There is a scene in Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life that I cannot stop thinking about. A middle-aged Jack, who is the protagonist of the story, is remembering his boyhood sins. One of them is a big one. He breaks into a woman’s house after she leaves, walks around in it and after finding a nightgown, he steals it. You see him running away from the house with it in his hands, which seems pretty reckless, and he stops and tries to bury it by the river that runs through town. Breathing hard after fleeing the scene of the crime, he decides against burying the garment, and instead casts it into the river. In the next scene, you see him walking home, and the weight of the guilt is heavy on him. He encounters his mom in the front yard as dusk settles on their home. She is the epitome of grace in the movie. And she is worried. She can see the guilt and shame and ruin on his face just like we can.
Malick’s magnificent film is about the book of Job and his suffering, but after reading Jeremiah 13 and 14 and then watching the film again, I’m left to wonder whether Malick had this scene from Jeremiah in mind. I know it’s a stretch, but the ruin of the undergarment in the film and the ruin of the undergarments in Jeremiah are somehow drawn together in my mind now.
God has Jeremiah do all this with the underwear so he can get a physical glimpse of the sins of “Judah and Jerusalem,” and what God will do to them because they have gone after other gods. It’s a devastating picture. And as we continue to read, things only come to look worse. And yet, Jeremiah does not lose hope. Even though God has made it clear that judgment is coming, Jeremiah tells God, “Are you not the LORD our God? We therefore put our hope in you, for you have done all these things” (Jeremiah 14:22).
Why does Jeremiah have this hope? Because he knows that all that is happening is righteous and just, and it comes from a God he knows is more powerful than the idolatry that has brought this misery upon Judah. Jeremiah’s eyes are fixed on the reality of God and not just the misery and ruin and sin all around him.
Hope often eludes us. It shouldn’t, but it does. We so easily take our eyes from the God who has saved us, and instead, fix our eyes on what we think is a higher reality: our surrounding circumstances, the things we can immediately see, touch, and feel. Maybe we are hopeless because of our own sin. Maybe we are lacking hope because of the destruction of someone else’s sin. When that happens, we have lost sight of what’s true: the reality of the God who reigns in the heavens and offers grace to us in Christ here and now.
At the end of The Tree of Life, middle-aged Jack gets a glorious vision of hope. I don’t want to give it away, but that hope lands on him because he has glimpsed what is real and not just the suffering he has endured. Hope is not wishful thinking. Hope is faith staring straight into the eyes of grace despite the ruin around us.
Written by Matt Redmond