Acts 24. Looking on the bright side can help reframe a situation, a day and even a life. But when circumstances are adverse enough, the search for silver linings can seem more like the alchemist’s quest to transform lead into gold. Is there always a silver lining? What if the clouds are so dark we can see nothing good in them at all?
We can guess at silver linings. We can whack at our circumstances like they’re pinatas and we’re hoping for candy to rain down on us. But sometimes our situations can be as unyielding as a faulty pinata. Remember those? The ones where no child could break it open so the frustrated father yelled at us all to “STAND BACK” so he could go at it with a baseball bat? Some people’s dark clouds are that impenetrable. So how are we to find the silver lining then?
One of my favorite English teachers in high school made fun of the fictional character of Pollyanna. Mr. Gula said that to be a Pollyanna implied you were optimistic to the point of naivety. I shrank low in my seat. I LOVED Pollyanna. I’d read every one of the Pollyanna books – repeatedly. I felt sure Mr. Gula had misrepresented the nuance of Pollyanna. To me, she was a very real person with depth of character. She wasn’t blindly optimistic. She experienced the deprivations of her childhood keenly. She was so empathetic that when others wept she wept with them. And yet she never lost her faith. She was gifted in the art of finding silver linings. She helped people see through adverse circumstances to a positive take on their suffering. She knew how to find the subtle form of blessings wrapped in sorrows – but she never lost sight of the piercing keening quality of those sorrows.
I now guess that Mr. Gula probably had never cracked open one of those tweenage girl novels. Instead, he was referring more to the concept of an unfeeling rote response to human suffering. The so-called “Pollyanna” principle is perhaps better reflected not in Pollyanna herself but in Voltaire’s Candide. Candide is indeed a one dimensional character who reacts in a cheery voice to the most horrific of circumstances with a pat murmur: “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”
The Bible is clear that Candide’s approach is wrong. As King Solomon put it: “Singing cheerful songs to a person with a heavy heart is like taking someone’s coat in cold weather.” Proverbs 25:20. The Bible implies it’s more than obnoxious to chirp of silver linings to those under a dark cloud; the Bible implies it’s as selfish and wrong as theft. We seem to be satisfying our own needs when we do it.
We need, like the real Pollyanna, to recognize the nuance of adversity. All is not for the best. This is not the best of all possible worlds. Our hearts break often. We hunger for a more perfect world, a more perfect union with other humans, more perfect health, more perfect behavior from ourselves and others, more perfect joy for all mankind. We long for these things like a deer thirsting for water in a parched land. We want something to fill the longing inside each of us that nothing – not even the best of circumstances – seems to be able to fill. So if even positive circumstances can leave us dry, we all know the utter deprivation we and others experience in adverse circumstances. How are we to react then?
The first answer is that a silver lining to most clouds is that they force us to ask for help from other human beings. We have to swallow our pride. And we discover we actually like the results. When we are really sick or really sad, just having someone come and sit with us helps enormously. They can read a book. They can say nothing. Often in those times we prefer them to say nothing. But having them there comforts us. Their presence can be the silver lining. And sometimes when someone has sat with us long enough in our misery, we are willing to let them reframe the situation for us. If they are in a relationship with us – as opposed to preaching blithely from what feels like the outside – they can help us immensely by pointing out the blessings of our situation that we, in our self-absorption, are blind to.
But what if things are so bad no one would presume to find a silver lining – what if someone’s child dies? Or we’re all alone? What if no one comes – no matter how desperately we cry out? What if God Himself seems absent? What if we cry ourselves hoarse and the universe seems deaf? And what if we’re too proud to ask for help? What if we know we should humble ourselves to ask and yet we just CAN’T bring ourselves to do it? What if we’re as full of pride as the elderly Edith Wharton character who eats dog food and starves to death in a freezing garret because she can’t bring herself to admit her poverty?
Where is the silver lining when the cloud looks all dark?
In the New York Times book review, Dwight Garner states that he paradoxically loved Will Self’s new novel but hated the act of reading it: “You give yourself over to ‘Umbrella’ in flashes as if it were a radio station you’re unable to tune in that you suspect is playing the most beautiful song you will ever hear.”
Is that how we are to look at adverse circumstances? Are we to give in to a sense that no matter how bad things are, there is something deeper going on – a radio station we can’t quite tune into that we sense is playing the most beautiful song we will ever hear?
Yes. God promises in Isaiah to walk through every fire and flood “with” us. He promises in Romans 8 to bring good “out of” bad. How can we believe Him? Because on the cross God Himself left the land of silver to put Himself under the darkest cloud of all. Why? Why would he take all our dark clouds for us?
Because God IS love. We so often mistake God for our earthly fathers. If our fathers are distant or angry or distracted or abusive or selfish or absent, we project those qualities onto God. But He’s not like that. God has the best qualities of our human fathers without the bad ones. God doesn’t love us because we’re optimistic. He doesn’t adore us because we’re adept in the art of finding silver linings. He just loves us. We may throw God under the bus for thirty pieces of silver; we may deserve a “black cloud with no silver lining” but God took that black cloud for us so He can give us a new life shot through with silver. Joel 2:1-2; Amos 5:18-20.
So if we can’t find a silver lining, it may feel like we’re in the worst place but we’re really in the best place. “I will exchange your iron for silver,” God promises. Isaiah 60:17 When all seems lost and we lack all resources of our own, we are finally in the place of utter dependence required for our ears to be open to the gospel of grace. Unlike Governor Felix in this chapter of Acts, who listened to Paul because he was hoping for gold or to please his citizens, when we are desperate we listen with no agenda at all. We listen to whatever aria God wants to sing. And that’s where the gold materializes out of lead.
The darker our circumstances, the more room there is for us to invite God in. He will be with us and give us His loving presence – which is the most paradoxically beautiful alchemy of all. For God’s loving presence brightens the darkest of circumstances even when – especially when – they seem to make no sense at all. We drink from a silver cup. Just reframing things doesn’t give us the living water we thirst for. We discover when we’re under a dark cloud that His presence is the thing we’ve longed for our whole lives – no matter what the circumstances. And once we have Him, we will never lack for any good thing.
posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on January 28, 2013, with thanks to my visiting friend for indulging me in a photo shoot even before being given coffee…