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Of Traffic Lights and Tuis
Do you ever have times when you feel that somewhere, somehow a conspiracy has been hatched at your expense? Like when you're in a desperate hurry to get somewhere and every single traffic light turns red just as you get to it!
This kind of experience can lead people to mutter, "Somebody up there doesn't like me!", reflecting a notion of a God who plays favourites in the way he orchestrates life's happenings.
But traffic lights is a trivial example. Lately I have met several people who have been struggling with more serious issues, and are grappling with the question of how God is involved in our life circumstances. People who have prayed about worrying family issues and not seen any improvement; people who work in difficult countries and are asking why God seems not to intervene in situations of poverty and injustice, while back here their friends praise the Lord for the provision of car parks. As someone put it, "OK, God may very well be good, but what good is God?"
f course, when things go unexpectedly well, and the things we hope for fall into place, then the issue of God's involvement is less problematic! It is natural then to give thanks for God's goodness and grace. But many of us are less certain of what to make of ongoing adversity in relation to God's involvement in our lives.
We find it harder to affirm God's goodness with conviction when life seems to be against us. And if we tend to identify God with life, we may even begin to feel at such times that God is against us, as Job did: "Know then that God has put me in the wrong, and closed his net around me."1
Brennan Manning highlights the issue using a short story by Flannery O'Connor, The Turkey.2 The main character, Ruller, is a lonely boy for whom nothing ever seems to go right. One day he chases a wounded turkey in the woods, imagining the way his family will look at him so differently when he marches in the door with the turkey slung over his shoulder.
Ruller finally does capture the turkey and interprets it as a generous intervention by God -- perhaps even a sign that God wants him to be a preacher. With a heart full of gratitude he gives his only dime to a beggar woman he meets as he floats toward home. But with some way still to go he meets some boys who steal the turkey from him.
Ruller is devastated. As he continues on his way home, he notices that darkness has fallen, and begins running home, filled now with a sense of fear and sure that Something Awful is at his back.
Ruller is a stark example of the way our feelings about God are often tied to life's twists and turns. When our prayers are answered and our hopes are realised, we sense God's benevolent interest in us. We feel close to God, blessed, and generous in spirit. But faced with ongoing losses, setbacks or unanswered prayers, it is easy to feel rejected, let down or even betrayed by God.
hese issues embody big theological questions, but I suspect that for some people the core problem is not so much theological ("God may very well be good") as relational. They wrestle with a painful sense of personal disappointment in God. The lack of intervention on God's part raises doubts at some level as to whether God has any intention of exercising his goodness for them or those they care about ("what good is God?").
Author Henri Nouwen, by his own account, faced a number of intensely painful personal struggles. As a writer of many books about prayer he naturally prayed often about these difficulties, but they were not taken away. He acknowledges that, in the light of the way things are in the world, it is not surprising that many people feel cursed rather than blessed.
Without realising it, some of us choose to live our lives under "the curse" -- to live, in other words, with a belief that we are in some way undeserving of God's attention, disregarded by God, or afflicted by God. The pain of living with the unanswered "Why?" or "Why me?" of life's difficulties means that "we are easily seduced into connecting the events over which we have no control with our conscious or unconscious evaluation . . . it is very tempting to explain all the brokenness we experience as an expression or confirmation of this curse."3
In contrast, Nouwen points us in the direction of God's blessing. The Latin for the verb "to bless" is benedicere, related to our English word 'benediction'. To give a benediction, a blessing, to someone is to speak (dictio) good (bene) words over their life.4 In the New Testament, God's blessing is summed up, spoken and imparted to us in Christ, the Word.5
Thinking about this, it struck me that through our adoption as his brothers and sisters, we partake in the blessing spoken over Jesus at his baptism -- in him we too are declared to be God's beloved sons and daughters. Using the Message paraphrase, we can hear this blessing on our lives, this affirmation of our identity in Christ:
You are my son/daughter,
chosen and marked by my love,
delight of my life.6
As Henri Nouwen points out, it was this blessing "that sustained Jesus through all the praise and blame, admiration and condemnation that followed . . . Jesus never lost the intimate knowledge that he was 'the blessed one'."7 This deepest blessing -- our belovedness as children of God -- is independent of good times and bad. It speaks to the core of our being, to the core of our need to know that we are known and loved.
The invitation, then, is to live as Jesus lived -- by bringing the whole of our lives, including our disappointments, confusion and brokenness, under this blessing.
Living under the curse is a self-reinforcing cycle of negativity and disappointment. It won't be broken by a reversal in the external circumstances of our lives. That would simply leave us vulnerable to the next setback or disappointment. Like a child pulling petals off a flower, the shifting external circumstances of life will have us saying, "He loves me, he loves me not. He loves me, he loves me not."
What will truly sabotage the curse mentality, says Henri Nouwen, is the choice to keep placing our lives under the blessing of our belovedness. To hold on to this truth, despite what the ups and downs, the successes and failures, the joys and the disappointments do to our feelings: "when we keep listening attentively to the voice calling us the Beloved, it becomes possible to live our brokenness, not as a confirmation of our fear that we are worthless, but as an opportunity to purify and deepen the blessing that rests upon us."8
utting our lives under this blessing also helps open our eyes to evidences of God's blessing in a wider sense. When we tie God's goodness to specific answers to our prayers and concerns, we easily miss the expressions of grace that are available to us in other ways: through Scripture, silent prayer, the gifts and parables of creation, the care of a friend, or the glimpses of beauty and grace which can surprise us even in the most unlikely circumstances.
My most recent experience of this came in a period of significant personal disappointment. Just at this time some tuis decided to come and celebrate the arrival of spring in our garden. For a while, in an unexpected way, they were my most meaningful connection with God, along with care and friendship of a human kind.
Of course, their arrival did nothing to change my circumstances, but their carefree songs, their beauty and their tolerance of my watching presence were life-giving. They lifted my heart. They were a gift. And I received the gift as a token of our creator's delight in his creation, including me, his beloved.