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All Sad Things Really Do Come Untrue
A Lenten reflection, moving into Holy Week.
Remarkably, God’s hidden glory shows up meaningfully in life’s beauty as well as in life’s pain.
The Apostle Paul, whose life and ministry were filled with trouble, reveals his appreciation for the hidden glory when he writes:
“We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).
I cannot help but laugh when people ask if I, a pastor, have ever had a job in the real world. I once heard another pastor answer the question by saying that he experiences more of the real world in one week than many do in a lifetime. He then reviewed the many distraught marriages, estranged parent-child relationships, financial train wrecks, addiction and adultery interventions, deaths, and suicide wreckage into which his work has called him.
This part of a pastor’s calling is heavy, but is also a privilege. It is especially in the real-world troubles, when we’re down on the ground in the dirt, grasping for the hem of Jesus’s garment, that God opens our eyes to see him and know him more clearly. When God does this, we pastors are honored to be welcomed into the grief.
One afternoon, I received a note from a mother on the first anniversary of her teenage son’s suicide. The previous year had been excruciating for her, her husband, and their other son. Years later, it is still so very hard for their family. Touchingly and miraculously, the mother’s note was filled with a settled hope that had become a companion to her unspeakable grief. She spoke of a confidence that she had received from God, “that the sadness on this earth will only serve to intensify the joy of heaven.”
Every day this dear mother wears a bracelet with the word tetelesthai engraved on its outside, which is the word Jesus cried from the cross meaning, “It is finished.” She wears the bracelet to remind herself of what is true—that her young son, a sweet and kind and loyal believer in Jesus who tragically succumbed to self-harm in a moment of weakness—will not be judged by the last thing that he did before he died. Instead, he will be judged by the last thing that Jesus did before he died as he cried, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34).
She ended her note with the words, “What comfort and such hope!” Along with her note came the gift of a wooden sign paraphrasing Tolkien, which sits in plain view on a bookshelf next to my desk. The sign reads, “All sad things become untrue.”
There are other “real-world” stories of people hoping against hope that I could tell you. These are frail people like you and me. The Spirit of God has been given to them, along with an ability to see with eyes of a faith that is rooted in time-space history by Jesus’s life, death, burial, resurrection, and coming return.
There was a widow who gifted to me her husband’s “Happy Socks,” which he wore as he fought terminal cancer to remind himself that his best days were still ahead of him in the New Heaven and New Earth (Revelation 21:1-5). I wear those very socks every year on Easter to remind myself that what was true for him in his dying days is also true for me in my living ones.
There was also a woman whose oncologist told her that she had two weeks left to live. As we planned her funeral together, her prevailing emotion was joy. Like the mother who had lost her son, her joy was not negated, diminished, or dishonored by her accompanying sadness. Rather, her joy completed her sadness, and her sadness completed her joy. In staying awake to both emotions simultaneously, she showed herself to be fully human and fully alive, even in the shadow of death’s dark valley.
It is a miracle that Jesus endured the cross of death “for the joy set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). It is also a miracle when other frail humans like ourselves can to do the same.
When unspeakable tragedy including the loss of ten children struck Job and his wife, we are told that Job’s impulse response—the one for which she despised him—was to fall on his knees and worship God, saying, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
We mustn’t be too hard on Job’s wife, considering her loss. Grief takes on a unique form for each, fearfully and wonderfully made individual. For some, the early response is rage and cynicism; for others, it is unwavering faith. But it is not the sure belief or deep doubt of our early processing that defines our faith, but rather where we end up on the other side of that process, which sometimes lasts a lifetime. Our faith is defined by where God takes us as we journey, over time, through our grief. What we do know is that God blessed Job and his wife greatly in the latter half of their lives. They both carried an immovable bruise upon their hearts, while also worshiping God who, in his own strange and mysterious ways, restores hope over time.
Having witnessed as much as I have while walking with people in the trenches as their pastor, I can tell you that when times of testing come for me, I hope I won’t curse or cuss at God. I hope that my heart will contain in full measure whatever it was that caused a grieving mother to quote Tolkien about sad things coming untrue, a dying man to reach for his Happy Socks, a woman to be fully alive while she planned her own funeral, and Job to worship. And I hope that I will be able to bear witness by feeling my feelings out loud, just as these faithful ones did.
Job’s wife found a way out of her cynicism and learned how to live again. You can read all about it in their story.
Perhaps we who have become cozy with cynicism can learn to live again, too? But in our learning, may we be gentle with ourselves and with each other. This world, for now, is as tragic as it is beautiful.
This is a modified excerpt from Beautiful People Don’t Just Happen: How God Redeems Regret, Hurt, and Fear in the Making of Better Humans. Used by permission from Zondervan.