About Horizons and Perspective
On September 7th many friends around the globe saw in the news some of the images of the sea of people protesting peacefully in many major Brazilian cities over aspects of the political turmoil that has been brewing in that nation. Some were particularly impressed with the crowd that took over certain vast open spaces near the federal buildings in the heart of Brasília, the capital. Having spent my early teens in that city, I had a sense that the masses were even larger than what the images might suggest.
Brasília sits in the central highland plains of Brazil (the “Planalto Central”), at an elevation above 3,800 ft. Lúcio Costa, Oscar Niemeyer and Joaquim Cardozo designed it in the 1960s, and it was built making full use of its high altitude flatlands geography.
For that reason, it has very vast horizons and on clear days you can see many tens of miles in every direction, if you just get over the buildings and structures. This feature plays with our sense of distance and dimension and I have often seen people who think they are facing a short walk between two points only to discover that the distances were much greater—what appears to be 1,000 yards may turn out to be 2 miles! With that in mind, it was probably easier for me to fathom the crowds that occupied the grassy squares around the Brazilian congress building than for someone that had no concept of the dimensions of those squares.
The fact is, I have strong and affective memories of Brasília, an airplane shaped city marked by vast horizons. One poet put it quite beautifully:
The city quieted down after 10 pm.
On the windows, the cool light of television sets entertaining families inside.
I take off to the streets, roaming through the ‘airplane wings,’
forgetting the loneliness of the big city of men,
in a crazy flight of my own invention I go, until I see the dawn
of the green fields, the morning sun, the leaves, the rivers and all that beautiful blue.
There is nothing like the spotless blue of the sky over the Planalto Central,
and that open horizon, suggesting thousands of possible directions...[i]
I do apologize for my flight of “Brasilian” (yes, with "s" because its about the city!) nostalgia; for my focus here really is just on this final point about horizons and perspective. Sometimes perspective really is everything. A fellow in a suit stops his fancy car on the road next to a farm and asks the farmer: “How much is one of these cows worth?” The farmer then says, “Depends, did you run over one of them, or are you a tax assessor?” Or, maybe when Goliath was goading the Israelites, you could imagine many warriors thinking he was so big they could never defeat him, but apparently David saw the size of the forehead and thought: “So big! My shot could never miss it!” See, perspective!
When I think about perspective and horizons, I often remember the cartoon below—it always makes me laugh as it reminds me of how often I have made myopic decisions in my life. The caption for the cartoon should be something like “I wish I had seen things from a higher perspective!”
The lack of conscience about the future consequence of our actions and circumstances often seems ironic and that is largely because our horizons are limited and our perspective skewed.
Lack of Perspective?
David, the great king of Israel, already anointed by the prophet of the Lord and assured that he would rule over his nation, found himself hiding in a cave under Saul’s threat to his very life. I wonder what was going through his mind at that moment. Perhaps he wondered: “What kind of promise was that? By the look of things here, perhaps God forgot his promise!”
I also wonder how Moses felt after his initial encounter with God, when he was promised that he would free the children of the Lord from Egypt. Initially he pushed back and resisted, but in the end, he proceeded in confidence and stood before Pharaoh. Yet, not only did Pharaoh resist, but God himself hardened the heart of the ruler. Can you imagine Moses mumbling: “Come on Lord, you make me come here and risk my life and then you just make it harder?”
There are many moments in my own life, when I made choices based on immediate circumstances and they turned out to be tragic. One such situation always stands out. As a child fresh into my teens, living in a cattle ranch in Brazil, where my parents ministered, I was invited by the cowboys to help in butchering a steer. It sounded exciting to help in the process of providing the meat for the family so I asked the honor of doing the “kill.” Tim, the lead cowboy offered detailed instructions: “Use the blunt part of this axe to stun the steer,” he said, “and then we will bleed it through the jugular-veins and field-dress it together.” Axe in hand, I looked into the eyes of that big animal, looked around at all those tough cowboys, but hesitated. Tim took the tool from my hands and proceeded to do the deed. I did help with the rest of the process, but Tim could see my shame, so he gave me the quarter carcass that I was to take home for food, but also gave me the animal’s skin, so I could have it tanned and keep it as a souvenir of my “first kill.” He then added, “if you do not want to be embarrassed about chickening out at the last minute, just tell your family you did the deed and we will confirm your story—nobody will be the wiser.” That is exactly what I did.
What a stupid lie! It was unnecessary and silly adolescent pride. It also seemed to have no major consequences. In the coming months, I did help handle three other steers and did so without my initial hesitation. The cowboys said I was becoming a good butcher. At home, nobody had any reason to doubt my original “tale.” I kept that “little secret,” but it began to play havoc in my heart. I began to distance myself from my father and from home and was often feeling more comfortable with the cowboys than with my family and my church friends. The little lie was not so little anymore and as my conscience accused me and shamed me, it seemed to take up more and more space in my heart and was beginning to control how I related to my dad, my family and even my God.
A few months later, my father was preaching at a conference and as I listened to him speaking about telling the truth, I was hit with a knockout punch. He actually mentioned proudly the trust he had on his son because he thought his son was conscientious about always trying to be truthful. The Holy Spirit was already working in my heart and bringing conviction. Thus, the realization that I had made myself a liar who was unworthy of the trust that my dad had placed upon me and, more important, of what Christ had done for me, brought me to the doors of repentance. I confessed to my family and my God that old and festered lie and with a cleansed heart I felt once again like a person who longed for proximity with God, with my family and with the truth. Suddenly, a weight lifted from my back and that event shrunk to its real proportion.
