I am an inveterate movie watcher and reviewer, but I must confess for reasons I don’t fully understand, I had put off seeing the movie ‘The Tree of Life’ until now. It is a singular providence of God, as Mr. Wesley would call it, that I did so, for it is a profound reflection on not only the meaning of life, but on what it means to lose a beloved child to sudden, unexpected death.
The movie begins with a famous quotation from Job 38 where God asks Job where were you when creation happened and all the stars sang together in joy? Indeed, much of the first half of the movie is a reflect on the theology of the book of Job about life and death, with gorgeous shots of creation showing its beauty, its power, its awesome capacity to transfix and transform us.
But as the move says right at the outset, there are two ways to approach life— the way of nature and the way of grace. At the end of the day you can’t find all you need to know about God and the meaning of life from examining nature, or even human nature.
I think I first learned this when I first preached on 1 Kings 19, the famous story about Elijah’s journey to Horeb and what he encountered there. You will remember there was a huge wind, then an earthquake, then a fire. But the text is quite clear— ‘God was not in the wind, the earthquake or the fire’.
You could not discern God’s specific will for Elijah through pondering these natural events. Yes, in some sense they are manifestations of general revelation that God is a creator God, but no they tell us nothing about the way of grace, the way of redemption. We need special revelation for that, and it is no accident that the story in 1 Kings 19 ends with ‘a still small voice’ speaking directly to Elijah and revealing what he would have Elijah to do, which is to go back to Israel, and go back to being the prophet he was before, though with divinely appointed help. Just as God wants me to do.
I like the way ‘the Tree of Life’ sets out the fact that the way of grace does not try to please itself, or get others to please it, it is not self-centered, it is not contentious, it accepts wrongs and injuries done against it, and its only Gospel is love, unconditional love. Indeed, you can hear the echoes of 1 Corinthians 13 at the opening of the movie.
This is contrasted with the way of nature. What is said about the way of nature is … it only wants to please itself and likes to lord it over others and to have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when love is shining through all things.
In the move Brad Pitt, the husband plays the role of the way of nature, the way of striving and contention, while Jessica Chastain plays the way of grace, and this passion play plays out in the lives of their children when ‘Jack’ becomes more like his father, but at least one of the other two children become more like the mother.It is to the mother that the news first comes, at the beginning of the film about the loss of her child, and she is indeed devastated. But she continues to follow the way of grace throughout the film even after such a tragedy. She says at the beginning of the film. “You have to choose which way you will follow. We have been taught that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end. And then, even in her grief she says to God— ‘I will be true to you’.”
Now I have to tell you that I saw more than a little of my Christy in the performance of Jessica Chastain in that movie. Christy suffered a lot, and suffered with those she loved, with her friends. Her friend James who found her on the floor of her house had been helped and counseled through his own loss of love before she died. He gave a testimony to this through tears at our time after the funeral, our time for Christy stories.
Christy was a gentle soul who would not harm a fly, and she absolutely followed the way of grace not the way of nature through life. She led with her heart, even when it got stepped on. I agree with what is said in this film— ‘no one who loves the way of grace will come to a bad end’, and while I know Christy has come to a sudden end, it is not a bad end, it is never bad to go fully into the presence of the one who is full of grace and truth.
The movie ‘The Tree of Life’ makes clear despite all the beauty in this world, that the way of nature is indeed about striving, about survival of the fittest. Nature is red in tooth and claw however beautiful it is. And Elijah did not learn the way of grace or God’s will by watching nature. He had to listen to the still small voice.
It is what I must do in my sadness. It is what I have chosen to do. And so I have chosen to grieve like those who have hope and follow the way of grace. I have chosen not to grieve like those who have no hope and rail against the unfairness of it all, against a God who seems to be cold and distant.
Perhaps the way I should view things is the way they are laid out in a text one of my blog respondents suggested I read through. Here is what it says in Isaiah 57.1-2: “The righteous perish, and no one takes it to heart; the devout are taken away, while no one understands. For the righteous are taken away from calamity, and then enter into peace.”
Perhaps after all, God did see the long horizon, and lots more suffering for Christy yet to come, and perhaps he took January 10th as the right time to allow her to pass into his everlasting arms and peace. Perhaps that was the way of grace for someone who had been ‘full of grace’ in her life.
I honestly don’t know if this text is applicable in her case, though one day I expect to know when I see face to face. In the meanwhile, I too will follow the way of grace and believe that no one who does so truly comes to a bad end, for a bad end has to do not just with how one’s earthly life comes to a conclusion, but actually more to do with what happens thereafter as well.