Is Life Good?

“Life is good,” they say, and that sometimes feels true. Life is beautiful, but things break — important things like marriages, friendships, careers, and bodies. There are moments of great joy and wonder but also seasons of disappointment, loneliness, and pain.

Is life good? To even raise the question feels like an offense — perhaps even a dangerous offense — against good manners.

We need to believe that life is good, or what are we doing here? We especially need our children to believe that life is good so they will pursue with hope and diligence the happiness we so desperately want for them.

We need to believe that life is good, but can an honest person, with eyes open to the sorrow and cruelty that surround us, really say that it is?

And here we come to the heart of things. It’s not a question about good. It’s a question about life.

If by “life” we simply mean the human experience, then no, life is not especially good. Some people are luckier than others, but we all suffer, and, in the end, we all die. One philosopher described human life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” and even St. Paul concludes, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

If life is good, it must not be primarily about the human experience, which — for all its beauty — inevitably ends in futility and failure.

But this is the crisis of our generation. Having abandoned hope for anything beyond the human experience, we demand goodness here and now, and we often do not find it. Our belief that life on earth must be good dooms us to disappointment and a life that is not good. We are starving for meaning and purpose, and, as mortals, we are running out of time.

This crisis comes from forgetting who we are — not merely a particular human body having particular experiences, but something far deeper, more enduring, and more personal. Life is not a set of circumstances; it is the fact of our individual existence. It is the self we are choosing to become during our human experience and the self that will continue beyond that experience.

Life is good because, above all else, life is the Creator’s conscious choice to invent you as an individual. Life is good because this painful process of choosing the self you will become has great meaning and purpose.

If we are to have any hope for a life that does not disappoint, we need to remember who we are — not fleeting organisms on a dying planet, but eternal souls who were created to experience life and goodness in ways we cannot yet comprehend.

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“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea…. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people…. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’”

-Revelation 21: 1-4

Job and the Nearness of God

A well-dressed man kneels in the dirt, sobbing. The bodies of his children lie nearby, crushed in the collapse of his great wealth. Nothing is left but the tangled ruin where, just an hour ago, his life had stood.

It is a scene rich in irony, still more ironic because he does not know it is a scene. He is, for now, alone on stage, unaware that thousands of faces crowd the night, watching him.

He is one man, but he is also mankind — the towering accomplishments and shocking vulnerability, the verdant love and eviscerating loneliness, the pious humility and ruthless humiliation. He is not an aberration but an exaggeration, an ordinary man in the grip of extraordinary circumstances.

We take a few lessons from Job’s story. That bad things happen to good people. That bad friends are worse than no friends. That God prefers honest challenge to flippant loyalty.

But the real point of Job’s exceptional story is that it is not exceptional. His fall from riches to rags was sudden and dramatic, but the story is not his fall or even the injustice of his fall, but the fact that heaven is watching.

Job blames his disaster on God’s absence, but it has more to do with God’s presence. He longs for God to appear in his story; it does not occur to Job that he might figure prominently in God’s story. He expects from God something distant and definitive — a verdict or an explanation — not a live audience to his suffering.

For Job, as for us, Earth feels like the real thing. A place where success feels like divine blessing and disaster feels like judgment. A place where stories have morals and justice prevails. But Earth is not that kind of place, or not always. Life hurts, and it hurts more if we expect to understand why.

Job does not understand why, and that hurts most of all. He is the kind of man who needs to understand. The dissonance between his idea of God and his experience on Earth cannot be resolved. He has lost the world and, still worse, he is losing his worldview.

We call this crisis the problem of evil and it begins with the idea of a distant God.

“Look up at the heavens so high above you. If you sin, how does that affect him?… If you are righteous, what do you give to him?”

These questions make sense, and Job’s friend asks them with cynical confidence, blind to the cloud of witnesses surrounding them, blind to the Creator who bends near, listening.

That’s the shock of Job’s story and the shock of the universe — not that God touches us, but that we touch God.

When David stared at the moon and stars, he asked God, “What are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?” These are reasonable questions and yet, a thousand years later in David’s own city, God hung bleeding.

He is not the God we would expect, bored by our insignificance, annoyed by our failures, delivering tidy judgments from a safe distance. Not a God “who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities.” For reasons we don’t easily understand, he kneels beside us in the dirt, unseen but tender to our suffering.

Job, who had much to complain of, is transformed by a glimpse of God, a glimpse into a world more real than Earth. He still does not understand his suffering and God does not explain it. Instead, God deepens the mystery by asking questions of his own.

