God in the Pit

Larry Crabb tells story after story in his book Shattered Dreams of people whose lives have been upended by grief and pain and the unexpected mundanity of living.

Tears have become my deepest form of worship, some reflect. They discover deep desires for God, and then a new hurt on top of the cavalcade of grief: he seems to have disappeared. We don’t know where he is. We can’t find him.

This hurt is, Crabb asserts, a hopeful hurt. We find as we push into the pain that there is joy available in God, even if we aren’t happy at all. How does that work? It works because we learn to long. And longing is the ground of joy, of participation in God himself for his own sake.

We struggle with the idea of unfulfilled desire. Many of us will have been able to get anything we want, until we can’t. Even then we’re surrounded by people who can get what they want, often instantly. Even deferred fulfilment sounds like a wound to our machine-catechised souls.

You’re not a smartphone, you’re a tree. And, as Joel Ansett points out, in his song Tragedy is Not the End, your tears are shaped like seeds. That longing, that unfulfilled desire for a world that’s right, that we treat as though experiencing it is the very depths of Hell, is supposed to be a signpost to something greater. It’s longing that takes our hand and leads us towards joy. As Lewis famously said in The Weight of Glory, if we discover a desire within us that cannot be met by anything in the world, then maybe, just maybe, we’re made for another world.

I don’t mean to be trite; longing is a good guide but the path to joy is lined with daggers and full of hairpin corners. It is no easy road. Nothing worth having is ever easy.

Grief is most often how we first learn to long, whether the dull, weary griefs of older relatives dying, or the sudden sharp griefs of loved ones snatched from us unexpectedly, or the aching absence of the grief of what will never be however much we miss it, or the tiny death-by-pinpricks of the grief of dreams smashed into a thousand pieces. These are all grief: the accumulated sadnesses of life lived under the Sun, the vile stench of death stalking our footsteps.

In the midst of all this muddy muck, if we can summon the energy to look up—and I know from bitter experience how hard this is, dear friend—then perhaps we can learn to long for a day better than this. That is the first step towards joy, not a step upwards but downwards, for we find God in the pit.

We think God’s job is to make our lives nice and easy and straightforward and most of all comfortable. It’s not, and that’s not the path of joy. There is no joy to be found there, only disappointment multiplied. God instead wants to give us himself, nothing more (as if there were more!) and nothing less.

There’s a sticking point, though: the gift of God in the pit is not receiving, which will drive our modern mind mad. It’s longing.

That’s the pattern of the Bible, after all: death then resurrection. The pit before the palace. That’s Jesus’ life, but it’s Joseph’s too, and Moses’ and David’s. Down before up. The blessing here is, whether you believe it today or not, if you’re dying or your life is dying, you can be sure of this ironclad promise: everything that dies in Christ comes to life.

And, glory of glories, resurrection is not resuscitation. You don’t ‘get it back’ because you’ve been patient enough to ‘live without.’ No, much better, what dies—and those who die—do not return but travel ahead through the doorway of death into the Land of the Living.

Even if we’re talking dreams, that which is raised with Christ goes ahead of us through the back of death, and is better than it was before.

But, Tim! That makes no sense! Look at my life!

I know. It makes no sense. And it may that nothing that looks like resurrection happens until the age to come. I cannot promise you otherwise, though I know that it can happen even in this land of rabid death we call home for a while. What I know is this: if Jesus was raised from the dead, you never know what might happen.

If Jesus was raised from the dead, all bets are off. If Jesus was raised from the dead, then we can hope. I’m sorry to offer you that, because I know from burned fingers and a lacerated heart that hope is a painful commodity. It should not be offered lightly. Hope deferred makes the heart sick (Proverbs 13), oh how it does. Eventually the cycle of hope-disappointment-hope-disappointment calluses you enough that you cannot bear to hope because hope feels like disappointment.

And yet.

There’s a secret I need to tell you, a story I need to let you in on.

There was a garden just outside of Jerusalem, where trees surround a hollow with a cave. Right in the middle of the garden, there’s a place that feels other, different, like you walk on strange earth, like you can hear the distant cry of the Seraphim in its mirror on heaven as they call the Lord thrice holy. You breathe in and as the north wind awakes a smell catches you on the breeze of nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, frankincense, aloes, and myrrh (Song of Songs 4). Right in the middle, where you’re certain two trees should have stood, is a cave cut in the rock.

It’s a tomb. And it’s empty.

Photo by Gary Meulemans on Unsplash

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