Monday, January 29, 2018

A Bright Thought for a Brisk Winter Morning

Life is affliction.

Too dark an opener? Maybe. But it’s true.

It’s too short for one thing, gone before we fully appreciate it. “Dust”, says Moses. Like a dream. We wither like grass. We are swept away like a flood. Seventy years on average. Eighty maybe, if we’re unusually robust. Almost nothing. At some point after we enter this world, we discover that death is a universal reality. From that moment on, the spectre of our own imminent demise and that of all those we love hovers over, informs, taints and affects every moment of our lives. Affliction.

The Burden of Existence

Further, because of sin those years primarily consist of what the old prophet called “toil and trouble”. The wrath of God is upon us not just because of our individual, secret sins, but upon our nations, upon our entire species and even upon nature itself.

Consciously bearing the burden of existence in a fallen world is a terrible thing. It’s quite literally affliction.

On top of that, Moses says, no matter how privileged our situation, we are bound to see evil at some point. It’s not just that we are sinful by nature, transgressors in practice and have hearts full of iniquity; but everyone around us is in the same boat. All our social projects, organizations and institutions are eventually tainted with the same corruption. At some point that evil is bound to impact us in a very practical way.

Affliction and evil. What a combo.

Jacob summed it up for Pharaoh: “Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life.” Too short, and riddled with misery.


A Two-Gallon Cocktail of Affliction

As a teenager I thought that line a little dour. Today it seems to me simply an unusually frank admission of the facts on the ground.

And why not? This is a man who wrestled with God his entire life, sometimes literally, and walked with a permanent limp because of it; a man who lived with the consequences of having been a liar, a manipulator and a fraud; a man who had divided his family and whose own family became bitterly divided; a man whose wives engaged in perpetual one-upmanship and made chaos of his home.

This was a man whose children injured one another, disappointed him, lied to him, damaged his reputation and committed terrible wrongs; a man who worked hard, hot days under the sun; who was cheated multiple times by a scheming uncle for years on end; whose daughter was raped; who grieved bitterly for his beloved son and wrongly believed him dead for over two decades; whose latter years were times of famine and who had to relocate hundreds of miles at the age of 130.

Having been both a chronic deceiver himself and the regular victim of deceit, Jacob almost surely lived in a state of suspicion and perpetual angst as he watched the machinations around him and wondered what new misery, payback or moral misstep each day would bring.

There’s two-gallon cocktail of affliction and evil for you, and that’s not the half of it. Jacob understated the case if you ask me.

Into the Cocoon

Now, we don’t all go through that, thankfully. But some of us do, and some of those who think they don’t are either not paying sufficient attention or just haven’t arrived at their own ‘Jacob moment’ yet. Today’s world has enough distractions available that cocooning yourself in them can provide a momentary delusion of accomplishment, engagement, validity and purpose — that is until your stock portfolio vanishes on the next Black Friday, your wife has an online fling, you get that cancer diagnosis, your boss decides to replace you with a younger model, or you crash your Mercedes on the way home from the bar and wind up in court for a year.

Notice them or don’t, but evil and affliction will eventually notice you.

But in writing Psalm 90, Moses was not just concerned about pointing out the condition of mankind post-Fall, or even about teaching us to number our days in light of it. The one is a necessary reality, the other a salutary lesson, but neither is truly the end of the story.

Make Us Glad

So Moses appeals to God:
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be shown to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.”
Moses is not asking that God remove all evil and affliction, but that he “make us glad” in the midst of it all. There’s real wisdom in this. How we process evil and affliction is vastly more important than how much evil and affliction we encounter.

These two sentences (verses 15 and 16 of the psalm, quoted above) are not unrelated. Gladness amidst the affliction of life is a product of revelation. If only occasionally, suffering people need to see the glory of who God is and what God is doing, and draw strength from the knowledge that he is going to keep doing it into the next generation. In understanding that, we find meaning and purpose in the greater events of history and corresponding meaning and purpose in the lesser events of our own lives.

But revelation is a product of something else.

The Inside Scoop

That something is service.

It’s only the “servants” to whom God is inclined to show his work and his glory. It’s only the obedient who get the inside scoop. The onlooking unenlightened simply misattribute God’s works to the operation of the natural universe or the luck of the draw. They wouldn’t recognize his glory if it smacked them full in the eye sockets, which it does regularly. It’s only the servants that get it.

As God once remarked to a pair of angels traveling incognito:
Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.”
The answer to that question is a resounding no, so Abraham, set apart for service and obedient to the call of God, was shown both the work of God and his glorious power.

Likewise Moses himself was commended by God as a servant with whom he shared trade secrets on a regular basis:
“With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord.”
But most of the Israelites who followed Moses through the wilderness never saw what Moses saw. Thus their faith faltered and their hope and joy came and went with circumstances. That’s a sad way to live.

Serve Now, Understand Later

The same principle still operates today — serve first, understand shortly thereafter:
“If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.”
The same thought-thread winds its way through Paul’s second letter to Corinth: 
“As servants of God we commend ourselves … in afflictions … sorrowful, yet always rejoicing … having nothing, yet possessing everything.”
The big picture about God’s plans and purposes is only visible to those who take the risky step of obedience, putting themselves in the place of willing service to God. It is only with that kind of solid foundation to our lives that the evil of the world is mitigated — no, eclipsed — by a God who makes us glad for as many days as we are afflicted.

There’s a bright thought for a brisk winter morning.

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