G. K. Chesterton writes, “the enigmas of Jehovah seem darker and more desolate than the enigmas of Job; yet Job was comfortless before the speech of Jehovah and is comforted after it. He has been told nothing, but he feels the terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told. The refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design.”

The thing too good to be told, I think, has much to do with this moment, in which God may seem distant, distracted, or insensible to your suffering. You may be alone on stage, yet you are not alone.

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When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon, and the stars which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?

-Psalm 8:3-4

For we do not have a high priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but one who has been in all points tempted like we are, yet without sin.

-Hebrews 4:15

My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.

-Job 42: 5-6

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

-Hebrews 12:1

GK Chesterton, Introduction to the Book of Job: https://www.chesterton.org/introduction-to-job/

The Fallen King

I wake in a sweat from the same horrible dream, trying to sift terror from reality.

My friend lies bloody and still. His woman wails over her dying child. And… there is more, but I cannot say it. I push the scene away, but it plays over and over, a fresh nightmare each time I open my eyes.

The dream begins in springtime.

Not far away, there is war and death, but I am safe at home. I wander to the roof and lean against the parapet, its warm walls soaked in the afternoon sun. A gentle breeze carries the scent of new life, rising from the valley below. Here and there, wildflowers paint little bursts of color on the ground.

It is a safe place. A quiet place. But here the arrow found me, and I fell.

My eyes meandered across the cheerful, unruly maze of courts and streets and houses, and then to my undoing. A movement, a color, a shape, the gleam of water on skin. She was hidden from others, but not from me, the King. I saw her from my place, so high above. And I watched.

It seemed a safe place, but the deadly arrow was me, and how far I have fallen.

I used my high place to spy and then steal and then kill and then hide. God made me their shepherd, but I have torn the sheep.

I wake in a sweat and my sin is ever before me. I am King over nations, but how I long for the dangerous years when God was my hiding place, when my hands were empty but clean.

“Have mercy, O God, because of your great love! All this evil I have done, but please don’t throw me from your presence. Don’t take your Holy Spirit from me!”

Well, the wailing woman whom I stole from my murdered friend clutches a dead child to her heart, and I wonder if we are forever cursed.

And that is the question, isn’t it? This good God who hates evil… How can he live with such as us? I have broken every law and humiliated the nation. I have no sacrifice to offer but this broken, humiliated heart.

“For the sake of your name, Lord, forgive my iniquity, though it is great. Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me.”

I comfort my stolen wife and a year later, another son is born. I watch in wonder as she embraces the child, tears of joy running down her face. Then I cringe as a servant appears, whispering that Nathan, the prophet, has arrived with a message.

Nathan, the fearless critic who exposed my cover-up. Nathan, who announced that our first son would die.

I slip from the room, remembering my many tears. Does God forgive? Really forgive? Are we forever cursed by the things we have done?

Nathan walks confidently toward my throne as I study the floor, dreading what I am about to hear. He stops a few feet away and waits for me to meet his eye.

“The Lord has sent me to tell you the child’s name,” he says, and his face softens. “He is to be called ‘Jedidiah’, for he is loved by God”.

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This story is a dramatization of events recorded in 2 Samuel 11 – 12. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Samuel+11-12&version=NIV)

Jedidiah, also known as Solomon, became the third king of Israel, succeeding his father, David.

Jesus, born one thousand years later, was also a descendant of King David’s marriage with Bathsheba.

“You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
    you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart
    you, God, will not despise.”
-Psalm 51:17 (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=psalm+51&version=NIV)

“You are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.”
-Nehemiah 9:17

Meeting the Lion

There are butterflies in my stomach, a rasp in my voice. So many years I have waited, yet I am almost afraid to go in.

I will be alone, I think, though you can never be sure in this place. It is, after all, a place of meeting – if a man stepping into a lion’s den can be called a meeting. A lion no one can see.

Two priests and one king he has devoured for doing what I will do. No, for doing it wrong, I remind myself. He is not unfair. Yet he is still a lion.

I take a quick breath, rest one hand against the other to slow their trembling, and I wait. I am too old to be this nervous, and too alone. My life is narrow and still. No children, no grandchildren. Just my wrinkled wife and I, living out our days. My wrinkled wife, who still stares as mothers pass, children in their arms – who stares as one starving, though we are past our years and there is no more hope.

