Mar30ThuMarch 30, 2017
One day in the 1970’s, in a Queen’s University course on Old English Literature (Chaucer in particular), I got a higher grade than almost all of my class-mates by submitting a very brief essay that clearly conveyed to the professor that I had nothing intelligent to write about “The Significance of Colour in The Canterbury Tales.”
The day the professor returned the essays, he singled mine out, and announced to the class that it had two of the three virtues of a good essay. (“Brevity, clarity and wit”.) Then he read my tiny little essay to the class. As he did, some of my fellow-students laughed at the "witty" parts with him. But when he announced the grade he had given me—evidently, one of the top marks in the class—the mood in the room changed from chuckling and laughing to annoyance and anger. And why was that? Because of the incongruity of my high grade and my apparent refusal to make any real effort to fulfill the assignment, and also the incongruity of a short, flippant essay getting a higher mark than the essays of many in the class who took the assignment seriously and worked hard to fulfill the professor’s expectations.
It was years later that I learned the strange relationship of anger and mirth, and how closely related they are. Our anger and amusement are sisters, in fact. And “incongruity” is their mother. That is, to our anger and our laughter, "mom" is our own sense of inappropriateness, inconsonance, inharmoniousness. And they are fathered by our own expectations of what a happy, safe and delightful life we are entitled to.
From the very earliest stages of our lives, we experience anger, whether mild or wild, when we are annoyed or offended or indignant about an incongruity in our circumstances or experiences or relationships. That is, when something or someone fails to align with our expectations. (Think of a person being thoroughly ticked off because the [square] peg in his hand will not fit into the [round] hole which he is very certain it was made for.)
Along parallel lines, we experience laughter, whether a quiet chuckle or an outburst of hilarity, when we are amused or delighted by something or someone not fulfilling our incidental expectations. Think of a dignified man, dressed formally and speaking with a profound sense of self-importance, slipping and falling on a banana peel. This would be an amusing incongruity—especially to people who have developed a taste for slapstick comedy.
Now, about my book. Whatever people make of its four-word title, readers (and even browsers) should agree that the title (perhaps intentionally) cries out for an explanatory subtitle. So I wrote one. “The Face of Christ and the Strength to Face Anything”. What those ten words are intended to explain is the dual use of the word “face.” In the one case, it is a noun, referring to “the face of Christ,” and metaphorically meaning a deeply personal relational knowledge of Christ. In the other case, “face” is a verb, meaning to look confidently and knowingly, rather than fearfully and ignorantly, at our personal circumstances.
This subtitle is meant to set a reader up to look (in the book) for the link between cultivating a deep, personal knowledge of Christ and becoming strong enough to face “anything.” I could have replaced the word “anything” with the word “incongruity”, for whatever is going on in our lives that requires strength to face is, in some sense, an incongruity to us. If it is an incongruity that provokes us to laugh, it doesn’t require strength to face, unless the laughter (perhaps a very quiet laugh: only a chuckle or a smirk) is an expression of discomfort or dissatisfaction or disappointment. In that case, the very quiet laugh is almost always accompanied by a roll of the eyes.
Now here is the point. The circumstances that are incongruities to us are NOT incongruities to God. What the writers of the Bible mean by the foreknowledge of God is not his perfect ability to know the future but rather his perfect ability to control the future—and the present—and to work out “all things” for the benefit and well being of “those who love him,” and for the fulfillment of his good and acceptable and perfect will. Our God-given "strength to face anything," in part, is grounded in the eternal truth that God has all the details of life under control and in place, according to what he has determined shall come to pass—and shall remain in place for exactly as long as he intends.
Therefore, when we find ourselves positioned to laugh at our circumstances or to be angry at our acquaintances, we should keep firmly in mind what we know of our great Lord and Saviour’s power and mercy and righteousness. “Anything” we face that seems “incongruous” to us is NOT “incongruous” to God.
“The LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble ... For I know that the LORD is great, and that our Lord is above all gods. Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps ” [Proverbs 16:4; Psalm 135:5,6 ESV]