Comfort in Hope Wrap Up

Published February 6, 2024 by Steve Wells

The first class I took in graduate school was “History of Christian Doctrine.” The professor was, appropriately enough, Wally Christian. I was terrified. It was a doctoral class, and I had just finished my bachelor’s degree. I was sure I was not smart enough to pass a graduate school course, so I went to visit Professor Christian in the week before class started. I expressed to him my fear and asked him to tell me if anything about my participation in the class served as a confirmation of that fear to him; I told him I would rather withdraw than fail. 

Professor Christian said something to me that was a healing balm to my soul. He leaned back in his chair and with gentleness in his voice he said, “I know that feeling. It is like saying, ‘I made it through third grade, but fourth grade is going to be the one that gets me.’” Something about casting my present anxiety back to a past event—a past event with a satisfactory resolution—changed my perspective. It was like a wave of calm washed over me. I passed the class. I remember a few things from that class, but I have never forgotten Wally’s words of gracious permission. There is a real wisdom in what Wally did. And he was not the first to do it. 

The Exile was the worst thing that happened in Israel’s long memory. Isaiah 40-55 tells the story of what happened in and through God’s people in the midst of tragedy and disaster. It is an account of what those people learned in the valley of the shadow of tragedy. As you know, there are keen insights to be learned when life falls apart. There are things we can see when we are on our backs that we do not notice when we stand on our feet. There are stars we see at night we cannot see during the daylight hours.

Tom Wright said that when he was a pastor and people came to him in seasons of despair, he prescribed reading these chapters as a physician might prescribe an antibiotic— read them through in a single sitting once per day for ten days. These stories “companion” us in our lives. They walk beside us as wise friends who have in the past successfully walked through our present pain. Grief recovery groups have learned you alone can do your grief work, but you don’t have to do it alone. No one else can do it for you, but others have tread the same path before and you can learn from them. Often when we hear stories of others, we learn we are not abnormal or weird. These chapters are a healing balm in our seasons of pain.

When pain overtakes us, there are two things we need to tend: Did we play a part in it coming, and what part does God play in our pain and our healing?

The events of the Exile were not random—they grew from our abandoning the call from God to be a priestly people; they were a consequence of our refusal to live by the law of love (what happens to you makes a difference to me). The truth is, one of the hardest things to do in life is to own our part in what led us to where we are, to step back from a given set of events and clearly see our influence/role/part in the outcome. We have an incredible capacity for denial as human beings—I don’t have a problem; it is someone else’s fault. It is not until we, like the prodigal son, begin to see our part and own our stuff that we learn about ourselves—come to ourselves—and can be healed. 

In addition to owning our part in life, it is essential we learn to see accurately God’s part. The essence of what Isaiah learned from the Exile is this: God’s mercy is everlasting. God had not abandoned His people, even when people had abandoned Him. Those discoveries are the bedrock of hope: God is so full of mercy that He can rebuild our brokenness. God’s mercy is everlasting, His power is ingenious. God is able to do things with what we have done that are simply Mystery in the power of redemption. God hits straight licks with crooked sticks. God can do almost everything with almost anything.

When we have done all we can do to break creation down, there is a greater Power to restore. If you are still breathing, God is still working. Every morning you wake up is God’s way of saying, “I am giving you another chance to get it right. And I will be with you all the way to the end.”

In the end, all shall be well. Someone in the spirit of Isaiah said, “If all is not well, then it is not the end, and God is not done.” Amen. Take hope and comfort from that.