Beyond the Clouds

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Every cloud has a silver lining.

At least that is what they say.  And by “they,” I mean “we.” And by “we,” I mean “me.”

I know I have said it.  You know you have, too.

I want you to do something with me, at least as a mental exercise:  Take out a piece of paper.  Write that saying down nice and big.  Underline it.  Highlight it.  Circle the key words.

Now crumple it up and throw it away.

For too long we have accepted the usage of this idiom as some sort of balm, a way to foster positive thinking.  As believers, this phrase should have no place in our lexicon.  It is empty encouragement that is – at best – limited and short sighted, and – at worst – downright unbiblical. 

Good morning.  Are you awake yet?

Don’t worry, I have no intention of starting every week railing against some new part of speech (unless somebody gets me started on the proper use of comprise…).  I have, however, been reflecting on this phrase.  The more I reflect, the more I am convinced that we do ourselves and others a disservice when we allow it to become part of our thinking, especially as believers.

There are some dangerous faults that underlie this “silver lining” mentality.  First, let’s look at how this deals with the clouds.  The statement implies one of two things: either that “clouds happen” and you might as well find a way to mitigate your inevitable discomfort (which is a rather dismal and hopeless way to approach life) or that our “clouds” are neither as real nor as significant as we are making them out to be (which is exactly the kind of thing anyone in mourning or depression wants to hear).

Second, we find this nebulous promise of silver linings.  But what are they really?  On my cloudiest days I struggle to find what’s good.  When I do, it is usually because I found solace by comparing myself to somebody worse off (which is never a good way to make yourself feel better) or I’ve found the tiniest bit of positive to cling to, gild, and polish into some optimistic mantra.  Isn’t that what we all do?

I’m sure we can all think of a time we’ve said, “At least I still have                      .” Or  “It could be worse, I could have                    .”  Whatever we have used to fill in the blank, no matter how precious it may be, can we truly expect it to be our salvation?  Perhaps that is the most dangerous habit of our silver lining mentality: overvaluing whatever we have decided to make our glimmer of hope.  What happens, though, when our lifeline fails?  Or when its security is threatened?  Where does that leave us?

The truth is there will be clouds.

The truth is not all clouds have silver linings.

The truth is that silver linings aren’t generally worth much.

But that, my friends, is a good thing.  Because realizing the false hope of silver linings allows us to look past our circumstances to something bigger.  And the greatest Truth is we have something worth far more than silver, or even gold, to put our trust in.  [Haggai 2:8-9Philippians 3:8-11]

Look, the problem with “Every cloud has a silver lining” isn’t that it’s cliché, the problem is that it’s entirely too small.  What if, instead of relying on silver linings, we looked higher?  What if we looked beyond the clouds?  What if we trusted instead in the fact that – no matter the cloud cover, the season, or even the time of day – the sun continues to shine in all of its glory?

There is a difference between “silver linings” or – more specifically – positive thinking and faith.  Positive thinking, while it may boost your mood, is neither very secure nor very sustainable.  But faith is.  And the more I think about it, the more I believe that faith is looking at the clouds and seeing the sun Son.  Or, as Hebrews puts it:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Hebrews 11:1 [NASB]

Take a minute and skim the rest of that chapter.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.

It wasn’t positive thinking that kept Noah dry or kept Abraham going.  It wasn’t positive thinking that called Moses.  And Israel certainly didn’t run on positive thinking in the wilderness (seriously, have you read Exodus?).  While we’re at it, I’m pretty sure Christ didn’t have much use for positive thinking when He was facing His fate (John 12:27), praying for a way out (Matthew 26:36-45), and sweating blood (Luke 22:40-44).

It wasn’t positive thinking.  It was faith.

It was faith in God above and beyond their circumstances.

Speaking of phrases that can use a more biblical approach, do you like my new mug?

Positive thinking fails.  Our eyes strain from searching the clouds for silver linings.  We lose focus and begin to dwell on on the clouds themselves.  Our countenance falls, our hope fails, and we may even begin resenting God:

When we have decided that God is against us, we usually exaggerate our hopelessness.  We become so bitter we can’t see the rays of light peeping out around the clouds.

-John Piper, A Sweet & Bitter Providence

As I read the scriptures, I have yet to find one instance of God (or any of His prophets) coming close to saying, “Hey, look on the bright side.”  In the shadows and the storms, God’s word tends to be more along the lines of “Look up.  Look at Me.” Especially when we want to blame Him:

Sixteen times Job asked God “why?”  He is persistent and petulant.  He is accusatory toward God.  And, as has been observed by so many, God never answered Job’s “why.”  Instead he answered “Who.”

-Jerry Bridges, Trusting God

A few years ago I found myself in circumstances that put me at great risk, and all because I was following God’s call on my life.  I spent many hours in tearful, and often angry, prayer asking God why He would put me in such danger.  I couldn’t understand why my obedience would be rewarded with tribulation, fear, and uncertainty.  (Forgetting that Jesus had mentioned exactly this kind of thing.)

God hasn’t (and may never) reveal to me the why, but I trust, as Jerry Bridges says,

Whether we see beneficial results in this life or not, we are still called upon to trust God that in His love He wills what is best for us and in His wisdom He knows how to bring it about.

-Jerry Bridges, Trusting God

God did, however, rebuke my fear and remind me that it was He “who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth” and that He would “put [His words] in my mouth” and “[cover me] with the shadow of [His] hand”[Isaiah 51:12-16]

So, I can’t tell you the why.  What I can tell you is positive thinking would never have given me rest when I was too afraid to sleep or calmed me when I was too panicked to breathe.  It could only be faith.

Do you remember the story of Elisha and his servant in 2 Kings 6:8-17?

The king of Aram “sent horses and chariots and a great army” to search out little ol’ Elisha during the night because Elisha had given the king of Israel the heads up on where Aram’s army was going to be and spoiled all of his fun.  When he woke up and saw what is going on, Elisha’s servant went to him freaking out about the whole “horses-and-chariots-and-a-great-army”-waiting-outside-to-kill-them thing (completely legit reason to freak out, I might add) and Elisha essentially said, “Don’t worry, look higher.”

Specifically he said, “Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”  And then he prayed that his servants eyes would be opened so he could see the mountain “full of horses and chariots of fire” beyond the enemy army.

Elisha didn’t have to pray for his servant’s eyes to be opened, but he did so that his servant could see what Elisha already knew – that God is greater than our circumstances.  And that is the type of assurance and conviction Hebrews 11 is talking about.

I’m sure with the start of the new year we are all full of hope, excitement, and expectation.  Realistically, there are going to be at least a few tough, cloudy days ahead.  I pray that when we look at our clouds, when we lift our eyes and ask “Where will my help come from?” that we will know our hope is not in the clouds, our help is not in the mountains, but our help comes from the LORD,  who made heaven and earth.  This year, may you know that He who keeps you will neither slumber nor sleep. [Psalm 121]

The next few weeks, we’ll be going through Hebrews 11.  We’ll take a look the examples listed there and ask “What was so notable about their faith?”  and “What would it have looked like if they hadn’t trusted God?  What if they had resigned themselves to clouds and settled for silver linings?”  I hope you’ll stick around.

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