Grief, Expectation, Comfort

Consolation by Joe RosenthalThe God of Israel and the God of Jesus Christ invites expectation. Precisely because he has chosen (freely) to be a promising God and therefore an ‘expectable’ God; and precisely because (freely) he fulfils his promises through his sovereign patience and indefatigable persuasiveness (meaning that God is not at the mercy of our decisions, but neither does he chose to simply destroy our responsiveness); precisely because he is this kind of God, he makes it possible that we might be disappointed.

The goodness with which God structured and purposed the world, over which we rejoice, and upon which we rely and expect when we make our plans, sometimes fails us. The crops we planted fail. The children we raise die children. The rain we prayed for washes away our homes. Sometimes, maybe always, this will be the result of human untrustworthiness, but if we genuinely believe that God governs all creation, even sinful human hearts, then even human untrustworthiness is not ungoverned by God. These expectations have been frustrated because creation itself is subject to frustration (Romans 8:20). The Lord of creation has willed that it not always achieve its tendency to flourishing, he has bound it to decay, until the time when he will set it free – free to achieve its goodness, its flourishing, along with the flourishing children of God.

He is therefore the author of our expectations and our disappointments, even in the realm of the natural world. And it is not inappropriate to cry out to him with the Psalmist: How long O Lord?

This idea, however, that the creation has a natural tendency to goodness which is frustrated by divine intention, for the sake of another promise, alerts us to the fact that Christian expectation, and therefore disappointment, is not merely related to the failures and fulfilment of creation projects (growing, sharing, etc). There is a divine promise which, while not subverting created order, is also not simply the natural fruition of creation projects. God promises to dwell with his people, to be their fulness and satisfaction. This is not something that the creation (fallen or otherwise) could ever expect. It can only be divinely, freely, promised.

It is this supernatural expectation that unites the chosen people of God. They are captured by the beauty of it, they long for the comfort of it. This electric anticipation is greater than anything offered by the world’s Pharaohs. There has never been anything in history as awesomely powerful for transforming the lives of human creatures as this expectation, this Spirit initiated human receptivity to the promise. There is nothing conceivable that would be more destructive to human flourishing than the loss of this expectation.

Can you see then, that every day of quivering anticipation for the fulness of the promise, must also be a day of disappointment until He comes? This does not quench the unspeakable joy that you and I share in the knowledge that Christ has been raised, that he has ascended to the right hand of the Father, that even now he is humbling every enemy, that the morning star shines, the day dawns, our salvation is near at hand. I long for for it! I tremble for it. And at my best, daily I am disappointed for it. I do not presume to judge the patience and kindness of God. One day I will know how to rejoice in it. But inasmuch as he has invited my expectations with his promises, I will long for their fulfilment and submit to this disappointment. We can be witnesses to the world that there is something worth hoping for, and therefore worth grieving over.

Picture Simeon, the elderly prophet who Luke presents to us at the beginning of his Gospel as a picture of the those faithful saints of Israel, a man who had the courage to pray daily: “Lord, don’t let me die until I have seen your salvation.” He had the courage to expect God to keep his promise, and therefore the courage to go to bed disappointed, night after night through his long life. How many of his brothers were laid down in the dust still hoping, and still disappointed? How many died unconsoled, because they were still waiting for the consolation of Israel? (Luke 2:25).

There is no fear or shame in grieving for our hopes while we still have the capacity to grieve hopefully. And while there is God, there is hope.

He has spoken to us in his Son. He has drawn near. He has shared his life utterly, to the last drop of blood, with us. He dwells with us by his Spirit, speaking to us, praying with us, praying for us. It is the essential nature of our Triune God to share life: to be in himself perfect life, perfectly shared. One Life, Three Persons. And by the Holy Spirit, he has shared his life with us in Christ. and from this sharing, has promised us resurrection. He has opened our hearts and minds through his word to the most impossible of expectations, the most intensely terrifying of potential disappointments. But God does not disappoint us.

We expect a resurrection, not just to more life, but to God’s life, to the perfection of the communion with God that we have, even now, had the first taste. Eternal life is not about immortality, it is about sharing the perfection of life that God always has in himself. It is the sum of all perfect futures. It is the true object (whether known or not) of all our hopes and expectations: the thing we really wanted, even when we thought we wanted something else. It is the termination, the destination and cessation, of all true disappointment.

God is what we grieve the lack of, in all our griefs. And finding we have him, in Christ our comfort overflows.

Image by Shaun Merritt
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