Precedented Times

We need to get over ourselves in many different ways. One of the biggest afflictions facing the all the generations alive today is narcissism. We have genuinely come to believe that our tine and place is unique, different, and “unprecedented.” We have faced a pandemic…unprecedented (but one just happened in 1918)! We have abundant wealth and affluence…unprecedented (ever hear of the Pax Romana)! We have had amazing scientific breakthroughs…unprecedented (electricity was probably more of a game-changer back in the day than anything developed now)! But the reality is that if we stop and peel back the layers of our current time and place, we will find that these are “precedented times,” or as one author has put it, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

Think about scientific discoveries. One of the arguments for our “unprecedented times” is the so-called vastness of the universe. Because of our high-powered telescopes, we can now peer into the far reaches of space and get a tiny glimpse of just how big our universe really is. Now that we know how big the universe is, we can see how small we actually are. And because we now know we are such a small part of the universe, we can weigh ourselves down with a crushing aloneness. “See, there’s something special about us now…the fact that we’re not special!” Contemporary people like to think that the peculiar meaninglessness they feel in their lives is due to the fact that they now know they are a small part of the universe.

But such thinking doesn’t hold up. I mean, in the Bible, you have God himself showing Job how small he is! “Who is this that darkness counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man. I will question you, and you make it known to me” (Job 38:2-3). God then begins to peppered Job with questions about whether or not he is able to control the world: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” the Lord asks (Job 38:4). In other words: “Job, ya small.”

My very unscientific proposal is that our sense of smallness in the universe as a species has actually stayed approximately the same over the centuries. Let’s think about ancient human beings, say, around the time of the Israelites in the Old Testament. Most of the people who lived in that area of the world were subsistence-level farmers: they barely survived off the land. Due the lack of electricity and other modern technological advances, most of these people were subject to (enslaved by?) the whims of the weather. Think about how terrifying a colossal thunder storm would have been without modern buildings? Or in fell-swoop, a locust hoard could decimate your crops, leading to starvation. You would have also had so many other things around you telling you how small you are: a much clearer night sky with all its stars, ginormous mountains rising in the background, the endless looking sea as you gaze out at the ocean. It would have been very easy to feel small in the ancient world.

Now it’s true that we have made great technological progress in the last one hundred and fifty years, especially since the Industrial Revolution. In many ways, we have tried to make the world seem smaller by creating a global network through our interconnected economies and digital communications tools. But how has happened? In an ironic twist, by attempting to make the world smaller, we actually reinforced the reality that we are small. When you’re applying for jobs on the internet, you’re not just competing for a job with those in your town, but with six billion other people. You’re small. When you’re posting to social media, you’re not just trying to cultivate a small, dedicated fanbase, but your posts are dissolved into the fizz of billions of others. What would make you stand out? Nothing. There’s a hundred million other white girls who look just like you, dance just like, and talk just like you.

We have been able to control certain aspects of world, insulating us from many of the bad side effects of natural disasters (although not all of them). But then we have come to know more about the expanse of the universe and the depth of the ocean, realizing we’re a small part of this world.

Why is this all important?

I think it’s important because if you believe you’re special or if you believe you’re living through “unprecedented times,” you will be ruled by narcissism and pride which will blind you to the way that God is working in the world. When faced with the exile, God told his people not to search for new solutions, but to instead return to the “ancient paths” (Jeremiah 6:16-17). In other words, the way forward for the people of God in the face of adversity and despair, was not to try to something new. It wouldn’t come from a new technique, a new product, or a new political strategy. It would not come from updating or revising it’s beliefs about God, or the Scriptures to get with the times. The only way forward was to go back. Back to the formatives practices that sustained the people for centuries. But, most importantly, it meant going to back to God. Going back to God meant confession of sin and repentance. It mean turning from their sin and embracing the grace and provision of God through the gospel (the promise of a Messiah during that era).

The problem is that I can see how much pride can infect my own life. Rather than returning home to God—as Martin Luther has said the whole Christian life is one of repentance—there can be a stubborn refusal in my own heart. “I can figured this out or fix this,” I may think to myself. But how much disorder comes into my life because my loves are disordered? Rather than relying on the means of grace God has already given to me, I can undertake a quest to discover the “new” insight that I need to unlock my full spiritual potential. Maybe so much of the modern malaise is due to my own desire to control my life rather than to submit to God’s plan for my life, whatever that may be.

And so whatever challenges we might face in our “new” cultural situation. Whatever despair you may feel from realizing that you’re just one small part of a much larger universe. All of these things can only be confronted by going back to the grounding of reality: God himself. And building up from knowing God himself requires that we attend to the practices he has given to us in the Scriptures for cultivating a life of meaning, resilience, and gospel-witness.

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