The genius of the Scriptures is how completely they mirror human nature. From the heights of love, to the depths of hate. From confident trust to the most lurid cynicism and cruelty. From the darkness of deep despair to the brilliant light of unmitigated joy. The human condition is all there. How accurately the Bible reflects the nature of God could be the topic of a very lively conversation-one in which we might want to have our seat belts fastened. But there is little doubt we see a lot about ourselves reflected in these ancient texts.
Today the patron saint of eccentrics is front and center: John the Baptist, with his camel skins, locusts, honey and bad temper. And just behind him the whole Hebraic prophetic tradition. He stands in a long line: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Ezekiel, Amos, Zechariah, Zephaniah and all the rest.
For the most part, and to oversimplify a little, the prophets tended to sing in two keys: a bright, sunny major key with visions of a more glorious future, visions of restoration, visions of a peaceable kingdom. “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” And in a dark and stormy minor key: gloom and doom, lamentation, critique of the status quo. “Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord…Why do you seek further beatings?” [Is. 1: 4-5]
These two modes of prophecy reflect a fundamental characteristic of human nature. And that is to be discontent with things as they are and to imagine how they might be instead. The prophets were discontent; and they dreamed of a more glorious future. The Bible enshrines this fundamental characteristic of our nature. What is enshrined in the prophets is an ordinary human characteristic writ large. We are people of discontent and of dreams. The other creatures of the earth don’t seem to either be discontent or dream of a more glorious future. Although we are apt to take it completely for granted, this appears to be uniquely human.
Sometimes I wonder if we aren’t designed to live in a more or less constant state of discontentment. We may have those occasional moments of perfect fulfillment. But it seems to me that most of us most of the time live with at least a vague, low-grade sense of unfulfillment. A sense of things not being quite what they ought to be. And some of us some of the time live with extreme frustration with life as it is. And some of us some of the time experience terrible suffering.
There is usually something at least vaguely unsettling about life as it is. Even if we have all we need and enjoy perfect health and have accomplished everything we set out to do, even if we’ve anaesthetized ourselves with some religious piety, just opening the newspaper pops that little bubble. Empathy can and should be an unsettling experience. And out of our discontent, whatever its cause, whatever its degree, we find ourselves dreaming of life as we think it ought to be. Like the prophets of old.
This combination is a tremendously powerful engine: discontent coupled with the capacity to envision better things is a tremendously powerful engine. An engine of transformation. Which could be why we’ve been made this way. Frustration, lack of fulfillment, discontent: these are unsettling energies, destabilizing energies that break up the status quo. They keep our world fluid, keep it from becoming too static, too stuck in one place. My discontent, your discontent, and how we seek remedy is a powerful engine for the transformation of the human experience.
Our inner narcissists want to envision a cosmos that revolves around our own particular selves. I have to remember that “it’s not all about me”. You have to remember that “it’s not all about you.” The prophets help us remember its about us. The big US. The prophets are concerned less with individual fulfillment and more with the “long arc of history”, as Martin Luther King put it. “The long arc of history that bends toward justice.” And other good things.
We are caught up in a process, we are imbedded in a transformational process that is far greater than ourselves or our immediate concerns. The new heaven and the new earth that Isaiah prophecies. Our discontent is not only our own, but belongs to a much larger process, this transformation of the human experience. Our individual discontent belongs, ultimately, to that long arc of history that bends toward justice and all good things.
We have the opportunity to consciously, intentionally consecrate ourselves to this long arc of history. We can consecrate our own discontent to this transformation, this larger vision. God’s vision, God’s dream of the new heaven and new earth actually needs the engine of our discontent, our dissatisfaction. Putting our dissatisfactions, our lack of fulfillment, even our suffering into this broader transformation is one way of redeeming it.
We tend to see life in very high definition; we see all the pixels of our personal predicaments. Or, we might say, we tend to see the individual brush strokes rather than the sweep of the whole canvas. But the eyes of faith begin to see the long arc. The eyes of faith even begin to understand how not only vague discontent, but even suffering and anguish are part of this larger process.
“Rejoice!” the apostle says. “Rejoice always… give thanks in all circumstances.” Today is Gaudete Sunday, or Rose Sunday. We begin to see the rosy hues of dawning light. In this dawning light we begin to see the big picture, the “new heavens and new earth” the prophets foretold. And we can consecrate ourselves to its reality.
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