Andrew McFarland Campbell  

My ways are higher than your ways

These exhortations were given by me between 1999 and 2005. That was a long time ago, and I have grown a lot since then. They may not reflect my current beliefs.

I’m sure in the past few weeks we have all thought about the terrible events that happened in America on the 11th September. The destruction of the two towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, the attack on the Pentagon, and the crash in Pittsburgh are almost too much to comprehend.

And I’m sure that most of us, perhaps even all of us, have wondered how God could let something like this happen.

I don’t think it’s unusual to think that way, about this or about any of the other tragedies, small and great, that afflict our world.

I don’t think it’s unusual to have no idea why these things happen. I do think it would be strange if any of us were able to say we knew exactly why these things happen.

As you know I work with computers. Computers are among the most complex machines that humans make. They have certainly reached the stage where there is not one person who can understand every aspect of how a computer works. You get people who understand how to design the individual components. You get people who understand how to assemble the components into chips, and people who know how to make the chips into boards, and then people who know how to assemble the boards into computers. Each person in that chain probably knows some of what goes on at the other levels, but there is nobody who would know everything that goes on at every level. The reason why it all works is because there is a standard, a `super blueprint’ that everybody works to. The people that design and build the individual components know that the specification says they should take in data in one way, and output it in another. It doesn’t matter to the other people in the chain how they do this, as long as they do it. The next set of people in the chain know that they get a set of components that they have a set of components that do one thing, and they have to make chips that use those things in a particular way. Everybody works to a standard, doing what they do, trusting that the people above and below them in the chain are doing their jobs correctly, but with only a limited knowledge of how the other people in the chain are doing their jobs.

It’s important here to emphasise the complexity of the process. The central chip, at the heart of every computer is called the CPU. It would be a lifetimes work to understand every nuance of CPU architecture. It would be a fairly trivial task to sit down and write out a diagram showing all the wires in this building. It would be an impossibly complex task to sit down and write out a diagram of all the electrical circuits in a CPU. The way that the electricity flows in the CPU even more complex. The rules that dominate electricity flow at that level, known as quantum mechanics, are so complex, so hard to understand, that there are probably only a few thousand people who understand them. That knowledge is very specialised and you need teams of these people to develop computer components. And on those teams, no matter how hard they tried, it would be impossible for everyone to completely understand everyone else’s work. There is just too much information for one individual to absorb.

When you have your computer assembled, you plug it in and you turn it on, and then nothing happens. There is much more to getting a computer working than just assembling all the bits and pieces. You need software, computer programmes, that tells the computer what to do. Again, here there are several layers of cooperation. There is a fundamental layer of software that talks directly to the hardware, and then you’ve got another layer of software on top of that, and then another, and another. At each level the people have to trust that the software above and below works correctly, and they just have to make their own work as it should.

I’ll just give you an example. At work I use the languages XHTML, Cascading Style Sheets, and JavaScript. These all get tied together and turned into web pages using another language, Template Toolkit. There are other programmers in the company who programme databases and a language called perl. Essentially what happens is the perl programmes pull information from the databases and pass them into the Template Toolkit system. Then the work I do comes into use, and Template Toolkit takes this information and puts everything together into a web page.

I don’t know the details of how the other programmers construct the databases and perl, and they don’t have to concern themselves with how I use XHTML and JavaScript. We could all get together and discuss the details of our jobs, but then we’d never get any work done. I might know how perl and the databases are being used, but that would just have moved my ignorance one step further down the line. I wouldn’t know how the internal details of perl worked for example. It would just not be practical. To know every detail (or even most details) of everything that goes on at the levels beneath me in the chain, and the levels above me in the chain, would require more than a lifetime’s work, and it would require more knowledge than a human could possibly handle.

That doesn’t stop me creating web pages. It doesn’t stop the other programmers developing databases and perl. It doesn’t stop the people that construct the language perl for others to use. Computers are basically a few handfuls of sand and processed metal, with some electricity to make them go. The chain required so that people can use computers to play games, write exhortations, or view web pages is impossibly complex. Nobody in that chain understands every part of every link. Nobody in that chain could understand every part of every link.

That doesn’t stop the chain working.

Complex as it is, that chain is simple compared to the complexity of a single human body. We breathe, we eat, we sleep, we grow, we get sick, we get better, we reproduce, we think. I don’t know about you, but I don’t understand the mechanisms that enable me to think. I have only a very superficial understanding of how yesterday’s dinner gave me energy to stand here today. I certainly have no idea of how my immune system works.

If one human being is much more complex than even the most complex of human inventions, imagine how complex a group of human beings is. Imagine how complex a whole planet full of humans is. That level of complexity completely defies comprehension.

The chain of knowledge required for computers is complex. If I change any part of it sometimes it will continue to work, sometimes it won’t. I could look at the specifications for another part of the chain and decide that I had a better way of doing something. It might work, but it probably wouldn’t.

There is a complex chain required for computers to work. There is a complex chain required the world to work. That chain stretches back to Adam, and leads on to the Kingdom and beyond. I can look at that chain and say “Well, if that link was different the chain would be so much better”. The chances of my change actually being an improvement are vanishingly small.

Why did God let all those people die in America?

I don’t know.

Why did God allow the Second World War?

I don’t know.

Why does God let so many terrible things happen?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that I can’t see the whole chain from Adam to the Kingdom. I can’t see it, and even if I could see it I couldn’t comprehend it.

I trust that the architects of the computer chain have got it right, and that if I do my part it will work correctly. I trust that I almost certainly couldn’t improve the chain.

There are so many other chains in our lives. The chain leading from the coal mines to our electricity. The chain leading from the North Sea oil deposits to our heated homes. We trust those chains work.

In the same way I think we have to trust that the architect of the chain from Adam to the Kingdom has got it right. An we have to trust that the architect is not another human like us, but is a being of unlimited intelligence so we certainly couldn’t improve the chain.

This is one of the things that the Bible teaches us. Turn to Isaiah 55, verses 8 and 9:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts, and his ways are higher than our ways. Most of us have no idea why terrible things can and do happen. Sometimes some of us may have a glimpse of what God’s higher purpose. But we know that God rules in the Kingdoms of men, and that it is his good pleasure to give us the kingdom. These terrible events, incomprehensible as they are, are part of God’s supreme chain. We know that God has it in his power to end all suffering and sorrow. We know that he will one day. We don’t know the details of the next link in the chain, or how much longer the chain is. But we can be confident that the chain ultimately leads to the Glory of the Lord covering the earth as the waters now cover the sea.

There is one link, one superficially terrible link, that we can all see the, if not the reason, then at least the result if it. We read about that link this morning in Luke chapter 23. You don’t need to turn it up because we’ve already read it together. Luke chapter 23, verse 33:

And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left.

I’m not comparing the events of the 11th to the events on Calvary, except in the sense that they were both very terrible events. The events on Calvary lead to something very glorious, something none of the contemporary observers could possibly have comprehended.

But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming.

I don’t know what the deeper purpose behind the events of the 11th is. I don’t know why God let it happen. But we can all trust that all the events throughout history, terrible and glorious, fantastic and mundane, are part of the beautiful chain that leads from Adam to the Glory of the Lord covering the earth as the waters now cover the sea.

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