Let Tragedy Find Us Living
A line in the book of Job detained me: “The thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me” (Job 3:25). The chief fear arrived. The one that kept him up at night found him. The worst to visit his imagination befell him.
As a result, he welcomes death, but it tarries. He sighs and moans in anguish, cursing the day of his birth (Job 3:1). Arrows from the Almighty sink into him; his spirit drinks their poison (Job 6:4). He finds no rest in the rubble (Job 7:4). His eyes search and see no good (Job 7:7). He loathes his life, and is glad not to live forever (Job 7:16).
Few things in life can lay us this low.
I imagine the dread that caught him was the death of his ten children. Of the few glimpses of him before his misery, we see his fatherly concern for them, continually offering sacrifices on their behalf. “It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts” (Job 1:5).
Perhaps he feared that he cared more about their sin than they did. Perhaps he now lay buried beneath sorrow because they very possibly died in unbelief. Regardless, this father of ten lost all his children in one day, and this horror strangled his will to go on.
In a World of Threat
What do you dread? What would have to happen for you to say, “What I have feared has come upon me”? Having your mother die of cancer? Never finding a spouse? Discovering your wife has committed adultery? Seeing your parents get divorced? Hearing the specialist say that your child will not have a normal life? Witnessing a child die apart from Christ?
Fears that I did not know as a single man have crept upon me: losing my wife, or one of our children. As a family man, I realize how much more vulnerable I am to new depths of pain. The drawbridge of my heart has lowered; calamities and despair have more inroads now.
“The line between my life and Job’s rests upon a spider’s web.”
The line between my life and Job’s rests upon a spider’s web. The worst case can arrive in countless ways. Car accidents, disease, a fall, a crash, a swallow, a moment’s lapse in judgment. Chaldeans do not need to raid and destroy; violent winds do not need to collapse the house to make me know Job’s anguish. A run into the street, a doctor’s phone call, a fall from the slide, a toy in the mouth can bring my world down — at any moment, in any place, by nearly any means.
Paralyzed with Peril
Before Job lived in a world of sorrow, he lived in the world of what if. . . “The thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me” (Job 3:25). He dreaded before it came, feared before it actualized.
I do not wish to usher you into this world if you’ve never thought this way. But I know people who live in this world, one I am tempted to frequent more than before. A world where catastrophe lurks; a world that envelopes like quicksand: If I can just envision how my life could crumble, I think, maybe I prevent it, or at least inoculate myself against some of the sorrow.
The story of Job teaches us that neither works.
As he sits, cutting his boils with shards of pottery, his anguish reminds us that no degree of dread beforehand can avert our greatest fears. And imagining them beforehand does not ease the pain should they arrive. The anxiety, the fret, the darting eyes to and fro cannot do as we often hope. As Jesus asked, “Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matthew 6:27) — or, he might add, to the lives of those we love?
Help for Panicked Hearts
How are we to go on living in a world where risks threaten us at every turn? I have found three answers from C.S. Lewis helpful to navigate through this dangerous and unpredictable world.
Writing amidst World War II — in a time when explosions demolished cities and citizens knew any day could be their last — C.S. Lewis answers the question, “How are we to live in an atomic age?”
Just as Your Ancestors Lived
“How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents. In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation.” (Essay Collection & Other Short Pieces, 361)
The first point in Lewis’s response is that we must not imagine that our situation is new. Horse-drawn carriages could be fatal, just as cars and buses can now. World pandemics are nothing new (and comparatively, we have been spared the severest plagues thus far). Worst-case scenarios struck then as they do today. The world has been menacing since the first day out of Eden.
This does not draw out all the venom, but it does take some of the isolation out of it. If we come to weep, we know that we join many already weeping. Other mothers have lost their precious sons, other husbands have lost wondrous wives. We are not alone. Peter reminds hurting Christians of this, writing: “Resist [Satan], firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Peter 5:9). Your situation, though collapsing, is not singular to you.
Knowing Death Is Certain
In the second place, he reminds us what we all know but often don’t consider (especially in the West): Death, whenever it comes, will come.
Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors — anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty. (Ibid.)
Against all naturalistic explanations to the contrary, men die because men have sinned. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). The result of our sins, our greatest terror, will strike. Sin, not fate, tucks us in the grave. Iniquity digs our plots and gives our eulogy. As part of Adam’s lineage, we die.
Bad things are certain to come to us as Christians. The Bible never shies away from the fact. We are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17). Fiery trials ought not surprise us (1 Peter 4:12). We are destined for affliction (1 Thessalonians 3:3). After Paul gets stoned so brutally that his attackers leave him for dead, he gets right back up and returns to the city, bruised and bloodied, “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
Bad things are certain in this life, but we take heart, for the next life is also certain. In Christ we know that neither life nor death, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:37).
With Minds Set on Living
The third point Lewis makes is that we must not stop living, even in a world where so much has, can, and will go wrong.
This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things — praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts — not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds. (Ibid.)
“We must not stop living, even in a world where so much has, can, and will go wrong.”
If atomic bombs or Chaldeans or tornados or illness or accidents or injury or our worst-case scenario finds us, let it find us living — not curled up in a ball in the corner. Lewis called it “sensible human things.” Let calamity find us, if our all-wise Father deems it “necessary” (1 Peter 1:6), fully alive brimming with hope in God and love for people.
What we most fear may find us — whether we worry about it or not. But as Christians, we need not be anxious about our lives or obsess over every possible calamity. Our dread does not match the world’s dread (Isaiah 8:12–13); rather, we fear God and trust him. We live our lives in atomic ages — or any other — entrusting ourselves to a faithful Creator while doing good, testifying,
Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.