Sunday, March 27, 2011

Wisdom from Ecclesiastes in the midst of calamity

There have been some speculations why a big earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster have hit Japan. Some religious figures claimed to know God's will in this calamity and took on the role of being God's spokesperson. Their followers assumed that since their leader or spokesperson is more pious than they are, their leader ought to know God's purpose better than them. However, this is a HUGE fallacy. It looks like we need wisdom in the midst of calamity. Ecclesiastes written within the Israel's Wisdom tradition has much to teach us. A chapter from J.I.Packer's Knowing God ("Chapter 10: God's Wisdom and Ours", Knowing God, 2nd ed. Reading, Berkshire: Cox & Wyman Ltd, 1993, pp.111-121) summarizes the gist of Ecclesiastes well. Packer probes the readers to examine what is wisdom:

"...the mistake that is commonly made is … that the gift of wisdom consists in a deepened insight into the providential meaning and purpose of events going on around us, an ability to see why God has done what he has done in a particular case, and what he is going to do next." (pp. 114-5)

In other words, it is a mistake to assume that the pious person with the most wisdom would be able to discern God's purpose in calamity, whether in the form of natural disaster, illness, or accident. In fact, the preacher in Ecclesiastes is telling us true wisdom is acknowledging that life is not neat, reality is not so ordered after all, and more often than not, we are not able to make sense of God's purpose in everything or to find meaning in calamity. J.I.Packer further points out,

"It is to this pessimistic conclusion, says the preacher, that optimistic expectations of finding the divine purpose of everything will ultimately lead you (cf. Eccl 1:17 f.). And of course he is right. For the world we live in is in fact the sort of place that he has described. The God who rules it hides himself. Rarely does this world look as if a beneficent Providence were running it. Rarely does it appear that there is a rational power behind it at all. Often and often what is worthless survives, while what is valuable perishes. Be realistic, says the preacher; face these facts; see life as it is. You will have no true wisdom till you do." (p. 118)

To try to understand the purpose or meaning in everything eventually leads one to despair because one may be more inclined to conclude the world is not governed by a beneficent Provider. Look at the various natural disasters happening around the world, at how randomly disease or accident can strike a person, the way things are that should not be (such as the righteous not being rewarded, and the wicked not being punished). I am not trying to insult God, but I want to put out that sometimes, even as a staunch believer in God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, I simply do not have an answer. To be able to say "I don't know why this is happening" is to be honest. Packer continues,

"For the truth is that God in his wisdom, to make and keep us humble and to teach us to walk by faith, has hidden from us almost everything that we should like to know about the providential purposes which he is working out in the churches and in our own lives." (p. 119)

It is simply arrogant and if I may use the word "impious" to claim to know the meaning and God's purpose in Japan's disaster. If believe in a powerful and loving God, how can I explain the disaster? I can't. However, I practise walking by faith by trusting in the same God and by standing in solidarity with the survivors. To walk by faith means that even though I do not have an answer, and even if things do not change for the better, I still believe in the God who has the power to create the world and who cares so much about each and everyone of us. The preacher in Ecclesiastes does not mean taking a laissez-faire attitude in life and let everything runs its course. Instead the preacher is very pro-active about life,

"Seek grace to work hard at whatever life calls you to do (Eccl 9:10), and enjoy your work as you do it (2:34; 3:12 f.; 5:18 ff.: 8:15). Leave to God its issues; let him measure its ultimate worth; your part is to use all the good sense and enterprise at your command in exploiting the opportunities that lie before you (11:1-6)." (p.120)

I do what is within my means and leave the meaning and issues of the calamity to God. This implies that I can stand in solidarity with the survivors through praying with them, and contributing to their needs within my means, even though I do not know the "why" of the calamity. To stretch this implication further and apply it in my illness, even though I do not know why I have cancer, I continue to trust in God's deep and unbroken love for me, and live each day with whatever grace God has given me. To recognize that life can be messy sometimes, and to acknowledge that God is wise, the source of life, and to live in awe of Him is the beginning of wisdom. Packer puts a succinct conclusion to the lesson the preacher wants to impart us,

"For what is this wisdom that he [God] gives? As we have seen, it is not a sharing in all his knowledge, but a disposition to confess that he is wise, and to cleave to him and live for him in the light of his word through thick and thin. Thus the effect of his gift of wisdom is to make us more humble, more joyful, more godly, more quick-sighted as to his will, more resolute in the doing of it and less troubled (not less sensitive, but less bewildered) than we were at the dark and painful things of which our life in this fallen world is full … the kind of wisdom that God waits to give to those who ask him, is a wisdom that will bind us to himself, a wisdom that will find expression in a spirit of faith and a life of faithfulness." (p.121)

Let us continue to trust in God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer in the midst of calamity, and to act on the faith given us. Even though we do not have an answer to the Japan's disaster, let us stand in solidarity with them, and pray for God's presence with them. A brother shared with me recently his meditation on Ps 46:1-2, "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea" (Ps 46:1-2, NRSV). I pray that God may indeed be the refuge and strength of all those in the midst of calamity.

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