Seeing the Signs, Discerning the Times

We live in an intricately interwoven and interconnected civilization. Yet we are sailing in uncharted seas. Like the early explorers who traveled the globe, we have ample reason to believe that we will not literally sail over the edge; but within our human-created infrastructure there are new edges, borders and tipping points. Where is it all leading, and how can we find comfort and peace in a world that rides the knife edge of collapse?

Across history, mariners on the high seas used telltale signs to predict stormy weather beyond their line of sight. Observing a “red sky in the morning” was a sign of turbulence and possible danger, an indicator of storm fronts, gales and treacherous seas. The wise captain took the warning seriously and brought all of his collective experience to the task of preparing for events that he suspected lay ahead.

Even Jesus referred to this sign when speaking to the people of His day: “When it is evening you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red’; and in the morning, ‘It will be foul weather today, for the sky is red and threatening’” (Matthew 16:2–3a).

The Gospel writer Luke records a similar analysis: “Whenever you see a cloud rising out of the west, immediately you say, ‘A shower is coming’; and so it is. And when you see the south wind blow, you say, ‘There will be hot weather’; and there is” (Luke 12:54–55).

Those were simpler times, of course. Today we live under a constant barrage of data; life is much more complicated—not just complex, but complexified as layer upon layer piles up and vies for attention. We are drowning in a wash of information, warnings, advisories, advertisements and pronouncements. As we work to chart our course, it is very easy to get lost. Can we spot trouble ahead? Can we even discern sky from ground, vertical from horizontal? What is important? What is not?

Carefully designed attention-getting, consciousness-hogging images and rhetoric fill our minds. In ever-increasing quantities, we absorb them 24-7 through an earpiece or a large or small screen. It’s no wonder that we feel a kind of information overload. German-born economist E.F. Schumacher claimed that the modern world “tumbles from crisis to crisis.” But because so many events are packaged as crises, we end up deferring everything, paying true attention to nothing. Eventually the constant stimulation numbs us and deflects our focus away from truly important matters. And here we are, apparently safe because we have not gone over the edge. Neglect therefore becomes a way of life; doing nothing becomes habitual, even normal.

We have grown so numerous and so dominant that laissez-faire isn’t going to work. We don’t yet know whether, after going through the peak [population] of 9 billion, we can survive as a civilization that we would care for.”

Paul Ehrlich, Vision interview (Winter 2009)

We have historically unprecedented access, but are we benefiting from it? Jesus’ conclusion remains a relevant warning to us today. “You know how to discern the face of the sky,” He remarked, “but you cannot discern the signs of the times” (Matthew 16:3b).

Troubled Times

According to mariner lore, cloud patterns are a key predictor of the day’s weather. “Mares tails and mackerel scales,” rows of slowly merging clouds, foretell storms so that “tall ships take in their sails.”

Today there is no doubt that we live in troubled times. Every age has had its problems, and history is always cautionary. In a sense, the sky has always been filled with storm clouds, though the potential effect of our mistakes (and those of others) has ratcheted far upward over time.

A century ago, for example, teachers could be removed for getting married and students for chewing gum; today parents worry about pedophiles in the classroom. Mustard gas in that age killed thousands on the battlefields of Europe; now we fear that millions at a time may be wiped out by the unleashing of a dirty bomb in a metropolitan center, or by the indiscriminate fallout of a nuclear accident. From school, to travel, to life in a major city, we are exposed to dangers that in the past were very rare, very distant, or simply nonexistent. Yet, while we seem to be both physically and mentally closer to trouble all the time, we trim our sails for greater speed.

Medical doctor Richard Swenson has carefully examined the contraction of our safety net. In its tightening, which he describes as the unintended product of human progress, we find ourselves more closely packed and thus more ill at ease on all levels: personal, societal and cultural. Appropriately titled Margin, his book explains how a lack of margin or space in our lives is debilitating. Fear of the “out there” can be problem enough, but Swenson also notes that poor choices in our personal sphere—career, finances, relationships, spirituality—strip away any margin for error as well. We live life without a buffer.

