As far as numbers go, there are few weightier ones in Scripture than forty. The rains pound down on poor Noah and his floating zoo for forty days and forty nights. Moses spends the same period of time on the top of a cloud-enshrouded mountain and emerges with an impressive pair of stone tablets for his trouble. Upon returning from his Sinai sojourn, the same Moses spends forty days and forty nights interceding for his miserable flock that had descended into idolatry in his absence. The Israelite people as a whole spend forty years traipsing around the wilderness being trained in what leaving Egypt and trusting God actually looks like. Moses sends an intrepid band of explorers to scout out the land of Canaan for, yes, forty days. Jonah (reluctantly) tells the Ninevites that they have forty days to smarten up before some smiting comes their way. And then, of course, we arrive at Jesus who spends forty days and forty nights in the desert in an undoing and redoing of Israel’s wilderness (mis)adventures.
These are just a few of the more obvious appearances of “forty.” There are countless other biblical references to people who took on significant roles of leadership at forty or who reigned as kings or judges for forty years or of the land enjoying peace for forty years or of an army having forty thousand soldiers or of such and such part of the tabernacle requiring forty of this or forty of that or being forty cubits long. Forty is a big bible number. It often represents a time of trial or testing—a time in which people have the opportunity to leave one reality and embrace another or more fully enter into it or demonstrate renewed faithfulness or be purged of their sin or somehow encounter God in a transformative way.
Something significant is supposed to happen in forty days or forty years. If we’re paying attention.
For the last eleven months or so, I have walked around with this strange number hanging around my neck. Forty. Like many, I suspect, it’s not a number that I particularly relish associating with myself. It’s a word that seems to fit much better on, um, older people. But as it happens, I was not present when God set the world into motion and was not consulted about the mechanics of time’s passage or how a human life would typically unfold. I have thus had little control over my arrival at this magical, mysterious number. Forty.
In keeping with the biblical theme of “forty” being a number within which important stuff is supposed to happen, I found myself wondering this morning about what my forty years on this planet have yielded. I haven’t encountered any burning bushes or golden calves or Canaanites or Ninevites (or cubits, for that matter). But I have encountered God within the frame of forty, even if in less exciting ways. And it’s probably worth reminding myself of this from time to time.
Here, then, in no particular order is a random grab-bag of things I have learned, am learning, or hope to one day learn about life, faith, and God based on my forty years of wandering and wondering:
- Jesus loves me, this I know (even if I don’t always know how).
- My ideas about God are not (incredibly!) the same thing as God.
- Slavery is a difficult thing to leave. I used to think the Israelites were idiots for taking so long to figure things out. Now, forty years into my own pilgrimage, I happen to think they were impressively quick learners.
- I have a deep conviction that the judge of the earth will, indeed, ultimately do what is right, as Moses pleaded in Genesis 18:25. Also, I am increasingly being gifted with daily reminders that I am neither the judge of the earth nor, many days, much inclined toward doing what is right. I should, consequently, shut up rather more often than I tend to.
- Trust is not my natural state. Anxiety comes far easier. The past and the future so often conspire to squeeze the present into a small and selfish thing. But trust is becoming something like the Canaan of my imagination—a land full of good things that I am invited into, a land where I enjoy what I did not plant and what I cannot secure for myself.
- “Neighbours” and even “enemies” are relatively easy to love until you meet them. Abstraction is far more manageable than flesh-and-blood reality.
- Speaking of enemies, it’s uncanny how often God’s enemies so closely resemble my own (real or imagined). God seems to have exquisite taste in enemies.
- Dying to self is profoundly liberating. Selves can be crippling taskmasters.
- Words are a gift that nourish my soul. There is something so deeply profound about the introduction to the Gospel of John… In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Words are how God gets things done in the world. Words are how God gets a world going at all. We live in a world that has been addressed by a Word—a world that is itself an address.
- There really is nothing new under the sun.
- Forgiveness—real forgiveness where wrong is named and acknowledged and turned away from, not the casual absolutions we toss around because we can’t be bothered to face pain squarely—can shatter and remake the soul. And withholding it will be the death of us (Matthew 6:15).
- It’s cool to be God’s adopted kid.
- The fruit of God’s spirit is what our communities and families and nations and churches need so desperately. Love, joy, Peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control… Is there anything that wouldn’t be improved by more of these things? But fruit isn’t always attractive in a fast-food culture addicted to cheap and unhealthy options…
- Did God really say… Four of the saddest words ever uttered. Followed closely by, I was afraid… So I hid.
- Prayer is hard. Silence is harder. Noise is a sedative and a pacifier. Especially the digital kind.
- Death leading to new life is the pattern of creation and it is the way that human beings become what we were made to be. The world moves in Jesus-shaped ways.
- Love—real love, not the syrupy cosmetic versions that saturate our media—is the most beautiful thing the world has ever seen or will ever see. It’s also one of the hardest. If we’re doing it right.
- Life is about learning how to lose things. It is also about learning how to come home.