O Captain, My Captain
by Dan Kidd
It's strange if you really think about it; how prone we are to not only believe, but romanticize, the notion that we have control over our lives; that we're the authors of our own destinies. Near the end of the 19th century, the poet of Gloucester, William Ernest Henley, penned a poem he named "Invictus." In its last stanza, Henley declares,
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
Isn't that a stirring sentiment? Don't you just love the idea of the wide-open sea beneath and before you, the adventures of life out there for the taking? You, standing there at the wheel, the ocean's wind in you hair, determination fixed on your face--and whichever way you rotate your hands the ship goes--the whole of it utterly under your control. Surely you can see why some of us, so many of us, swell with ambition fueled by words like these? Henley tapped into a rather common theme for humanity, and he expressed well our appetite for control.
But anyone whose lived much at all will surely recognize that life is not really like that. Certainly we have choices to make, and those choices have consequences. We can do a great deal of damage to ourselves and those around us, or we can do a great deal of healing and helping. Yet still, so much of our lives are a result of things we have no control over. Even when we do what is clearly right in the eyes of the Lord, bad things can and do happen. To an extent, we have some control over our responses, but even our brains' ways of processing ideas, emotions, and actions are part of a complex web of things we control and things we don't. The uncomfortable truth is that the more we imagine that we have full control over our lives and what happens to us, the more we cling to and jerk about the wheel from the passenger seat.
The Bible offers us a fascinating and often confusing story about a man named Job who dealt with a real crisis of faith when, despite his righteousness, his world turned into woeful chaos. Today's passage comes late in the story, after tragedy has come to Job, several of his friends, in succession, have each come to tell Job that God is good and, if Job's life is in disaster, Job must have done something sinful. This then leads them to implore Job to search himself and admit what he's done wrong (which, again, is nothing, according to the story).
In the first few verses (vv. 1-4) we hear Job's sarcastic rebuke of this third friends' platitudes, "How you have helped the powerless! [...] What advice you have offered one without wisdom!" His response is stinging. Even still, his words are more measured than I suspect mine would have been. These friends, even if their intentions are pure, and we have no reason to think they aren't, are presuming an oversimple and ultimately untrue version of wisdom: that our actions--that we alone--determine what happens to us. In their view, yes the Lord has control over the world, but the Lord will only--and predictably--reward our righteousness and punish our wickedness and never will a blessed life or a cursed life be confused. Job knows otherwise because he's lived it. He knows he's not been unrighteous (and we're told that he's right), and yet in his suffering he has to deal with what he is going to believe about the Lord.
How does Job go on to respond to his friend(s)? By agreeing with them about, and even doubling down on, the supremacy and wisdom of the Lord. Job doesn't deny that God is the Creator and Sustainer of the world. Nor does he deny that God is wise and good, cutting rahab (perhaps a sea monster, or Egypt?) in two and "piercing the serpent." Somehow, in that moment, Job was resolving to live suspended in the tension of believing that the Lord is, and should be, in control, even though he is righteous and even though he seems to be cursed.
The wisdom laced throughout the tale of Job is that the Lord's sovereignty is complex and sometimes baffling. Ultimately, the book exposes the unresolved tension between the predictable consequences of our actions and hidden things that happen to us, including what the Lord does and doesn't do. But let us hear and take to heart Job's confession at this point in the story: the Lord is control and that is as it should be.
Lord, we confess that sometimes we behave as though our way, our will, the world under our control, would be best. But we pray that you would convince us that isn't so. Even when things aren't as we wish they were, because you are trustworthy, and good, and powerful, and have a vision for us and the world beyond our wildest imaginations, let your will be done instead of ours. We pray that you would steer our lives, and that even in the waves and storm, we would find our rest and refuge in you.