Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking chronicles her grief in the year following the unexpected death of her husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne. Perhaps the bleakest moment in that chronicle is when she quotes her late husband, stating with hopeless finality that “no eye is on the sparrow.”
Though she probably didn’t intend it as an insult, the words jumped off the page at me like a slap. It was such a blatant contradiction of everything I believe to be true. Later, it occurred to me that Didion’s statement sums up our own struggle as people of faith. When life is bleak beyond imagining, what do we really believe? What do we think is going on? Either God’s eye is on the sparrow or it is not. Either God really has counted every hair on every head or he has not. Either Jesus knew exactly what he was talking about when he spoke of God as a loving and forgiving Father or he did not. It’s as simple and as hard as that.
When life is going well, it’s easy to assert the truths of the gospel. But when we are overtaken by crushing sorrows or mounting difficulties, what do our hearts tell us then?
Most of us can remember times when God came through for us in the midst of great difficulty. Let’s not forget the evidence of his faithfulness when new challenges arise, giving in to fear rather than drawing on faith to sustain us. Let’s let times of suffering strengthen us rather than weaken us, trusting that God knows how to get us through.
We know the havoc hurricanes can wreak on human life and property. But what about the damage to sea life? Though countless fish may perish in any given storm, some have an uncanny ability to survive. Researchers in Florida have followed the progress of tagged sharks that swam into deeper water just prior to the onslaught of a hurricane. How the sharks knew what was coming is uncertain, but scientists believe they may have sensed changes in barometric pressure, which in turn affects hydrostatic pressure. Some sixth sense enabled them to swim to open waters to avoid the worst of the storm.
This strategy of moving into the deep when storms approach suggests a spiritual strategy for our own lives. We need to deepen our lives with God when we face challenges of various kinds.
Longfellow once famously wrote that “into each life some rain must fall.” But anyone who has lived for more than a few years will recognize this as a terrific understatement. For many of us, the storms that come, whether emotional or physical, will be prolonged and difficult, testing the limits of our strength. At such times, it makes sense to flee to safety, to the deeper waters of Scripture, prayer, obedience, and fellowship with other believers.
Seasoned fishermen have repeatedly noted that some fish seem to feed more aggressively just before a storm, as though they sense that food will soon become scarce. If we live our lives in preparation, feeding on God’s Word and living in alignment with it, God will enable us to survive whatever storms may threaten our peace.
A wonderful future awaits those who love peace. (Psalm 37:37)
Though most of us think of God’s promises in positive terms, as we should, Scripture is full of promises that sound frighteningly negative. These reverse promises serve as warnings for those who show little regard for God and his ways.
The first promise for today, from Psalms, is one you can build on. It’s like bedrock for those who belong to Christ and pursue his ways. But what if you are doing just that and feeling anything but peaceful? Notice that Psalm 37 promises a wonderful future but not necessarily a wonderful present. Every life holds challenges and sorrows that must be endured with faith and trust. At such times we can cling to this promise from Romans: “We know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them” (8:28). We will all know times of peace and times of difficulty because we are not yet inhabiting the future God has promised.
But for the wicked, Isaiah proclaims, there will be no true peace. How could there be, since peace comes from knowing God and from trusting him enough to obey him? A life in perpetual rebellion is a life in perpetual turbulence. Though things may look peaceful on the outside for a time, on the inside things tend to fall apart because there is no central core to hold us together.
The peace we long for depends not only on God’s promise but on our obedience. Step by step, as we place our trust in Christ, doing what we know he wants us to do, we can be confident that we are moving closer to the wonderful future God has promised for all those who love peace.
Is wholeness just a buzzword, something to describe a therapeutic goal or a proclivity toward health, as in Whole Foods Market or whole-body workouts? Or is there more to it than that? Remember that the Hebrew word shalom, often translated “peace” in English translations of the Bible, can also be translated as “wholeness.” But what does it mean to be whole?
Perhaps we could get an idea of what wholeness means by looking at the polar opposite. Let’s go back to the story of the man whose mind and soul were so devastated that he was living in the hills and among the tombs along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, a constant danger to himself. Here’s how Mark’s Gospel describes the scene. Jesus has just arrived with his disciples. Intent on delivering the man, he commands the demon to identify itself, and he gets this reply: “Legion, because there are many of us inside this man” (5:9). A multitude of demons infesting the man, each vying for space inside him, fragmenting his soul and shattering his mind.
To be whole is to be the opposite of this ruined man. It is to be complete, unbroken, sound in body, soul, and spirit. It is to be as God intended you to be before sin came and wrecked everything—including you.
We know that Christ restored this man to his right mind. If he was able to do that for such an extreme case, why do we doubt he can help us? Scripture tells us the peace of Christ rules in our hearts when the word of Christ richly dwells within us (see Colossians 3:16, niv). The word richly implies fullness, abundance. If Jesus is not richly dwelling within us, something else will be—conflict, worry, strife, bitterness, anxiety, greed, guilt, envy, anger, lust. A thousand things can fill us, crowding out the life of God and creating divisions within our souls. No heart is perfectly unbroken in this broken world. But we can be confident that the heart set on Christ, committed to living by his Word, is being restored to his likeness and kept in his peace.