What parent hasn’t warned their offspring about crossing the street before looking both ways? And how many have ignored that warning? Some kids learned the hard way. Those that survived were usually wiser. Some circumstances are momentary or temporary, subject to change. Others are permanent, lifelong, unalterable. It appears many of us learn lessons from circumstances that would not otherwise wake us from our existential slumber. St. Augustine beckoned us, “Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special attention to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstances, are brought into closer connection with you.” We discover that nexus in encounters we’d never otherwise imagined or pursued.
Predictably, an insouciant lifestyle invites circumstances that would otherwise not occur. One who fails to pay the electric bill will be without lights-a preventable negative circumstance. The most cautious drivers can get t-boned by another careless driver, through no fault of their own. Booker T. Washington was brief on the subject, “Character, not circumstances, makes the man.” Initially jealous brothers cast their younger sibling into a pit, leaving him to die. Temporarily assuaging their guilt, they recanted, rather selling him into slavery. Years later, in Egypt, Joseph said to his brothers, “But as for you, you meant it for evil against me; God meant it for good, to bring about as it is this day, to save many people.” The Ruler of circumstances.
When one equates happiness with circumstances one’s doomed to disappointment. After eons, surely mankind should acknowledge that one who’s happy or joyful, is not one with a set of preconceived circumstances, but rather one with a certain set of attitudes. Many are still reeling from the hurricanes of Harvey and Irma. Yet, out of these disasters, we’ve heard compelling reports of bravery, generosity, and thankfulness despite circumstances, even with death nipping at their heels, some found a ray of hope, insisting circumstances wouldn’t define them.
Whatever the ambit of one’s existence, at first glance circumstances appear to have its way. It’s clear that circumstances often take us to a place we never intended to venture. A hospital bedside, or funeral parlor. In that often-circuitous route, we also visit places of inexplicable beauty, and others of pain, destruction and desolation. In the political realm, the terrible conflict between the North and South, President Lincoln took a rather narrow, but gracious perspective, on the two sides, “To the best of my judgment, I have labored for, and not against, the Union. As I have not felt, so I have not expressed any harsh sentiments towards our Southern brethren. I have constantly declared, as I really believed, the only difference between them and us is the difference of circumstance.” Some historians and naysayer characterized Lincoln’s statement as naive or disingenuous. Any cursory examination of Lincoln’s writings, one knows he wasn’t naive. Few conclude he was deceitful. Could he have possibly believed that the differences distilled down to mere circumstances? Perhaps he could view this divide as a sense of hope that their differences were not as disparate as many imagined. Some scholars assumed that from his fatigued state, Lincoln found hope as a powerful force, despite the obvious circumstances. How could that be?
G.K. Chesterton, the Catholic theological gadfly, observed in this vein, “Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances that we know to be desperate.” His way, like Lincoln before him, said that we dare not blame circumstance outside of our control, for our internal chaos, as we foist it on these vicissitudes of life, possibly making our circumstances worse. By Christ’s very nature, He operates in the realm of perfection. Scripture confirms that, by comforting us, in the Pauline Epistle of Romans, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, and are called to according to His purpose.” All things. No accidents, no errors, no faults.
Christians find solace in this immutable principle-God, unlike mortals, doesn’t make mistakes. What about the unbeliever? Without wading too deep into a theological quagmire, God isn’t dependent on the feeble actions of men, that randomly flip a coin, vacillating between belief and unbelief. If God’s actions hinge on the sentiments of men, then He’s not God at all. The orthodox Christian view is that God can change the circumstance in one’s life, or change us in the process. His overarching purpose is to conform us to the image of His Son. Inward qualities He attempts to extricate from our recalcitrant selves. Circumstances which we’ve resisted, situations which we’ve found desperately difficult, and honestly repugnant, yet were the means and methods in God’s hands, causing us to exchange, albeit slowly, our own self-interest, for His. Someone observed, “The heart of every problem is the problem of every heart.”
The late Elizabeth Elliot, who experienced perilous circumstances in the jungles of Ecuador, losing her missionary husband’s life to the Auca Indians, addressed what she termed, “Rebellion against the Lord of Circumstances,” and sagely advised, “Settle the complaint with God, and it will settle other things. Be offended with God, and you will be offended by everyone who crosses your path.” We’ve met those people, who waste a lifetime railing against life’s circumstances. The impulse of circumstances is perilous to the soul, because unredeemed man’s compass has lost its True North, and, too often, the redeemed ignore it, and flee the wrong direction.
Our American experience is rife with those who’ve risen above circumstances. Yet they, as we, were mere mortals. None more illustrative example of one defying circumstances, than Abraham Lincoln. From 1832, he experienced victory and defeat nearly every year of his life. He failed in four major pursuits. The Illinois legislature. Failed in business. Lost speakership of the Illinois house. Failed to get an appointment to the U.S. Land Office. In1855, was defeated for the U.S. Senate, and again in 1858. Wouldn’t that be sufficient to “throw in the political towel? As we know, in1860, he was elected to the highest office in the Land. Consider a kid from Georgia poverty, permanently blind by age seven, discovered his love for music. “Brother Ray” Charles, the “Genius” of soul music, controlled his musical destiny and circumstances, with his own mainstream record company for four decades.
Throughout his career, he wearied of those saying, “Sorry it won’t work.” As a young man, he tried to get a job at the Kansas City Star, and he was disappointed, when they rejected him. Though circumstances seemed to prevail against him, he started his own small company called Laugh-O-Gram Films, to make cartoons. His money ran out. He had an idea for a cartoon character at which everyone scoffed. Eventually, the public embraced Mickey Mouse, and later Snow White. Then Disneyland. What if circumstances were altered, and Walt Disney had been hired by the newspaper?
The real danger, then and now, about misunderstanding circumstances is that one may adopt an impoverished view of the benefits of those unexpected events, falsely concluding such are random, dreadful, or unfairly deserved. When we deem it as a capricious act, absent purpose, we miss the fact that God’s ultimately behind all things-whether we understand or not. Relegating circumstances to the graveyard of happenstance, renders one impotent to God’s intervention and intent. Mysteriously, circumstances drive many to excel, others to resign-or worse. Circumstances are the adumbration of that which has yet to be revealed at the precise moment in space, time and history. Who’s the arbiter of those enigmas? What do you think?
Mike Pyatt’s a Natrona County resident. His email’s firstname.lastname@example.org
Mike lives in Wyoming and his column is sydicated in several Western Newspapers.