Listen to William Golding: “It seems to me that we do live in two worlds… there is this physical one, which is coherent, and there is the spiritual one, which to the average man with his flashes of religious experience, is very often incoherent. This experience of having two worlds to live in all the time, or not all the time, is a vital one, and is what living is like.”
There’s a mysterious interplay between what we decide and what God directs, isn’t there? We make our decisions- we choose which way we will turn as the junction approaches- and there is no doubt that we are responsible for the choices we make.
We also have to work through the consequences of those choices. The person who drinks too much alcohol has to live with the liver damage that his own actions have produced. Paul put it quite bluntly: “As a man sows, so shall he reap” (Galatians 6). That’s not a specialist-Christian perspective; it’s an obvious statement of what happens in life.
And of course, other people’s actions and choices reverberate in our own lives too, whether they mean them to or not. As Fred Buechner put it, in The Hungering Dark “The life I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops or in what far place my touch will be felt.”
Indeed, who knows where the trembling stops?
In Genesis 45:8, Joseph is reflecting on his life journey. He has re-encountered his brothers after many years separation. They had treated him terribly, murderously, and he had been taken, against his will, far away from family and home. And yet, looking back, he argues that God had orchestrated the whole thing. “It was not you who sent me here, but God…”
And yet, that perspective doesn’t exonerate them. They still needed his forgiveness for their brutal behaviour. The text of Genesis is quite clear on that. Even after their father’s death, they needed additional reassurance on that point. And it is safe to say that their wicked treatment of Joseph destroyed the inner peace of their father, who went into old age believing his beloved child gone forever. It is reasonable to also assert that their actions destroyed their own inner peace throughout their lives. How do you forget something like that?
I have memories of acts of random cruelty that I performed as a child, that still make me blush with shame. Who knows where the trembling stops?
And, of course, every action carries its consequence. This isn’t some kind of self-loathing or guilt-tripping self-obsession: it’s a statement of obvious fact. The choices I have made have led me to where I am today. For better and for worse, I am touchy and prickly about certain issues because of past choices.
And as Buechner intimated, our lives are thrown together into a corporate act of remembering, learning and experiencing, far more than we realise.
Megan Stack was a young journalist who was requested to cover the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 simply because she was on holiday in Paris and nearer to the action. “I was a reporter,” she recalls, “who didn’t really know how to write about combat, covering America from outside its borders as it crashed zealously into war and occupation… It would be my generation’s fate, it seemed, to be altered by September 11. I got excited and felt that I was living through important times and went rushing in, and years later came away older, different, with damage that couldn’t be anticipated beforehand and can’t be counted after.”
Her amazing book Every Man in This Village is a Liar: An Education in War contains a powerful picture of this collective responsibility. It’s a quirky insight of how things work in the world, that the principle of “As you sow, you reap” can be understood in huge collective ways too. Listen to the sadness in her voice:
“You can overcome the things that are done to you, but you cannot escape the things that you have done. Here is the truth: It matters, what you do at war. It matters more than you ever want to know. Because countries, like people, have collective consciences and memories and souls, and the violence we deliver in the name of our nation is pooled like sickly tar at the bottom of who we are. The soldiers who don’t die for us come home again. They bring with them the killers they became on our national behalf, and sit with their polluted memories and broken emotions in our homes and schools and temples. We may wish it were not so, but action amounts to identity. We become what we do. You can tell yourself all the stories you want, but you can’t leave your actions over there. You can’t build a wall and expect to live on the other side of memory. All of the poison seeps back into our soil.”
Did you hear that? “The violence we deliver in the name of our nation is pooled like sickly tar at the bottom of who we are.”
And this makes Joseph’s claim all the more astonishing. Behind the scenes, God has been at work. Is that a credible claim? Paul looked back, more or less from the perspective of one about to be executed for his beliefs, and similarly claimed “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
God works in all things? Even through the “sickly tar at the bottom of who we are”?
Emerson remarked that “All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen.” And Charlotte Brontë writing in her late twenties, in Jane Eyre “I do not think, sir, you have any right to command me, merely because you are older than I, or because you have seen more of the world than I have; your claim to superiority depends on the use you have made of your time and experience.”
Remember Golding? This experience of having two worlds to live in all the time is what living is like.
Lord, may I make use of all I have seen and done, to trust you for all I do not see?