Only the impeded river sings
“Just listen.” That was some of the wise advice I got from an older pastor about talking to someone who was suffering. No matter if it is sickness, tragedy, trials, or worse, no one really feels like listening when they are facing tough times. That’s what makes the words from Peter stand out at the end of 1 Peter 4 as he begins to close his letter. He tells his readers, and by extension us, to “not be surprised” when suffering comes.
We spend most of our lives trying to avoid suffering, even though the pages of the Bible clearly teach that suffering will come to all of us. As a pastor, I can’t imagine sitting with someone in the hospital and telling them as they face a tragedy “well don’t be surprised.” It feels callous at best, but the words of Peter stand as a stark reminder to us that no one will escape suffering. Right now as you read this you are probably facing difficulties of some kind. Thankfully the Bible also teaches that the suffering we face on earth produces good in our lives too. Peter goes right on to tell us that this suffering that we endure is for our testing, for the purpose of sharing in the sufferings of Christ and keeping our hearts close to God.
Peter’s words come as a shock to us, but deep down we know he is right. Thankfully we can also know that even though we all face suffering in our lives, it is often this very suffering that allows our lives to be a witness to others. The obstructions and difficulties in our lives are the very things that allow us to point others toward God.
If you travel out to any flowing body of water, you can hear that distinct sound. People pay good money for sound machines to hear that sound, and you can listen to it for hours on YouTube. The roar of the water seems so calming and soothing to us, much like standing and listening to waves on the beach. The sound of a river is different though, because as it bends and moves across the countryside, the river encounters boulders, streams, bridges, trees, and more that obstruct it’s flow. At the point of the biggest obstruction the river makes the biggest sound. But if you get to a quiet spot, the river is flowing but you can’t hear it as well.
The obstacles in the water are what makes that sound that we all find so attractive. When the moving water rushes past the rocks and over the falls, it’s only then that the river starts to warble. It might be a trickling brook working it’s way over a few small stones, or it might be a big river pulsing over giant boulders. The sound might be big or small depending on the flow of the water and the size of the obstacle. But the obstacles in the water are what makes that sound that we love to sit and listen to.
Wendell Berry said it more simply when he said “only the impeded stream sings.”
In the same way when our hearts push up against the troubles of this world, they start to sing. They make noise, they grab attention. The small boulders might not be much of a hassle as we flow right over them. But at other times our lives just seem to beat up against the biggest rocks in the world. At times they seem so great that it doesn’t seem like we can get around them at all. The larger the boulder the greater disruption on the flow of the river. When our hearts beat up against those rocks and boulders is the moment that our rivers seem to sing the loudest. And at that moment, when suffering comes, is right when we can glorify God the most. The obstacle in the water is what makes the river sing. In the same way the very act of suffering in our lives is what makes our lives sing the glory of God. We could remove all the stones from the river, but we would remove much of what gives it beauty. If we removed all the suffering from our lives we would rightly give God the glory, but we would also find that our hearts wouldn’t regularly turn to God like they do in suffering. By removing the obstacles in the river you would remove what makes it sing. And by removing suffering in your life you would remove much of your witness to God.
Everyone's life is going to send a message as they suffer. As you watch someone endure tragedy and heartache, don’t be surprised when you hear their life start to sing. Make sure that the song your life sings as you suffer is one of glory to God and not focus on self. You will find that people will want to be near you, even as you suffer, as the obstacles in your life push them towards God. Don’t be surprised, like Peter said. As the waters of your life flow around the obstacles, make sure that you always point to Christ.