One of the greatest temptations in a technological age is to imagine that human beings create truth rather than receive it. Through scientific inventions and social media re-inventions, we suffer under the illusion that reality is something we can determine rather than something we must discover.

As C. S. Lewis put it: in ancient times, “the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue.” In a technological age, however, “the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men; the solution is a technique.” 

“Subduing reality to our wishes” is the promise of technology, right? And even if we do not put our faith in this technological solution to human problems, we live in ways that further the illusion that we are ultimately in control—from our social media personas, to the heating and cooling of our houses, to the tailoring of our phones to our own needs.

Freedom Redefined

“Freedom” today has been redefined. It now means that every individual is tasked with creating the self. You must be the sole determiner of your future.

The illusion of human control is furthered in politics by both the right and the left. The transgender debate exists because some in our society view freedom as flourishing within the bodily form that we’ve received, and others view freedom as overcoming and redefining the body. Then there are “alternative facts” that challenge one claim with another, so that truth and spin become so terribly tangled as to give the impression that one must write the narrative one wants to be true.

But there is one reality in our world that reasserts itself again and again, always shattering the human illusion of self-mastery: the weather.

We Are Not In Charge of the Weather

When Jesus said that the sun shines on both the evil and the good, and that the rain falls on both the righteous and unrighteous, he was making a point about the benevolent heart of God toward all people. Theologians have called this “common grace.”

But perhaps the way that sunshine and rain become common grace in our generation is by reminding us that we are not as strong as we think we are.

We cannot make the sun shine. We cannot hold back the rain. We cannot even clear the clouds. As much as we might like to, we cannot adjust the temperature in our neighborhood so that it will be warm and sunny for a Saturday outdoor wedding in spring.

We can stand in the snow in the dead of winter and imagine it to be sunny and warm, but no matter how deeply we feel the sun in our hearts, we will die of frostbite. Weather reminds us that we are not in control. We either adapt to reality, or we die.

Power of a Slight Shift in Temperature

I recently finished a novel by Ames Towles called A Gentleman in Moscow. It tells the story of an aristocrat sentenced to house arrest in a Russian hotel after the Bolshevik Revolution. At one point in the book, Towles reminds us of the quiet, but inescapable power of the weather:

The Count believed in the influence of early frosts and lingering summers, of ominous clouds and delicate rains, of fog and sunshine and snowfall. And he believed, most especially, in the reshaping of destinies by the slightest change in the thermometer. . . . 

By way of example, one need only look down from this window. Not three weeks before—with the temperature hovering around 45 degrees Fahrenheit—Theatre Square had been empty and gray. But with an increase in the average temperature of just five degrees, the trees had begun to blossom, the sparrows had begun to sing, and couples young and old were lingering on the benches. If such a slight change in temperature was all it took to transform the life of a public square, why should we think the course of history any less susceptible?

The book mentions Napoleon, who may have become master of the world if not for the severity of Russia’s winter. To move forward in time, we could consider the effect of the fog surrounding the D-Day invasion in WWII.

But Towles tells how the shift from rain to snow affected the 21st birthday celebration of a Russian Princess, which sets into motion a life-changing set of events.

At five o’clock, when you look from your dressing room window, the weather seems certain to weigh upon the festivities. For with the temperature at 34 degrees, clouds as far as the eye can see, and the onset of a drizzling rain, the Princess’s guests will be arriving at her party cold, wet, and a little worse for wear. But by the time you set out at six, the temperature has dropped just enough that what begins to land on your shoulders is not a gray, autumnal rain, but the season’s first snowfall. Thus, the very precipitation that might have soured the evening, instead lends it an aura of magic. In fact, so mesmerizing is the manner in which the snowflakes spiral through the air that you are run from the road. . . .

From cold and dreary to snowy and magical. The briefest change in temperature changes everything.

Bad Weather’s Big Blessing

Travelers get stranded in airports during winter storms. People flee the coastal regions when a hurricane is on the way. When weather takes us by surprise, we cancel meetings and rearrange schedules, and everyone seems to understand: There is nothing we can do.

Strangely, this is one of weather’s biggest blessings.

In a world where we try to sustain the illusion that we are in control of reality, the weather does not comply. Again and again, we remember: This is bigger than us. We must react to reality, for we cannot subdue it. Call it common grace for a technologically idolatrous age.