turned his face away from Christ his Son as Jesus carried upon himself our sin. If Christ’s own earthly life had been the focus, that should never have happened. It was, and will always be, a tragedy: the heart-rending breach of the perfect communion of Father and Son, now forever written in history. But the focus of Jesus’ life was not himself, but us, even as he was called by the Father.
The love Jesus had for us was the deepest, most powerful manifestation of the Father in him, even as the Father turned away from him. It was also the highest calling of the Father for his Son. Jesus returned to his Father as the owner of that love. He had paid for it with his own life and blood.
The inner purpose of Christ’s life, for which he sacrificed its outward appearance, was that he should embody the Father’s love for us, and save us. What then is his purpose for us?
The Biblical David had a passion for God which resounds to this day through his psalms, and was answered by the unique declaration of God: ‘I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after mine own heart, which shall fulfill all my will.’ (Acts 13:22.)
Despite his unique standing with God, David committed one heinous crime in his life: he slept with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his soldiers, Uriah the Hittite, and having failed in his attempts to cover up the act, he arranged Uriah’s death in battle. These offences became widely known and so destroyed David’s reputation. Neither did they bring honour to God: ‘by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme’ (2 Samuel 12:14).
One has to ask then, why did God let this happen? OK, it was David’s fault, but David was also a prophet who heard from God. Could not God have warned him? Furthermore, David was in the company of other prophets, through whom, after the offence, God had no difficulty in alerting David to the significance of his crime, to which judgement David also found grace to respond. Could not God have arranged this correction before it gave rise to the irrevocable offence? Could not simply some physical obstruction have been arranged in the line of sight between David’s palace window and Bathsheba’s bath, or however it was that the connection was made? And if one is to suffer temptation, one might hope that someone less than a femme fatale might be given the role of temptress, but it appears that David was less fortunate.
Next to Jesus, the perfection of the life of David must have held as high a priority in the purposes of God as the life of any who have ever lived. God was undoubtedly able to prevent the Bathsheba incident, but did not. This does not indicate a ‘mantelpiece’ approach to David’s life on the part of God. The avoidance of sin was not the highest purpose of God for David. The appearance of David’s life, David’s reputation, and by association, the reputation of God – not to mention the life of Uriah – were sacrificed for some higher objective. What was it?
God allowed David to fall into sin so that he would know the grace and forgiveness of God. It was not done lightly (and it was of course still David’s fault) but without David’s fall, the love affair between David and his God was incomplete. It included the false premise that David somehow deserved it, and so the greatness of God’s love remained unknown to him.
Jesus was born the perfect man, the Son of God. His purpose was to live the perfect life, voluntarily, even unto death. We are not born perfect, but sinful. Our purpose is not to live the perfect life, but to be perfected in our hearts. In this way our calling is different to that of Jesus. The sins of our life will be erased, but the product of our life – our self – will live forever.
God will allow all manner of good and evil in our lives in order to perfect who we are. There are aspects of the work of our perfection which must be accomplished in this life, in the presence of darkness and sin, where faith is possible, rather than in eternity. To accomplish this work God will sacrifice the appearance of our life, our reputation, and by association, his reputation, and if necessary our wellbeing and worldly dreams. It is not done lightly, but in his deep love for us.
If then outward success is no measure of our success with God, and if even a measure of torment and tragedy can be part of God’s plan, how can we know if we are indeed succeeding, and if the offering of our life is received by God, and pleases him? Are we blessed?
Detecting the blessing of God in our lives can be elusive, because those whose faith is great (and therefore please God most) are called to ever greater acts of faith, which means ever smaller evidence of God’s blessing, or even strong evidence to the contrary.
Ultimately you, yourself have to be happy with your choices and efforts in this life. It is no good to say, ‘God, I have done everything I thought you wanted, now bless it’. ‘We have piped for you, and you have not danced; we have mourned for you, and you have not wept’.
Rather than look for special circumstances in our lives to indicate God’s approval, the evidence may be much more immediate than we had imagined: we have life. How could that be, if God had not approved it? We have breath. Most of us have food (and even Jesus, the most blessed, went without that at times, so we should consider it a very special blessing indeed).
Does God wish us to consider the everyday realities of our lives – our bodies and the basic things they need to operate, and ourselves, and the essential experience of life, and the company of others – as indicative of his special favour? I believe he does. This is the correct way to view our everyday experience and nourishment – to give thanks. Jesus teaches us to ask for these things, not take them for granted. He gives the example of God sending his rain on the just and unjust as a ‘blessing’. Indeed, if we do not have God’s approval, yet he blesses us with these things, how much greater is his grace toward us, how much still we should rejoice in it!
The gift of our life, and the things we need to sustain it, is a continually heartening sign of God’s pleasure and purpose in our being. If it were not so, we would not be. (That is not to say that those who have died have lost his favour – death visits all sooner or later, and is no indictment on the just.) But to live for the approval not of God but of others is sadder still than to live for God’s approval and fret over whether we indeed have it.
If we cannot rejoice in the life we have it is probably not being lived for God. Better to take liberties and heartily thank God for his grace than to live in austerity and resent God. (Better still to live godly and praise him.) How would you prefer your children approach you – with disobedience and heartfelt love, or obedience and resentment? This is the purpose of God, that we might know him, know his love, and ultimately return his love, and only then to keep his commands. ‘If you love me,’ Jesus said, ‘keep my commandments.’ (John 14:15).
Living godly and happily requires realising what a profoundly good idea God’s will is: to ‘understand the good, pleasing and perfect will of God’. To know that God’s will is his most tender and selfless commitment to our greatest eternal blessing. His purpose for us in this life is that we might love him in the next.
‘He that loses his life for my sake shall find it.’ (Matthew 10:39).