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THE TONY CROSS COLUMN

Article No. 84

Playthings of the gods?

Just suppose for one moment that every facet of your life is in the hands of your heavenly father. That nothing ever happens to you without it first coming via him. That no illness strikes you without Him first passing and allowing it as permissible at this time for you.

Just suppose that all the checks and problems that arise are not there by chance, but particularly suited to your temperament and your need for challenge. Suppose every adversity in your life was sent with particular care as being just what your character needed to grow and mature and develop as it should?

Could life be like that? How could we ever imagine that all our doings were the concern of a higher authority? How could we ever believe that there is God who actually is involved in the life of each of us to that extent?

Yet what is the alternative? That we are walking the surface of this earth without any plan or purpose? That all of life is completely haphazard? That all of life is just a blind thrusting thing that has no regard for the deeper values of the human being?

I know which I would rather believe. And it seems to me eminently sensible, not just a comforting random idea that we cling to when we are hard pressed.

But this week, I understand, the Astronomer Royal has suggested that human beings might simply be players in some vast computer-like simulation. That we are all allocated our roles and programmed and thrust onto the stage that we call life. That what happens is either pre-scripted or pure chance. That human beings bump into each other and into things and circumstances and simply play out their assigned role.

How cruel is such a view! It is more callous and godless than to believe in a blind watchmaker - for such a scenario would make us all into helpless puppets for a higher intelligence to manipulate as the fancy took it. Such a scenario would have no redeeming features - our lives here would be senseless and futile - a meaningless charade played out for someone’s amusement. Instead of love we would all be in a hate-filled and blind, purposeless existence.

I remember a similar scenario played out in a Dr. Who episode many years ago. The Tardis landed in the game of a higher-intelligence being (I seem to remember it was a child higher-intelligence being operating it!) This game comprised various scenes played out in separate compartments - and there was a trapdoor between each of the various compartments. The intrepid group went from scene to scene in this game, trying to escape the dangers of one after another of the scenes. The scenario for each mini-scene was played out to the same script over and over again. A kind of terrible Groundhog Day scenario. One scene, I remember, was onboard a liner, and the various people on board followed the same routine and spoke the same words on each occasion that the team arrived in that particular scene!

The suggestion by the Astronomer Royal has the germ of the same idea - that we are playthings of higher beings and are powerless to get off the roundabout onto which they have placed us, and on which we now find ourselves living.

So, with this idea, we are all in some programme that gives us an illusory sense of freedom, but living within set parameters and deluded that we have some element of choice in our lives.

It is an interesting idea and might even be worth considering, until you ask: why is this happening? What is the purpose of it all? Is it just an idle diversion for a god? And, if so, what sort of fiend must that god be? Does our creator enjoy seeing us in pain and facing problems? Is our misery a source of delight to him?

To posit such a creator or ‘higher-being’ is to immediately show that far from being higher, they would not even have the qualities we ourselves have. They would be inferior beings. They would be malignant beings - unfeeling or, worse, delighting in other’s misery. They would be a form of life that we would recognise as inferior to human beings. Could such a being create our sort of world?

Christians, instead, look at the highest, not the lowest. We look to a God who creates in order to provide a better and more valuable future. Who allows contrary winds because the boat can make better progress against a contrary wind, whereas in a dead calm sea there is only listless waiting.

Afflictions are the opportunities God gives us to face up to adversity - to address ourselves to the fight for goodness, peace, love and a better world for all. Great afflictions often lead to extraordinary graces - given us by a loving Father who seeks our fulfilment not our destruction.

It is difficult to battle through sometimes. Of course there are painful times for us all. Of course there is a desperate fight to hold onto faith sometimes because things seem so bleak and tough and lonely.

We have to see ourselves sometimes as the marble statue being chipped out of the block of stone by a Master Craftsman. As each blow strikes and some more of the stone falls away to the floor we say to ourselves ‘I don’t know why I am being hammered and chiselled like this. I cannot see what he is trying to make of me. I cannot make sense of why he pounds me here and then hammers me there, but I will trust that he has a purpose and that each blow is part of his plan. These blows hurt me sometimes more than I can say, but I am not going to complain - he is a master craftsman and I will trust that he knows what he is doing.’

When the eagle builds its nest high up on the cliffs at the top of the mountain it has a purpose. Each day it brings food to its chicks that emerge into the nest of sticks and grass on the narrow cliff ledge. Then suddenly one day it stops bringing food. From time to time the chicks, standing there at that dizzy height, peer over the edge of the rock to the valley and at the vast distance down beneath them. And they get hungry. The mother flies onto the ledge but instead of bringing food she starts to scatter the twigs and grass - pushing it all over the edge of the cliff until there is no nest left. Then she flies off and from nearby calls for her chicks to join her. Now the chicks have neither food nor nest. You can imagine their crisis. How they must resent what she is doing. Why isn’t she bringing food anymore? It is her duty to feed them, they believe. What was she doing scattering their nest - the only secure place they have known in their lives.

Eventually the boldest chick jumps off the edge of the rock and stretches its wings - and glides away, lifted by a thermal current of air from the warm valley beneath. The second and third chick follow suit until all have discovered flight and are soaring away looking for food.

All of nature shows us that love and growth are the basic ingredients of life on earth. Love may appear hard and heartless at times, but as we rise to the successive challenges of life, so we learn new skills and are empowered to go further. We discover new worlds, new challenges and we grow.

Growth is the secret of all life and it is the secret of the Christian life. Response to challenge and to the adverse circumstances are what give us experience and lead us on to maturity. Trust in God - a loving God - especially when it seems most hard - is what makes for Christian character.

Are you facing huge challenges? Thank God for matching you to this hour. Are you bowed down under dire distress? Rejoice that God has allowed it to happen and, therefore, must have a purpose and plan that he can effect through this trial. By his grace he will bring you through it. By giving you his presence and his love he will bring you out the far side. There is no situation known to man that God cannot transform into a glorious path of victorious love. We pass through the vale of tears - we don’t have to dwell there.

It is like the alchemists of old. They sought the one substance that could turn all else to gold. The Christian has been given the touchstone - it is the empowering presence of God in his life. This changes every worst and most frightening and evil situation into a God-given opportunity.

So today take heart from the realisation that God is with you exactly where you are. He does not need to be told all about the situation - he is with you in it. Look up! As you do that you will see a gleam of sunlight afar off. It may seem very far ahead - but it is there for your encouragement. You shall yet come through what is now so heavy for you. You will emerge from this doubt and depression and come out into the full sunlight of His presence and love.

Helpless players in a computer simulation? Nonsense! Playthings of the gods? Never! Sons and daughters of the Living God whose face is revealed in Jesus Christ? Yes! The subjects of His love and concern? Certainly! Able to receive His reassurance? Of course! Open to be empowered and directed in the way ahead? Yes, thanks be to God.

Tony Cross

December 2004


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