Mountains, Hills, and the Inequality of Men

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Not all men are created equal.

The phrase sounds odd, but for me it rings true. I’ve been turning it over in my head in recent days and weeks as I’ve reflected upon my own story and absorbed the journeys of close friends. Together they reveal the truth about the statement oft cited that tells us that the opposite is true.

Of course, we all value the belief that we are all on a level playing field, and I will admit the lens through which you view that phrase will change the way you measure it. But in the real world in which we live and move, work and play, step up and back down, we are definitely anything but equal.

***

This entire last year has informed the lesson I’ve learned about (in)equality. A few months ago, some of our closest friends gave birth to a beautiful baby girl troubled by multiple medical issues. Their lives since this moment have been a rollercoaster both inside and out with a whirlwind of emotions accompanying a constant rotation of appointments, tests, and results. Even now there are more questions than answers.

More recently, another set of close friends gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. We recently had dinner with them to hear the wonderful news about the “easy transition” back to home life with word that it “is easier than we thought it would be” and reports of decent sleep.

With one couple, we toast their good fortune and praise God for the joys of parenthood. With another couple, we cry, grieve, pray, and process amidst the blessing of new life. The disparity between the experiences has only served to bolster the belief that all men are definitely not created equal.

***

As for myself, I am in a frustrating season. Nine months after leaving the church I started and served to create space and write about topics long-circling in my head, I have yet to truly begin the task. In the name of security and stability, I took a full-time editorial gig that has me abandoning the laptop at the first possible moment after finishing my “day job.” The creative desire has left; the spark left unattended. No progress has been made.

And yet I desire the desire. Not only that but the shadow side has appeared again and again in my mind, pointing at those with the freedom I yearn for and denouncing them or myself in some way or another. The curse of comparison comes in and tells me that I should be able to do that. What’s wrong with me? What’s not wrong with them?

To say that all men are not created equal is a phrase that disturbs. But maybe it needs to. Maybe it needs to hurt. As Montag says in Fahrenheit 451, “We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while.” So maybe it’s good to admit that we all aren’t going to enjoy the same luxuries or experience the same pain. When it comes to the human experience, we are all different.

Not all men are created equal.

***

I had a slight epiphany two weeks ago, which in my current period of spiritual and emotional desolation amounts to a minor miracle. My wife and I are moving to Nashville and we visited Church of the Redeemer on Sunday morning to take in the community and to hear my friend Thomas McKenzie—yes, the famously succinct movie reviewer—deliver the sermon. I had not attended a church since leaving my own, so the entire affair felt a bit foreign, but there in the liturgy came the heartening words of Psalm 72:

Endow the king with your justice, O God,
the royal son with your righteousness.
May he judge your people in righteousness,
your afflicted ones with justice.
May the mountains bring prosperity to the people,
the hills the fruit of righteousness.
May he defend the afflicted among the people
and save the children of the needy;
may he crush the oppressor.

In the midst of the psalm, I was struck by the couplet of mountains and hills and have not shaken the image since. This typically happens to me when I find my own story in the midst of whatever it is that seizes my attention. Mountains and hills. Babies with questions and without. Some following their passions and others struggling to break free. All men, all things are not created equal.

They are, however, given an equal task.

This was not the point of the fine sermon. Perhaps it’s not even the main theme of the psalm. But within the psalmist’s plea for God to make all things right in the world, I was struck by the realization that it is not our wealth, status, vocation, looks, or gifts that unite us. Rather, it is our calling.

If God is to make everything right in the world, then he will do so with both mountains and hills. It is the mountain’s job to do much with what it has been given and bring prosperity to the people. For the smaller hill, another task is given: to bring the fruit of righteousness. While the poetic language has many layers of beauty and meaning, I was arrested by the equality of the task given to an inequal creation. Everything working together for the sake of the common good.

***

When I say ‘inequal,’ I don’t mean to insinuate value. I suppose that, more than anything, I mean our place in life. Whether or not we like it, we are confronted by the frustratingly ‘inequal’ circumstances of our lives and those around us. Some mothers will bear many children, while others only the grief of their frustrations. My own miserable season stands in stark contrast to those I insist on comparing myself to. Inequality is all around. We must be bothered by it.

Yet I have learned that these are things that we cannot control. We all scratch our heads at the artist who creates beautiful work that’s never seen or heard. We all shake our heads at a tragedy like the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. We all bow our heads when we wish to reverse the diagnosis. All men, all things are not created equal, at least through this lens. In short, life is not fair.

But what I can control is my own response, the measure in which I am ushering in the Kingdom of God. Whether a mountain or a hill (or even a valley), there is a part to play in the greater ongoing story of God in the world. As the psalmist concludes, “Praise be to his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with his glory.”

Rather than focus on the inequality, my only concern should be in the equal task I share with all men and all creation.

Matt Conner is the teaching pastor at Trinity Church in the heart of Indianapolis and the founder of Analogue Media.


14 Comments

  1. Carrie

    Matt – Thank you. There are so many elements in here that sound familiar, and I need the challenge to respond well, to usher in the Kingdom of God in my own place and way. Thank you.

  2. Suzanne Tietjen

    I needed to hear this today. I trouble myself by looking at others rather than in the direction I know I should be going. I agree we all have a part to play in showing forth the glory of God. Praying this message helps me choose to cooperate more often than not.

  3. Chris Schumerth

    Glad to see you writing, Matt! Hope to see some more in the upcoming days. Until you made the disclaimer about “value,” that was going to be my response! Glad you guys are settling in to Nashville. If I swing by for any reason, I’ll let you know!

  4. Tim

    Thanks for sharing your thought Matt! I appreciate both your musings on this subject and the natural way you presented it.

