Yesterday, I was reading in Isaiah where God promises peace like a river in the lives of His people. It's not the only thing God promises as a river - in Amos, for example, He says that justice will flow like a stream. But it's an image that I think is too easy for us to misunderstand, given our limited perspective. And here's why:
Most of us encounter a river at one specific point. We come to its edges, and that's where we find it - a force of water rushing right past. We come to this place, and this is where we step in. Or this is where we cast in, waiting for the fish to bite. We put our toes in the water and feel it rushing by. And even if we get in and ride the rushes for a little while, at the end, we pick up our canoe and trek back to the place where we began. This kind of relationship with the river can lead us to believe that the promises God makes are fleeting.
That peace just rushed by in our lives, that justice is just passing through. That it's up to us to come to these things and stick our toes in if we want to get a little glimpse of what they really are. That we have to cast our lines in and wait as it all rushes through, wait to see if any of it is biting today. Wait to see if peace is hungry to come into our lives or if justice will take the bait. It's an unhealthy relationship to have with peace and justice, and it's a profoundly unhealthy relationship to have with God's promises. What are we to make of a God who rushes His promises through our lives in such a way that we simply might miss them, even if we're sitting on the shore in humble expectation?
In order to understand what God really means when He promises peace like a river, we have to take a step back from the shore and get a bigger picture. We have to get a vision for the river itself, the whole length of it, and not just the place where we stand. We have to understand where these holy waters come from, where they are going, and what's going on along the way.
The river begins in the highest places. Rivers do not flow "up;" they only flow down. That means that peace, justice - these always begin with God. They always come from the highest places. They do not organically rise on their own, but are poured down upon us by the very Lord who has promised to send them.
And then, the river carves its own path through the world. Through years and centuries and generations and lifetimes, the river rushes through and over and around and makes its own path through the world. It cuts through rock and digs deep into soil and determines the places where it will turn or where it will keep straight, where it will be deep and where it will be a bit more shallow, where it will flow gently and where it becomes rapids. The river makes its own way through the world, and while we might be able to dig our own little trench for it to fill, it continues to carve its way through the landscape by its own power, by its own force.
Perhaps that is one of the greatest errors we make when it comes to justice and peace. We think them passive things, quiet and gentle and unassuming things. We think them inanimate, the kinds of things that we must move in the world if ever we want to see them active. But the truth is that they are their own force, their own power, their own might. They push through and carve their own path and often, it is up to us simply to meet them where they are. They are not inanimate, and they are certainly not passive things. Just look at the way that they dig in on the mountain. No, peace and justice are not weak.
They rush through the world and then, just as they come to the place where it seems that they end, something sends them back to God to begin all over again, to be poured out anew on the highest places. That something is our prayer, and it does not come easily. It does not come without pain. It does not come without grief. And we think that perhaps this is the place, then, where peace and justice have failed, but the opposite could not be more true. This is the place where they have had their greatest impact in the quietest of ways. More on that tomorrow.
For today, what you need to see is how this river is not just a single point in time or space. It's not just a place where you go and dip your toes in. The promises of God are not fleeting as the waters that pass you by. Rather, they are eternal, as the waters that pour out from the highest places, from the heavens themselves, and rush forcefully through our lives, carving out their own paths, only to reach what seems like their end but is actually their beginning, where they rise to the heavens to be poured out again.
This is the river. This is the river of God.