A Plumbline in the Wind

The world is going to the dogs, but I refuse to learn to bark

A Plumbline in the Wind Near Lauder, Scotland: Sheep on a hillside

Look at the hippopotamus

30 August 2007 · No Comments

Astronomers tell us that the earth goes around the sun, which is located in one arm of a huge galaxy.  It’s not at the center or on the edge, but somewhere in between.  But we don’t see that.  To us, it looks like we are at the center of a vast globe of stars.  That’s how the ancients saw it: a great sphere of the fixed stars.  We look up into the sky and see constellations, patterns of stars that appear to be in groups.  There is Orion, for example–a familiar arrangement of stars in an oblong with three in a line along the middle.   There are stars which are neighbors of one another in the sky–except they aren’t.   Some of them are farther from one another than they are from us.  Some are at vast distances from us; others are at inconceivably vaster distances.    If we were anywhere else in the galaxy, we would think it absurd to put these stars together.   We think of them as near one another because they line up together from our perspective.  The reality, however, is unimaginable to the human mind.  Scientists put numbers on the distances–so and so many light-years, so many trillions of miles–but no one can actually picture the real distances. 

Life is like that.  Each of us thinks he is the center, but in fact we’re all on the edge.  We see things happening around us, and we try to make sense of the patterns.  But the sense belongs only to God.  We can’t grasp it, not because we haven’t tried hard enough, or because God is withholding it from us, but because there is no place in our minds for it.   People ask, “Why?” especially in the face of suffering or difficulty.  Why does one man prosper and another struggle?  Why are children born with handicaps?  Why is a good man struck down in the prime of life?   Any answer we suggest is as much an illusion as the constellations in the night sky.

This is something to bear in mind when we are called upon to give comfort, even to ourselves.    Looking around for a reason is never going to be satisfactory.   Maybe God is trying to tell you something; certainly He is calling you to have faith in Him, not in yourself or the world or the answers that human beings can give.   Too often have I heard exhortations to “have faith for” something, when the important thing is faith in God. 

That’s the lesson of Job.  I once summed up the Book of Job as “Job says, ‘God, I’m miserable’ and God says ‘Look at the hippopotamus.'”  Job asks “Why?” in the face of suffering and loss.  His friends try to answer–how often have we done just what they did.  When God answers Job it is with His own nature and power:  He created the world; Job didn’t.  That doesn’t sound like an answer to the question, but Job is more than satisfied.   Then God turns to the friends, the ones who had all the answers, and tells them that they have “not spoken of me rightly, as my servant Job has done.”  They were trying to defend God, but in defending Him they reduced the Creator to their own little pattern: an illusionary God, a limited God, an idol.   Job wanted more, and he got what he asked for.   

It’s not that Job knew nothing about God: he knew that God is just, but he was made to realize that God can’t be justified, because He is the source of justice.  He does not conform to us; we conform to Him.  We talk about Him in analogies, but in reality we are the analogy.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Look at the hippopotamus.  Can you make one of those?   Try to come up with an answer, but it will sound like an empty platitude–because it is.  The real answer is a reality beyond human comprehension, compared to which the solid earth is tenuous as a dream.  

Tags: Spirituality · Theology and scripture

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