A few years back, I was going through a really tough time, and I looked to the Bible for comfort. As I read through Isaiah, these words jumped off the page at me:
I will be your God throughout your lifetime—
until your hair is white with age.
I made you, and I will care for you.
I will carry you along and save you. (Isaiah 46:4, NLT)
For many Christians, Jeremiah 29:11 is very comforting as well:
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord,
plans for your welfare and not for harm,
to give you a future with hope. (NRSV)
When I read those verses, I knew they were just for me. God’s promises. Even reading them now warms my heart because I can look back at what they meant to me then.
As I look back, I feel like they’re still true in some ways. God has been my God in spite of my doubts and questions, and to be completely honest, God has gotten better as I’ve come to understand God better.
In spite of all the pain and hardships I’ve been through, I have experienced my welfare, and less harm. I have a future with hope, just as I did then. The story is so beautiful.
[sound of record stopping awkwardly]
But what about the people who died in car accidents for no good reason? What about my friend’s dad, who, by all accounts, was a wonderful human being and died of some disease when my friend was seven? What about all the good Christians who get cancer and die? What about Bonhoeffer and the other Christians who died in the holocaust? Where were God’s plans for them?
And even me. I was not faring well when I was miserably teaching public school and drowning under ever more rules and requirements – but I brushed over that part because I was thinking about the ways those verses have been true for me.
But they weren’t written to me.
Gosh. I really want to believe those verses were written to me. I wanna name ’em and claim ’em, and if I could just mute every story except the parts of others and mine that line up with this verse, I probably could believe it.
I miss that. Of all the things I’ve left behind since I walked away from fundamentalism and evangelicalism, I miss that the most.
I remember one time after a long cold ride to the school where I was teaching English, pushing my bike in and locking it up and desperately wishing I could still believe everything in the Bible was literally true and God’s love letter to me, because I was struggling hard and could really have used some comfort from an out-of-context misappropriated Psalm right about then.
It made me sad. I didn’t have any verses to hold onto. I held little hope for divine intervention. God didn’t save Jesus from the cross, or these “others” from Hebrews 11:
Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented… Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised…
Should I expect better? Am I better than these saints of old? What gives me expectation of better treatment in this world, when the stories of divine intervention that litter scripture are recorded not because they are the rule, but because they are exceptions?
Was it because they had more faith? Of course not! They’re in the so-called “Hall of Faith,” after all. After a long litany of people who did the impossible by faith, the fine print appears. The “unsuccessful faithful” are divided from the “successful faithful” by two greek words: ἄλλοι δὲ.* “And others,” most English translations have it. After the mysterious author of Hebrews expounds the many great success stories of faith, the brilliant and bright side, honesty slips through. ἄλλοι δὲ.
Is there hope? Perhaps. Perhaps there is. Perhaps we will be among the celebrated few
…who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight…
But perhaps we will not. Perhaps we will be ἄλλοι δὲ, lauded for our faith to the end. Perhaps we will be those who are “commended for their faith,” but “did not receive what was promised.”
As Shane Claiborne, or maybe Greg Boyd, has said, we don’t obey because we’re guaranteed success. We obey because we’re called to be faithful. Will God intervene? Maybe, but my experience has been that divine intervention is unacceptably rare.
God doesn’t fix things, usually. The stories of Daniel in the lion’s den and his friends in the fiery furnace appear in scripture not because they’re normative, but because they’re miraculous. His friends hinted at this in their defiant speech to Nebuchadnezzar:
If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up. (Daniel 3:17-18, NRSV, emphasis mine)
“But if not.” והן לא.* They say, “If our God… is able to deliver us, let him deliver us.” Not only are they uncertain if God will, they seem unsure that God even can. They don’t expect salvation from the fire.
So there I was, about to start another depressing and hopeless day of teaching kids who didn’t want to learn in a school that was doing its darndest to kill my soul. I had no immediate hope of salvation, and no verses I could use without taking them radically out of context. Salvation didn’t come.
A few months later, I had the worst day at work of my entire teaching career – no, of all the careers I’ve ever had. The principal disrupted my class, and then she and the assistant principals yelled at me, and, over the course of the conversation, included no less than four blatant, easily verifiable lies.
That was Thursday. I called in a substitute for Friday, and again for Monday. On Monday I resigned. I came back later in the week during my planning period to return my laptop to IT and clean out my desk and classroom. As I biked toward the property line, I felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders. I was free. My six months of hell was over. God hadn’t saved me. I had saved myself.
What, then, is our hope in God? Do we have any?
We follow the long arc, and we do so in two ways.
1) Scripture teaches us that God causes all things to work together for our good. It does not teach that God causes all things, or that all things are good in and of themselves. Some things, like my teaching career, are just bad and hard and painful. God isn’t responsible for them.
But out of my failed teaching career came something else, something I think was beautiful. If my teaching career hadn’t been so utterly terrible, I might’ve stuck it out. I might have never considered going to seminary, which is where I’m headed in a few short months. (I hope that’s God making that bad experience useful, not a catalyst for something worse haha).
Or if my ex-girlfriend hadn’t broken up with me, an experience that I can assure you was the worst of my life, I would never have worked at Jumonville, gone to Huntington, or met Kristen, all of which would be a massive tragedy. Some of the best things in my life have happened because of that breakup. God used it for good. That doesn’t mean it was good of itself; it was horrible. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
God’s salvation is not a quick fix.
2) We believe in the resurrection of the dead. If death is the ultimate sad ending, resurrection is the ultimate reversal. It seems God does not often work in preventing evil. I suppose this is one of those “hard truths” we must face, not because scripture says so, but because the world we live in says so, and says so repeatedly.
The death rate, as they say, is still one in one. Even when Jesus resurrected Lazarus, Lazarus did eventually die again. Our hope, as Christians, is not that we will not die, but that we will rise again.
Our hope as Christians is not that evil will not occur, or even that it will not defeat us. Our hope is not for immediate salvations from any, all, or even most hardships. Our hope is that God will bring something good and beautiful from them. Our hope is that death and tragedy will not have the last word, no matter what the evidence to the contrary.
* Pretentious Greek and Hebrew letters I put in to make it seem cooler. I could just as easily have completely invented them and most of you wouldn’t have known, but I actually did look them up.