The Witness of Lightning and the Lightning Bug
It’s remarkable how much a clear night can help one gain a bit of peace and solitude. That is, once the security lights stopped showing the world that I was standing out on our driveway. While taking in the night view, my wandering thoughts were interrupted by a flash of light in the corner of my eye. Adjusting my head for a better view brought the realization that a lightning storm was rolling in. Lest I should be struck by the approaching electric fury, I took cover under the eaves of the house and continued watching the storm’s approach. At the same moment, the lightning bugs in the yard came back into focus. The following fifteen minutes were a study in contrast. Flashes of white light illumined the night sky at regular intervals, while slightly less brilliant spots of yellow light appeared with greater frequency across our backyard.
Twain famously quipped that “The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and the lightening bug.” The sentence’s punch comes from the difference in brilliance between the two objects. While both are, relatively speaking, brief flashes, lightning emblazons the entire sky. Lightening bugs on the other hand, well, they at least show up against the nightscape.
Seizing onto a potential object lesson (and, a better use for my wandering mind), I begin pondering what other juxtapositions could be at play. And that’s when the difference between our light and God’s came to mind. This comparison was motivated, at least in part, by Josh Garrels. Specifically, this quip from his song The Resistance: “The liberation will not be televised / When it arrives like lightning in the skies.”1
Now, the song centers on resisting evil in the world and ourselves. This particular reference though is reminiscent of Christ’s words in Matthew: “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.”2 Granted, eschatology can be a tricky subject. As our roundtable on the topic a few months back demonstrates, there are multiple perspectives from which to read passages such as the quotation from Matthew above. However, I think we can agree that Christ’s words indicate that, in some way, his second coming will be a sudden, single, scintillating moment. Closely related to this moment is the coming judgment, described, among other places, in the following chapter of Matthew: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats . . . And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”3 We imagine that being in God’s presence will always be wonderful, but I’m not convinced that this is the case. As the author of Hebrews reminds us, we should approach God “with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”4 Lewis puts it this way: “Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again. They are still only playing with religion.”5 The flash of lightning will be both devastating and delightful.
In the meantime, the lightning bugs continue sparkling through the night. While the intensity of true lightening waits on the right atmospheric conditions, the bugs provide a nightly reminder of brilliance to come. For those like me, this reminder is one of joy—I mean, who doesn’t love a good thunderstorm? But, for all of you who would have raised your hands in answer to that question, the reminder of the lightning bugs is probably less pleasant. In this, we glimpse a picture of Paul’s advice to the Corinthian church: “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.”6 It’s a high calling, being a lightning bug. It involves helping the world around you see and conform to God’s affections and aversions.7 In particular, reflecting on the lightning and coming judgment reminds us that God’s aversions, his hates, are real. Communicating God’s hatred for evil is a very real part of loving those around us. Being nice, welcoming, and open-minded is all well and good. But, it’s also meaningless if we never call people to task for their sin. To let them remain oblivious is neither loving to them, nor faithful to our Lord.
What does it look like to help others recognize the sin in their lives?
Is there a difference between pointing out the sin in our culture vs. in individuals? If so, what is part of that difference?