This is the text of a sermon I gave at our church this past Sunday.
The mountains near Jeonju, Korea. Copyright David Stewart
I came to Iowa for the first time about five years ago, when I had my job interview at the university here. Since then, my wife and I have lived in Iowa for almost five years and I’ve grown to love it here. There are a lot of great things about Iowa: friendly people, beautiful sunset, the ability to buy cheese curds practically everywhere. There are many wonderful things about Iowa but there is one thing it is missing that I cannot get used to, and that is mountains.
Before coming to Iowa, we lived in South Korea for nine years. As you may know, Korea is about 75% mountains and there is nowhere in the country you can go where you cannot see mountains. Jeonju, the city where we lived was bordered on two sides with mountains and there were two mountains higher than the others. Moaksan, the tallest one stood alone. That was the most famous one, the one that was a provincial park and that everyone knew about. The second tallest was called Goduksan. It was surrounded by lower peaks so that when you were down in the city, you couldn’t tell it was taller than the ones near it. Sometimes you couldn’t see it at all. However, if you went north of the city and climbed up into the mountains, looking across the city, there was no comparison. The two tallest mountains stood out clearly above the others. So what changed? Not the mountains or the city. The only thing that changed was me and my position. My perspective on them.
Unfortunately, as humans our perspective is necessarily limited by time and space, our senses and our powers of comprehension. We are like explorers in a jungle, seeing only what is right around us. Yet, even so, we know that this is not absolute truth. Only God can see things in perfect truth, as they truly are and the closer that we come to God’s perspective, the closer we come to seeing reality.
We’ll get there eventually, although not in this lifetime. 1 Corinthians 13:12 says, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (NIV).
There are two times when I think that having a godly perspective is particularly important and when it can be especially difficult to. These are when things are going great and when they are going terribly.
When things are going right
It is an interesting coincidence that from earth, the sun and moon look to be about the same size, so that during an eclipse, the moon can actually perfectly block out the sun. The ancients probably thought that they were the same size, but we know now that the sun is actually much larger than the moon. How much larger? If the sun was the width of Iowa, 300 miles across from Dubuque to Sioux City, the moon would stretch from the Fayette post office down to the car wash, a little more than half a mile. So why do they look the same size? The moon is so much closer to us than the sun. Anything can block out the sun if it’s close enough to us: a tree, our hand, even a coin.
In the same way, anything can come between us and God if we hold it close enough to us. We usually think about sin keeping us from God, and that’s definitely true, but anything can come between us and God. There are many good things in our lives that are blessings: our jobs, families, friends, hobbies, sports, etc. All of these things are inherently good things, things God has given us. The problem is only where we place them in our lives.
I know I have the temptation sometimes to just want comfort. My dream is to have a job I love, in a nice house with kids and go on interesting vacations and eat good food. To have friends. To have a good life. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this desire, and these are all good things, but we must remember that all this is temporary. The Earth is not our home; we’re just passing through.
Matthew 6:19-21 says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (NIV).
One of the central characters in the New Testament is Paul. He has one of the best resumes for someone in that time. Not only was he was a Jew, meaning he was a member of God’s chosen people, but he was born a Jew and was the child of Jews. He was also a Pharisee, one of the religious elite and on top of all that, he was a Roman citizen. This was huge in the time when Rome ruled all the lands around Israel and it gave Paul a lot of privileges that other Jews did not have.
Nevertheless, this is what Paul says of all this: “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (Philippians 3:7-9, NIV).
Think about that. In comparison with what he found in Jesus, all the honors and accolades that he had received were like garbage. Those are strong words, like comparing a Nobel Prize to a 3rd grade participation ribbon in your least favorite sport. He didn’t say they were garbage, but in comparison, they might as well be. That is keeping things in God’s perspective.
When things are going wrong
One of the worst days possible was recorded in the Old Testament in Job 1. At the beginning of the chapter, Job has everything a person back then could want. He had huge herds of animals, which equated wealth, he had trading caravans to get more wealth, he had many children who got along and hung out together. But then at the end of the chapter, all that is wiped out. What’s more, a while later, he is stricken with boils, meaning even his health is taken away.
The book of Job is mostly a conversation between Job and his friends where they say he must have something bad to deserve this and Job insisting he doesn’t deserve it and demanding God tell him if he did anything to deserve this
God finally responds at the end of the book in an epic couple of chapters calling out Job. As an example, in Job 38:4-5, God says, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it?”
What God is very bluntly saying is that there is no way that Job can understand everything that’s going on from his very limited perspective compared to the perspective of God, who set the whole universe in motion. He is the only one who sees the whole picture.
Job’s friends were arguing that if something that bad happened to Job, he must have done something very bad to deserve it. That is the idea of karma: you do good and good happens to you, and vice versa. This is sometimes the case, but the world does not always have such a neat cause and effect relationship. Instead, there is a fact that we all know but don’t always like to acknowledge: life is not fair.
Personally, I don’t think every bad thing that happens is part of God’s plan. God can use anything that happens, he is always with us and always loves us, and nothing can throw him for a loop. However, the world is a broken, chaotic, messy place, and I don’t believe he nurtures every cancer cell and guides every tornado on its path. Sometimes bad things just happen because of the world we live in. At least that’s what I believe.
We all know examples of terrible things that have happened to wonderful people who did not at all deserve what they got and it’s easy to be angry at God and question why these things happen. Not I, nor any other person can know why bad things happen to good people, but what I know is that there is more to existence than our mortal lives and in time, justice will be done.
Revelation 21:4 says, “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” (NIV).
Living in this life is like watching half an action movie. We watch up the point where the hero is captured, everyone hates him, and the villain is winning. We might be tempted to pound the table and shout, “It’s not fair! This is a terrible movie!” But God says, “Just wait. It isn’t over. Watch until the end.”
Just as it is hard to imagine the actual size of the sun compared to the moon, there is no way to comprehend God’s perspective of events compared to our own. All of human history is merely the first letter of the first word on the first page of the story God that sees (or more likely, one buried deep inside the book.) This life is important; it matters, but it’s not everything by a long shot.
So how do we keep a right perspective, God’s perspective, on things? We should enjoy the good things in life and through God’s grace endure the bad things that happen. We can’t ignore them and shouldn’t, but they can’t be our focus.
There is a great hymn whose chorus goes:
Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in His wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace
If we keep our eyes on Jesus, he will lead us deeper into his Truth, through both good and bad.