What is in common on these three examples? What does the vision of David persecuted by Saul, Moses in face of Pharaoh’s hardening by God and the memory of my childhood lie have to do with each other?
Well, the common thread is that future-king David, Moses and the lying young Davi, in very different circumstances, all suffered because we could not see each of our circumstances through a higher broader perspective—we lacked the perspective of faith! David could not fathom that God would indeed eventually give him the kingdom and that the time of persecution would ultimately become a blessings in his life. Moses did not comprehend that God was hardening Pharaoh’s heart so that His power would be manifest in an even greater way. I failed to realize that my “little lie” would grow, in time, and have destructive consequences. In different ways, we all suffered because we still had a myopic vision of life. We needed to see things from “a higher perspective.”
A New Perspective
The difference that a right perspective makes jumps at me in a special way when I read to story of Balaam, Balak and Israel camped in the plains of Moab. In Numbers 22 and 23 we find king Balak trying to convince the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites. God tells Balaam not to do it, but Balaam keeps thinking about the riches promised by Balak in exchange for his cursing services and he wishes to find a way around God’s command, to find an excuse to curse the Israelites. After some back and forth and even a curious talking donkey event, Balaam finally stands at a small hill that allows him to see “a fraction of the people” of Israel down below. He makes some sacrifices and tries to convince God to allow a curse, but God makes him bless Israel. Balak is furious and Balaam decides to try again, with a new perspective. Balak says to him: “Please come with me to another place, from which you may see them. You shall see only a fraction of them and shall not see them all. Then curse them for me from there.” (Nu 23:13. ESV, 2016). The same happens again. Balaam tries and is unable, for God makes him bless them again. The funny thing is that Balaam wanted to find his excuse to curse the Israelites, and from those perspectives he might as well think he found it. The author of Numbers spends the chapters prior to 22 narrating quite a few ugly moments in the history of God’s people…
Something, however, seems to change when he goes for a third try. The writer tells us that Balak then took Balaam to a third higher hill, the top of mount Peor. From there, the vision of Israel’s encampment was not partial, as before, but a more comprehensive perspective. This is an important detail, for this time “Balaam lifted up his eyes and saw Israel camping tribe by tribe” (Nu 24:2). There is a little more than meets the eye here, if you remember what was the structure of Israel’s camp—the structure given in Numbers chapter 2 placed the Tabernacle in the center of the Camp and the tribes organized around each side of the Tabernacle. That is what Balaam saw from the top of Peor: the tribes, made up of sinful people and with much ugliness to be found, but at the center was the very presence of God, His tabernacle with the people he had chosen. Therefore, the hesitant and mercenary tending prophet suddenly sees things in a different way and cannot keep himself from exploding in an acknowledgement of a newfound perspective of beauty. This is worth quoting at length:
…the Spirit of God came upon him, and he took up his discourse and said, “The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, the oracle of the man whose eye is opened, the oracle of him who hears the words of God, who sees the vision of the Almighty, falling down with his eyes uncovered: How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your encampments, O Israel! Like palm groves that stretch afar, like gardens beside a river, like aloes that the LORD has planted, like cedar trees beside the waters. Water shall flow from his buckets, and his seed shall be in many waters; his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted. God brings him out of Egypt and is for him like the horns of the wild ox; he shall eat up the nations, his adversaries, and shall break their bones in pieces and pierce them through with his arrows. He crouched, he lay down like a lion and like a lioness; who will rouse him up? Blessed are those who bless you, and cursed are those who curse you.” (Nu 24:2–9)
Horizons, Time and Perspective
The question of perspective is also one of horizons and time. What is our time horizon, the timeframe within which we evaluate the weight and value of our actions and circumstances? In Genesis 45 to 50 we read the story of Joseph and I am always fascinated by his surprising clarity of perspective when he affirms that what has happened in his life, from the brothers’ betrayal and his slavery in Egypt, all the way to his encounter with his brothers, was part of a wonderful plan of God:
“Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. (Ge 50:19–21).
Psalm 73 expresses the frustration with the prosperity of the wicked and dishonest and the hardships the righteous endure, “For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Ps 73: 3). But a change of perspective occurs with a change of timeframe: “But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end” (Ps 73: 16–17).
In the end, it is all about learning to see things, our actions and circumstances and all of life itself from a higher, longer perspective, with better horizons. Life only begins to make sense when we open ourselves by faith to see things through the perspective God offers us in his revelation. The vicissitudes and circumstances of life may not seem to change, and maybe we will still struggle to understand the consequences of our actions and decisions, good or bad—yet, we will know that in the future they will count as blessings. Only within this frame will we experience the peace and confidence of truly knowing that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Ro 8:28).
What is your perspective? What horizon will guide your life?
* Dr. Davi Charles Gomes is the International Director of the World Reformed Fellowship, a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary; he is a minister of the Presbyterian Church of Brazil and the former Chancellor of Mackenzie Presbyterian University, in São Paulo, Brazil. Click here for a brief bio.
[i] Toninho Horta, “Céu de Brasília”. Terra dos Pássaros, Vinyl LP, EMI, 1980. My free translation.