Will the great Lion receive me, this dried-up old priest who cannot even father a child?

I walk unsteadily toward the door and step into the temple, peer into the golden, glowing Holy Place. I am to burn incense on the altar which stands across the room. Behind the altar hangs the great, thick curtain – blue, purple, and red, with embroidered angels staring back at me. Behind that, the holiest and most dangerous place of all.

I pause for an instant, remind myself to breathe, and take a few steps forward, but something goes wrong. There is a flash, a sudden glare from the golden walls, and I freeze in astonishment. There, by the altar, something stands – not a picture, but a moving creature, bright and tall.

“Don’t be afraid,” it said, which struck me as unreasonable. Dazzled and blinking, I squinted at the brilliant form, shielding my eyes with quivering hands.

“Zechariah, your prayers have been heard, and Elizabeth will have her joy. You will have a son, and you are to name him John. He will turn the hearts of the fathers toward their children, and the children toward the Lord, their God.”

“But… but how can that be?” I sputtered. “We’re too old.”

Well, that was a mistake.

“I am Gabriel,” he said soberly and glued my lips closed for months to come. Until, in fact, the day my wrinkled wife laughed with tears running down her face, surrounded by friends, our baby boy in her arms.

By then, bright Gabriel had appeared also to Mary and she, at least, believed him. A chill runs up my spine to think of it. The sun is rising on God’s ancient promise to lead us out of death and darkness, and the child in Mary’s womb – God’s own Messiah – will accomplish this.

These are things too great for me, for I was a priest of the great Lion of Judah, trembling to go before him, and afraid he had forgotten my name.

But I am different now, for I have felt the tender mercy of our God, who hears our prayers and forgets no one.

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This story is a dramatization of Luke 1 (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=luke%201&version=NIV)

“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God.”
-Luke 1:76-78

Note: 2 Chronicles 26:18 and Leviticus 10:1-2 tell of a king and two priests who were punished for incorrectly performing this procedure.

The Clue of Beauty

A girl begins to sing, and she sings very well. The other judges are pleased, but one sinks into her chair, hides her face in her hands, and weeps.

A busy mall in December. The roaring crowd of shoppers abruptly stops and looks around, silenced by a lonely voice singing a half-forgotten Christmas song.

In a movie theatre with my young son, something inside me leaps as the rings of Saturn crawl across the window of our spaceship.

It feels like a clue, the way beauty can capture us, the way it sometimes tears a hole in the dense fabric of the day, allowing something deep and heartbreaking to shine through.

We might stare in wonder, or close our eyes for a moment, retreating to a secret place. It feels like memory, like a familiar voice we had somehow forgotten or the scent of a home we somehow lost. It calls to something deep inside us, and something in us longs to answer.

And then it is gone. The tear is mended, and we return to ourselves, immersed in the events of the day.

Such experiences are easy to dismiss. We call them emotion, or art, or nostalgia. We pin them like dead butterflies and file them away. But they leave us tender, either wary of whatever waits outside, calling to half-forgotten parts of us, or maybe wishing we knew how to answer.

And that is the question. What to do with the clue?

If our culture is right, we humans are biological accidents with no soul, no reason to love, and no reason to feel awe or joy in the presence of beauty. Beauty means nothing because life means nothing.

But what if our hearts are right after all? What if we long for more because there is more? What if the beauty that captivates us is more solid and enduring than our everyday routine? What if something outside is calling to the most important part of us, and there is a way for us to answer?

And that’s the point of Christmas.

We find great beauty in this world, but it is a world of goodbyes. Good things come, but also evil, and in the end we die.

In this angry and hopeless world, if we happen to think of God, we often think of him as distant and vague, but Christmas brings us back to reality. To a tired man and woman, far from home, making do in a cold stable. To a newborn baby, wrinkled and freshly scrubbed, looking into his mother’s face. Not God up there, but God right here. God so small. God with us.

The Christ-child came as beauty always comes, as a gift and a word. A gift that offers joy and demands nothing. A word that tells of the giver and his goodwill toward us.

When we are moved by beauty, we are moved toward home. Toward the Creator of beauty who is always giving and always calling to the deepest part of us. Toward the Christ-child who gave us his very self, living and dying in a way that is still tearing holes in the darkness.

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Talent show: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZT-rdjv8wgQ

Mall choir: https://www.facebook.com/CarmanLicciardello/videos/533740169977550

He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart, yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.

-Ecclesiastes 3

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

-Luke 2