A Web of Problems

In the past, writes physician Richard Swenson in Margin, our problems could be examined and solved in a piecemeal fashion. Because there was a distance between them, what he terms “a margin,” applying the reductionist principle of finding the one key pivot point to any one particular problem could lead to its resolution. Now, he argues, that margin has disappeared; one problem blends in to the next, making the solution to any one problem contingent on solving the others as well. As the overlap grows and the problems become integrated, it is not merely the list that haunts us; it is the totality of human failure embodied in the whole that bodes a systemic unraveling: “Whether we like it or not,” Swenson writes, “history will steamroll us with the whole, not with particles.”

He explains: “When we integrate our criminal activity, urban war zones, street gangs, drug addiction, skyrocketing prison population, national debt, foreign trade deficit, corporate and consumer debt, savings and loan and banking crises, record closing of hospitals, soaring costs of health care and college education, deteriorating education, sexually transmitted diseases, hundreds of thousands of AIDS cases, alcoholism, family breakdown, divorce, teenage pregnancy, single parenting, child abuse, collapse of our child-protection system, increasing stress, complexity, overload, anxiety, depression, suicide, pollution, litigation, crumbling infrastructure, ‘death-oriented hopelessness’ of the contemporary arts, and the vanishing of both tradition and community, we find that the specifics, the dimensions, and the threat are all very different today than ever before” (emphasis added).

One would have hoped that the process of progress would have been kind to our emotional life,” Swenson writes, “making it ever easier to replenish our reserves. It might have seemed reasonable to speculate that as our society improved in the areas of education, affluence, and entertainment, we would see a commensurate improvement in overall emotional well-being. Yet such has not been the case.”

On the national and international fronts we can perceive that same lack of margin. We see it in leadership transitions around the world, and we feel it in the streets. “Yes, we are living in a world where there are no easy answers to the most difficult challenges we face beyond our borders,” writes Harry Blaney, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP). “These include Syria, North Korea, Iran, the continued unrest in the Middle East not least including dealing with Egypt’s turmoil, the Israeli-Arab peace negotiations, and the whole Arab Spring. Not least also is the pernicious impact of the gap between the very rich and those living in poverty around the world.”

People everywhere want change, something different that will solve the problems they recognize intellectually and feel emotionally, but they have few resources to bring to the table. Many look to a new government or better leadership to provide solutions for the countless problems we all encounter ever closer at hand. But effective leadership seems as lacking today as when John Gardner wrote decades ago. “We are faced,” he said, “with immensely threatening problems—terrorism, AIDS, drugs, depletion of the ozone layer, the threat of nuclear conflict, toxic waste, the real possibility of economic disaster. Even moderately informed citizens could extend the list. Yet on none of the items listed does our response acknowledge the manifest urgency of the problem. We give every appearance of sleepwalking through a dangerous passage of history.”

On the environmental front, continuing studies show that climate change, with its effects on global rainfall, ocean levels and living conditions for all forms of life, will continue regardless of what we do. The hand-wringing will continue, but if the physics is to be believed, we seem to have front-loaded the system for instability, and global carbon dioxide emissions are only slated to rise. Although new technologies that promise greater energy efficiency and lower carbon footprints have great appeal and are fantastic in their ingenuity, their appearance seems to fall behind the curve of exponential change.

Progress has given us unprecedented affluence, education, technology, and entertainment. We have comforts and conveniences other eras could only dream about. Yet somehow, we are not flourishing under the gifts of modernity as one would expect.”  

Richard A. Swenson, M.D., Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Our Overloaded Lives

As Swenson notes, it is the integrated nature of our problems that is of the greatest concern. Population, employment, social equity, economic growth and energy use are all interconnected. One cannot simply address carbon dioxide without dealing with the others: “Seeing everything together and connected gives us a more accurate assessment of the immensity that confronts us. It is this [integrated] perspective that is so troubling about our modern-day situation.”

Sadly, Swenson contends, “breakdown on a large scale is now within our reach.”