    I must confess though that I am still at a loss as to what you mean as you quote the phrase “not all men are created equal” and discuss its resonance with your experience. You say the inequality is not about intrinsic value and you seem to conclude it is not about calling either which I certainly would affirm with you. But if the inequality is found in stating that there is not a one-to-one ratio for personality, a ‘we are like snow-flakes all unique sort of thing’, or if it is just ‘each individual is at a different place in their life’ I guess I am sort of at a loss as to how this definition really works.

    I really found the conclusion that we are to grieve the brokenness of the world around us to be a powerful exhortation and perhaps this could be my americanism balking at a tough concept like you say in the Montag quote. Or maybe you can help clear up my confusion with a follow-up comment! I just had to process a little bit where the thesis of this post got muddled in my head! Hope you don’t mind 😉 I thought this might be the best place to interact with it!

  5. Matt Conner

    @mattconner

    Tim, any question is a good question. I wrote some of this right around the inauguration when these familiar statements of “all men being created equal” were being thrown around as they are every year — things that sound great in a speech. For me it was an interesting juxtaposition to feeling that things were not equal around me. A leap of one phrase into a concept of something different.

  6. Judy Johannesen

    This made me think of the parable of the workers. The master hires them all at different times of the day, but pays them same the same wage at the end of the day. Then he doesn’t answer the the all-day-workers’ indignation about the unfairness of it, beyond saying it is the master’s right to choose to whom he will be generous, and then kind of shockingly, he asks, “…are you envious because I am generous?”

    As one who has walked through some very long, dark and painful personal circumstances over the years, and as a teacher of special needs children, I have learned the truth that His ways are not ours, and that there will always be things I do not understand this side of eternity. My questions remain honest, and I do not think voicing them reflects a lack of faith – rather a lack of [His omniscient] perspective. but I have also learned to release any expectation of an answer to these mysteries. And once in a while I ponder on whether, perhaps, the larger mystery is that there is so much good…why does He, so often, choose generosity?

  7. Zachary

    I read The Horse and His Boy yesterday… for the first time(I admit). When Shasta begins comparing his troubled life to that of his friends (e.g. everything goes right for everyone except for me), Alsan tells him “Child, I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own”. I found that really comforting and true where I am at.

    You hit upon the same note here in this post. To be ok with a grassy knoll when mountains are set around you takes some real abiding and trusting in Christs love and grace. And then there are molehills.

  8. Chris

    Matt, I really needed to hear that right now as I struggle to determine my place. And I love the phrase, “And yet I desire the desire.”

  9. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Definitely men are not created equal in talent, or looks, or intelligence, or family, or any other tangible element. Men and women are not equal there, because “men” and “women” are a generalization, and to compare requires individuals. Some women are smarter than some men. Some men are smarter than some women.

    That all men are created equal in the need for God, yes. That we should have equality before the law, yes.

    I think our society is obsessed with “equality” in the same sense of “Harrison Bergeron,” Kurt Vonnegut, Jr’s short story. Set in the future, everyone is made “equal” by being given handicaps. Smart people have headphones that give bursts of static. Strong men are weighed down with weights. Graceful people have things which trip them up.

    This sort of false equality cannot long last. If so fettered, we are always bursting from it.

    Equality before God, yes. The cross of Jesus is the verdict of our equality.

  10. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Norman Grubb said, “Life is not in what happens to you but in how you take it.” How I react to circumstances (including thoughts that come into my head) determines the quality of my life experience, determines the direction I am heading, the sort of person I will be in the future.

    Also, God often views things in a very skewed perspective (in relation to ours). He says the poor and those who mourn are blessed. He says that it is impossibly hard for a rich man to step into the kingdom. Primarily he meant rich in money, but it is just as hard for those rich in talent, fame, friendships, good temperament and digestion, etcetera. Good circumstances, temperament, riches, talent, applause, and other forms of worldly wealth can be a placebo through which a man fails to see his desperate need of God.

    From Screwtape: “It may surprise you to learn that in His efforts to get permanent possession of a soul, He relies on the troughs even more than on the peaks; some of His special favourites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else . . .He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself – creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His.”

    We live in a world which runs on comparison, relativism, fear of failure, the drive to succeed. Now, these things are not wrong in and of themselves. In order to improve on banjo or guitar, it is healthy for me to compare in some ways the state of my playing to my favorite players, to always be reaching and growing. With relativism, well, some things are relative. Regarding failure and success: the fear of failure is a valid fear, and the drive to be successful is a good thing.

    But to take those things as the starting point, as a believer, is to live in a kind of death. This is the reason our identity cannot be based in anything in the world, in any fluctuating system. Banks go bankrupt. Talent fades with age. Fame is fleeting. The only non-fluctuating system is the unchanging God, age-to-age-the-same. The feeling that life is not fair is meant to drive us to him. He’s not in the self-improvement/success business. He is in the death/resurrection business. In his backwards, unfair economy, years of love and trust are often followed by stripping and death. He shakes what can be shaken, so that which cannot be shaken will remain. But then, resurrection. He restores the years the locust has eaten.

    What he is getting at, working to produce, is a body of people whose life is qualitatively like his own. Love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faith, humility, temperance (“going-the-right-length-and-no-further”).

    I think sometimes we are not fully clear on what we’re getting into when we get into life with God. His love is inexorable. He will not stop halfway.

    But in the end, everything will be worth it. To stand before Jesus, having borne hard things in life, having learned to praise and thank God during hard circumstances, that will be worth it. To look in his eyes and know we learned to trust him at the deepest levels possible – “Blessed are they which have not seen, and yet believe.”

    “Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”

  11. Jim

    “No progress has been made.” I would beg to differ, Matt. Your progress posted here is something that I am very thankful for. Yes, He asks that we at least step out the door. From there He meets us more than halfway.

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