by Jim Ward
via The Lost River Bulletin, Vol. 59, No. 1, Jan. 2009.
Robert Burns, the Bard of Scotland, was also known as the "Ploughman Bard," because he earned his sparse living as a farmer. One day while plowing, Mr. Burns destroyed a nest of a mouse. He marked the event in a poem entitled "To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With A Plough, Nov. 1785." In this eight-stanza ode, he compared his life and fate to that of the mouse. Of course, the work is of universal significance, as a translation of the last two verses will readily demonstrate:
But Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leaves us nothing but grief and pain
For promised joy!
Still you are blest, compared with me!
The present only touches you:
But oh! I backward cast my eye,
On prospects drear!
And forward, though I cannot see,
I guess and fear!
I don't know if Mr. Burns believed in God, but if so, it didn't change his bleak outlook on life. Foresight is vain, he said, and the joy we anticipate falls through, leaving us with nothing but "grief and pain." While mice are touched only by the present, he opined, we human beings look back on a dreary past and forward to a future we can only guess about and fear.
Whew, talk about depressing! Isn't it a blessing that we Christians don't have to live with such a cynical and defeated view of life?
Of course, Mr. Burns was not completely wrong, at least from a human viewpoint. Now, as in 1785, "The best-laid schemes of mice and men" do often go astray. the continuing market turmoil has reminded us of that. The world has difficulty taking this sort of thing in stride.
Though such events affect Christians, they don't catch us by surprise; they don't send us into a tailspin. Not if we pay attention to the Scripture:
"Now listen, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.' Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes, instead, you ought to say, 'If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that.' As it is , you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil" (James 4:13-16).
James is not telling us to make no plans; he is saying that though we may plan for the future, we cannot plan on the future. The "best-laid schemes..."
Go Often Askew?
For some people, if not most, death marks a cruel cessation of their plans. For Christians, it is part of the plan. Paul put it this way: "For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21). Illness and injury remind us that there are other paths for us to take, other roads that lead us to other -- and possibly even better -- ways of serving God. it doesn't take perfect health or whole bodies. As with Paul, God's grace can lift us above a "thorn in the flesh" (II Corinthians 12:7).
Sister Craig was a beloved saint whom Janie and I knew in Orlando, Florida, in the mid-1960s. Her "thorn" was old age; she wasn't bedfast, but she was housebound. She didn't use this as an excuse to do nothing. The telephone and the U.S. Post Office were her connections to the outside world. Janie and I did not dare visit her without taking the church bulletin and a handful of cards and tracts. The bulletin gave her the names she needed for making calls and sending cards of encouragement. The tracts were for teaching family and friends, especially those who were not Christians.
Before we knew Sister Craig, when we lived in Dover, Florida, Janie and I met Otis Jordan. Otis was a carpenter, who, as many would put it, had the misfortune to fall off a roof and permanently injure himself. Was it truly a misfortune? Maybe God didn't think so. You see, I began a training class in which Otis took part. As he began to "make talks" he got better and better and became more and more interested in preaching the gospel. And that's what he did. Kissimmee, Titusville, Spring Warrior, Mayo - Otis preached all around Florida, up until his death.
We might say that Otis's plans went astray; he intended to be a carpenter all of his life. But perhaps God's plans stayed right on course.
Not only can we serve God in difficult circumstances, but often we can do better. God will use our trials to refine us, to give us a sharper focus, and a stronger commitment. A "thorn in the flesh" reminds us not to stint on effort or to waste time, not to trust in ourselves but in God.
Mr. Burns said, "I backward cast my eye, On prospects drear! In some ways, he was right. The Christian looks back with regret on a life of sin. With a "backward" glance, Paul saw himself as the "chief" of sinners, "a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man" (I Timothy 1:13,15). In other ways, it's wise to look back and be reminded of how aimless and wasteful a life of sin is. The contrast between what we were and what we have become in Christ lifts our hearts with gratitude and joy. It's as though we were dying of a fatal disease but have now been cured. When we forget that we have been cleansed from our "old sins," we forget to add the spiritual qualities of virtue, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love that help make our "call and election sure" (II Peter 1:5-9).
To put that another way, the deep-down realization of what it means to have been cleansed of our sin makes us want to grow and do even better. In that way, it can be beneficial to look back.
In yet another way, though, it's best to forget the past -- with its failures and even its accomplishments -- if it distracts us from "reaching forward to those things which are ahead" and "pressing toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:13-14). And that leads us to a consideration of...
For Mr. Burns the past was drear, and the future didn't look any better. "And forward, though I cannot see, I guess and fear! Again, this is true in one sense; we "cannot see" our earthly future. Moses didn't anticipate becoming the leader of the Nation of Israel (Exodus). Nebuchadnezzar didn't foresee his madness (Daniel 4). Amos never dreamed of becoming a prophet. He was a country boy -- a shepherd and a dresser of sycamore trees -- but become a prophet he did (Amos 7:14,15). Do you think that Joseph and Mary had an inkling that they would become parents of the Savior of the world (Matthew 1)? And what about Elymas? Pardon the pun, but do you think he saw that he would become blind (Acts 13)?
No, none of these imagined the twists and turns their lives would take, any more than you or I do. But as the saying goes, "I may not know what the future holds, but I know Who holds the future."
And in that sense, Robert Burns was wrong. When Christians look ahead, it is not with guesses and fear, but with faith and hope. "I know whom I have believed," said Paul, "and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day" (II Timothy 1:12). Peter said that God "has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time" (I Peter 1:3-5).
As astute as Mr. Burns was, he seems not to have reckoned with the love and power of Jehovah. Our God doesn't leave us "nothing but grief and pain for promised joy." He leaves us -- what else? -- joy!