“It Was the Best of Times”
Those are the opening words of Charles Dickens’ famous novel, A Tale of Two Cities, set at the time of the French Revolution. They have been borrowed time and again by later writers, and now borrowed badly out of context by me. But I borrow those famous words just as a “launching pad” to say this: we should be careful with the connections we make between such a sentiment as expressed in those words and the seasons and events of our own lives. In fact, let me suggest that we frequently use the wrong standard when we judge what is “best” and what is “worst” about our lives. For example, we are – most of us, anyway – inclined toward a certain nostalgia, especially as we age, for “the good old days.” I suppose it’s hard to say for sure, but I suspect that such nostalgia often has much to do with the optimism, vigor, idealism and naïveté that fostered a certain sort of enjoyment in our youth. But as we age we experience the moderating of naïveté (and perhaps of idealism and optimism too, although hopefully not in the ultimate sense), and at some point we experience the loss of vigor. Together these things likely play more of a role in our nostalgic feelings than does an actually greater degree of goodness in the world at some time prior to now.
We all know the experience of going back to see something that seemed so huge when we were children – a house, a room, a park – only to find it rather small and cramped from our perspective as an adult. The same sort of dynamic no doubt also applies in some measure with respect to our perspective on the goodness of things past and present, only in reverse. We always thought of Mr. Smith as such a stalwart member of the community. Only later did we find out that he was abusive toward his wife. Mrs. Jones always told such funny stories. Only later did we find that a little too much alcohol frequently loosened her lips, and that she drank because she had lost an only child. Now this tendency that we have to distort things based on a perspective that at the time was so limited by no means tells the whole story. There really are times that are “better” in relative terms and times that are “worse.” Times of peace of course really are better than times of war. Days when you’re with someone you desperately love really are better than days when you are experiencing your loved one’s absence. These things are true.
But just now I am asking us to focus elsewhere – on something that is at least equally true, and perhaps in some ways more fundamentally true. Certainly it is more significant and truer than the often illusory pleasures of nostalgia. It happens also to be very counterintuitive. Namely this: sometimes, at least in this world, the hardest times are the best times. Yes, yes, I know. This sounds crazy. Foolish too. But we have to understand how it works. And if we believe the claims of the Bible, there is just no getting around it. What else explains Paul and Silas singing in prison (Acts 16)? Or the early Christian disciples rejoicing that they had been counted worthy to suffer for the Name (Acts 5)? Or even more poignantly, what else explains the Bible’s description of Christ’s cross as his “lifting up,” that is, as his glorification, on which basis he “draw[s] all people to himself” (John 12)?
We do well to meditate on these things, to take them to heart. Answer this: Would you rather enter heaven’s gate having spent all your life in upper middle class America during peacetime, relatively trouble free, living “the American dream,” or would you prefer to enter having “share[d] abundantly in Christ’s sufferings,” as the Apostle Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 1:5? What, indeed, are “the best times” in this world? Yes, there are more answers to that question than the things I am suggesting here. But there is no wholly true answer that excludes them.
Listen to the Apostle Paul once again: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Corinthians 4:7-11). What is better in this world than living “the American Dream?” Here’s what: that “the life of Jesus” should “be manifested in our mortal flesh.”
I point these things out for two reasons, one exhortative and the other comforting. The exhortative one is this: Leisure, wealth, status are all well and good, but we shouldn’t measure “the best of times” by whether or not we have them. Rather, we should measure, as best we can, against the standard of the life of Jesus being manifested in our mortal flesh. That will inevitably require some, perhaps a significant, amount of affliction. But this in the end is far better than any alternative. And the comforting reason is this: If you are going through suffering and affliction now, refuse the lie that this time must fall into the category of the worst of times. On the contrary, this time presents opportunity to manifest the life of Jesus in ways designed by God just for you. Don’t miss it. You may find one day that, contrary to all outward appearance, this turned out to be the best of times.