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The Tree of Life

A recent motion picture begins with powerful images from the Hubble telescope and the whispered question, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? . . . When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4,7).

As a film, The Tree of Life (written and directed by Terrence Malick and starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain) has gotten mixed reviews. Some viewers are captivated by the visual poetry and realism of the film. Others are put off by the spirituality of a drama that does not easily dismiss some of the most profound questions of life.

Those not ready to wrestle with unanswerable questions might also find it hard to stay with the slow pace of the film as it follows the lives of three brothers growing up in the 1950s. The entertainment is not in the action, but in the unavoidable ways in which a boy comes of age while dealing with the opposite ways his parents attempt to deal with matters beyond their control.

The mother, for example, believes there are two ways to live. Just before her life is shattered by loss, we hear her whisper: “The nuns taught us there were two ways through life—the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things. The nuns taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.”

Her husband, by contrast, tries to prepare his sons to defend themselves in the ways of a man. He’s a father who says, “It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world” and, “I’ve just wanted you to grow up strong, be your own man . . .”

Viewers watch young Jack come of age with a gradual loss of innocence and growing independence from his sometimes distant and over-controlling father.

In moments of crushing personal loss, Jack’s mother can be heard whispering to God: “Where were You? . . . Did You know?”

Faced with the realism of death, Jack asks his own questions of his Creator: “Where were You? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good when You aren’t?”

The result is a film that holds in tension the beauty, wonder, and design of the universe with the brutality of terrible losses and the disturbing questions we find in the book of Job.

One could hope that a movie as compelling as The Tree of Life would prompt some to take a closer look at the Book from which the film takes its title and opening quote. Those who do might discover themes in Job that speak to the heart of every generation:

1. Some pain is the result of our own choices (Job 4:8).

2. Other suffering comes through the judgment of friends who unintentionally add to our grief by assuming that we prosper or suffer in direct proportion to what we deserve (Job 1:8; 32:3).

3. In addition, some misfortune comes from an enemy who believes people only trust God for what they can get out of Him (Job 1:6-22).

4. Sustained suffering can disillusion even the best of God’s servants (Job 3:1-26).

5. At the lowest moments of our lives, God may use the wonders of what He has made to remind us that we do have reason to trust Him (Job 38–42).

Together, such themes remind us that the book of Job offers more than the whispered question that shows up in the prologue of Malick’s The Tree of Life. More important, the rest of the story brings us to another question that has a way of putting the silence of God in perspective.

The same Creator who asks, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4 NKJV), eventually cries out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46 NKJV). In that momentarily unanswered question, the Bible’s tree of life (Genesis 2:9) takes on a whole new meaning.

Who could have foreseen that before the story of the Bible ends, the beauty of the original tree of life would be surpassed by the glory of an executioner’s cross? Who could have imagined that the Son of God would die in our place, to show us the way of grace and to give a whole new meaning to the tree of life?

Eternal Father, in the confusion of questions for which we have no answers, we have too often relied on the ways of our own fallen nature rather than on the overwhelming evidence of Your grace. In our pain, please help us to learn from what You taught Your servant Job. But, far more, please help us to remember the suffering of Your Son that gives us every reason to trust You even when nothing else seems to make sense. —Mart DeHaan

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