Global Sea Change

The signs of the times are indeed grim, and “severe storms” are in the forecast. As it was in Noah’s day, however, human society as a whole continues apace, oblivious to its precarious place in time (Matthew 24:37–39). Although CIP’s Blaney in no way equates our situation today as relevant to the return of Christ, he does recognize the disconnect in our perception of our place in historical time: “One of the reasons we have not been as good at understanding change as we might have been is that we are taught about a past world as if it were still existing; we are preparing ourselves for a world we no longer face. Even now our schools teach about the world of past decades and largely ignore the present let alone the future” (Global Challenges: A World at Risk).

The past world Blaney refers to is the one of disconnected events, a time when our choices did not have global ramifications. It is that world of independent events that no longer exists. The far more interesting conclusion, however, given the scope of human history outlined in the Bible, is that the world today is ever more like the pre-Flood world of Noah. Then as now, it was a world of violence and was for the most part disconnected from its Creator. Humanity was preserved by the barest of margins (Genesis 6:5–8), with the rainbow signaling continuing preservation (Genesis 8:21–22; 9:12–17).

Never again will I let floodwaters destroy all life. When I see the rainbow in the sky, I will always remember the promise that I have made to every living creature. The rainbow will be the sign of that solemn promise.”  

Genesis 9:15b–17, Contemporary English Version 

At the core of the ongoing disconnect between man and God is sovereignty over our actions. The problems facing society today—whether political, economic, educational, military or social—are not the cause of our woes; they are only effects of a deeper spiritual problem: from the outset, under the disruptive advice of our adversary (Genesis 3), we have arrogantly rejected our Creator, His purpose and His way of life. And so we suffer the consequences.

Swenson aptly describes the nature of the problem: In our fallible state we have gone in quest of “progress,” and in so doing “we have magnified nearly every human flaw. We have put armaments in the hands of our hostility, litigation in the hands of our cynicism, affluence in the hands of our greed, the media in the hands of our decadence, advertisements in the hands of our discontent, pornography in the hands of our lust, and education in the hands of our pride.”

Hostility, cynicism, greed, decadence, discontent, lust and pride: these negative human characteristics are at the heart of the host of woes our society faces. These are not simply human rights gone wrong.

The Green Flash

While the rainbow reminds us of God’s intervention in history, another phenomenon also occurs through the interaction of the sun and the atmosphere. It is a rare event called the green flash, which can appear at sunset at the ocean’s horizon as rays of sunlight are refracted at just the right angle through air of just the right quality. Like a moment of truth, the flash lasts just a second or so. Jules Verne considered its brilliance otherworldly, symbolic of hope.

Similarly, discerning the core of our problems and the reality of God’s true hope may occur in a simple flash of insight: without a connection to God, we cannot truly know what is right, nor can we know real hope (Colossians 1:27). What is good for us is not within us to determine. Our physical senses cannot assure us that the Ten Commandments are valid, that the Bible is wholly credible, or that God cares for us individually. To believe that adherence to God’s laws is in our best interest—and that it is our human destiny to eventually embrace them—is a matter of faith, not of science, psychology or history.

God seeks to restore a connection with us and promises to do so. But because human knowledge alone lacks godly insight and the power to change itself, unaided we will never be adequate to the task of restoration. The prophets warned of a time when our collective efforts to rule ourselves would collapse, and it doesn’t take an expert to recognize the telltale signs of that storm on the horizon. Yet they also gave the assurance that both rescue and redemption are on the other side of these tumultuous times (Jeremiah 31:33–34; Joel 2:28–29). As the apostle Peter assured us, this plan is ongoing (Acts 2:38–39).

Our Creator’s ultimate plan is not human ruin. But as parents often discover with recalcitrant children, some lessons are best learned through hard times. The signs of these coming times have been with us for millennia, but today we are privy to their exponential growth. They affect us and hurt us in ways that are often beyond comprehension. Even so, God offers respite and peace of mind to those who are drawn to His way of life in the present age before the ultimate calamity occurs.

This is not an easy path in a world that operates from contrary principles. To understand that there must be a right spiritual foundation for true success and satisfaction in life, a foundation that inspires happiness and contentment within us through our right relationships with fellow man and God, is rare enough. To act on it is rarer still.

Even so, that flash of insight still occurs—insight into the times in which we live and the only course to a safe harbor. If you experience it, how will you set your heading?