I recently finished reading the novel, Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. The premise is simple. An elderly pastor who married late in life writes a series of letters for his six-year old son to read when he is an adult. The pastor knows he will not live long enough to see his son grow up, so he writes these letters in order to share those things he would have wanted to tell him when he grew older. The letters are full of wisdom and insight, and at the same time they tell the story of the pastor’s life. Robinson’s writing is wonderful, and the book serves as a good reminder of those things that matter most in life — particularly God, family, grace, love, forgiveness and friendship. Even when you disagree with the author’s conclusions, she leaves you plenty to think about. Here are some of my favorite selections:

Opening paragraph: “I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I am old, and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you’ve had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life. And you said, Mama already told me that. And then you said, Don’t laugh! because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother’s.” (p. 3)

On dealing with difficult people: “This is an important thing, which I have told many people, and which my father told me, and which his father told him. When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation? If you confront insult or antagonism, your first impulse will be to respond in kind. But if you think, as it were, This is an emissary sent from the Lord, and some benefit is intended for me, first of all the occasion to demonstrate my faithfulness, the chance to show that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me, you are free to act otherwise than as circumstances would seem to dictate … [The other person] would probably laugh at the thought that the Lord sent him to you for your benefit (and his), but that is the perfection of the disguise, his own ignorance of it.” (p. 124)

Responding to a question about predestination: “There are certain attributes our faith assigns to God: omniscience, omnipotence, justice, and grace. We human beings have such a slight acquaintance with power and knowledge, so little conception of justice, and so slight a capacity for grace, that the working of these great attributes together is a mystery we cannot hope to penetrate.” (p. 150)

On the limits of apologetics: “In the matter of belief, I have found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things.” (p. 178)

On covetousness: “I don’t know exactly what covetise is, but in my experience it is not so much desiring someone else’s virtue or happiness as rejecting it, taking offense at the beauty of it. That’s interesting. There is certainly a sermon there. ‘Blessed is he who takes no offense at me.’ That would be the primary text. I hope I have time to think it through.” (p. 188)

On loving others: “I fell to thinking about the passage in the Institutes where it says the image of the Lord in anyone is much more than reason enough to love him, and that the Lord stands waiting to take our enemies’ sins upon Himself. So it is a rejection of the reality of grace to hold our enemy at fault. Those things can only be true. It seems to me people tend to forget that we are to love our enemies, not to satisfy some standard of righteousness, but because God their Father loves them.” (p. 189)

On how we can never fully know another person: “In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and acceptable — which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likenesses, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.” (p. 197)

On loneliness: “I have mentioned loneliness to you, and darkness, and I thought then I already knew what they were, but that day it was as if a great cold wind swept over me the like of which I had never felt before, and that wind blew for years and years … [It] threw me back on myself, and on the Lord. That’s a fact, so I find little to regret. It cost me a good deal of sorrow, but I learned from it.” (p. 236)

On his son’s face: “I can tell you this, that if I’d married some rosy dame and she had given me ten children and they had each given me ten grandchildren, I’d leave them all, on Christmas Eve, on the coldest night of the world, and walk a thousand miles just for the sight of your face, your mother’s face. And if I never found you, my comfort would be in that hope, my lonely and singular hope, which could not exist in the whole of Creation except in my heart and in the heart of the Lord. That is just a way of saying I could never thank God sufficiently for the splendor He has hidden from the world — your mother excepted, of course — and revealed to me in your sweetly ordinary face.” (p. 237)


  1. Margaret says:

    Gilead sounds like a great novel, – some very good thoughts there. I especially like the part about dealing with difficult people, and hope I can remember that advice. Perhaps this is selfish, but I also hope others will do the same for me when I am being difficult! It really is the Golden Rule, as found in the Bible.

    Reminds me of one of my children years ago, playing in the sand box with a friend. When the friend started hitting, my child replied, “The Bible says, if you hit me I have to hit you back.” – definitely a misunderstanding of a Sunday School lesson!!

    That example comes from a child, but how often we as adults do the same thing, hitting with words and hitting back.

    I am going to look for that novel in our library.

  2. Ray Fowler says:

    Margaret – Hmmmm, now I wonder who that unruly child could have been!

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