In 1907, when young Adolf was sipping a cup of coffee outside a corner shop in Vienna, he wasn’t plotting how he could murder six million Jews. He was pondering his next watercolor painting, dreaming about becoming an artist.
When a big change happens in our lives, it takes some time for us to get used to whatever the “new normal” might be.
My first Sunday School teacher was a pale, squat, balding man who retold dusty old Bible stories with a nasally voice and a moralistic heart. The more he taught me to be good, the more I wanted to be bad. So I’d hide from him. Under tables, behind curtains, inside closets. Sometimes he’d find me, sometimes not.
If I were granted three wishes, one of them would not be to know what the future holds. You can keep your crystal balls. I have enough trouble wrestling with today’s demons without knowing what crosses await me tomorrow. As the wise rabbi said, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” And some days are so sufficiently evil that tomorrow looms like the open jaws of hell.
They are the only couple in the Bible who laugh at God. Abraham first and later his wife, Sarah. And who could blame them, for the scenario is hilarious. They wait a quarter of a century for God to make good on his promise to give them a child. It seems a comedy in the making, for Abraham is seventy five years old and Sarah sixty five when he first makes the promise. People that old don’t buy Pampers. But there stood God, saying, “Oh, but you will.” So they wait. And they wait. For twenty five years these aging lovebirds do their lovemaking but no babymaking. The final time God assures them that they’ll have a son, Abraham falls on his face and laughs (Gen 17:17) and Sarah, later, giggles like a schoolgirl (18:12). Quite fittingly, therefore, when their baby boy is born the next year, they name him, “Laughter.” Or as we know him, Isaac. I’m glad Abraham and Sarah could laugh. I think most of us wouldn’t have found this scenario all that funny. In fact, when we wait on God to make good on his promises, even for a few weeks or months, we don’t laugh. We hurt. We murmur. Often we get mad at God for dragging his feet.
It is perhaps no surprise that one of the most common questions in the Psalms is, “O Lord, how long….?” Now there’s a prayer we can say Amen to.
O Lord, how long until you take away the cancer that’s attacking my body? O Lord, how long will I get turned away from every company I apply to? O Lord, how long will my child be in and out of rehab? O Lord, how long will my husband and I languish in this dying marriage? O Lord, how long will your drag your feet while our souls are sinking in despair?
For most of us, waiting on God is not funny at all. It makes us wonder if he cares. If he has forgotten us. In our darkest hours, many even wonder if the atheists are right, if our prayers are nothing more than sick words vomited into an empty heaven.
Here is the truth: God is there. God does care. Heaven is not empty but full of a God who thinks of nothing but you night and day. As Isaiah says, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you,” (49:15). God does indeed remember, but his remembering is unique. It has one ultimate goal: to join you, body and soul, to the body and soul of Jesus Christ.
Every time we pray, “O Lord, how long?” the answer is always the same: “You have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God,” (Col 3:3). You may object, “But that’s no answer!” Oh, but it is. It is a true answer, and it is the best answer.
God doesn’t give us a timetable; he gives us his Son. And for him we don’t have to wait a single second. You have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. It’s already accomplished. The Father plunged you into the water wet with Jesus. In that water you joined Christ on the cross. There your old life bled away. And there your new life began as Jesus carried you in his body out of the grave on Easter. Your life is hidden the way a heart and lungs and bones and blood are hidden inside a person, for you are the body of Christ. You are hidden in him and hidden with him in the Father. And if you’re that far into God, there’s no getting you out.
So will the Father answer your specific “How long?” prayers? Of course he will. He who asks, receives; he who seeks, finds; she who knocks, the door will be opened to her. The God who goes so far as to count your tears and keep them in a bottle (Ps 56:8) is certainly not going to ignore your pleas for mercy. But as you await the answer to those prayers, know that your prayers have already have been answered in Christ. Your life, your heartaches, your tears and disappointments—they are all hidden with Christ in God, too. He takes them all in when he takes you into himself.
The ways of God are hilarious. So outlandish, so crazy, so foolish that sometimes the only thing we can do is laugh. There we were, dead, and now in Christ we live. There we were, thinking there’s no way we’ll ever conceive hope again, and now hope grows within us like Isaac in Sarah’s womb. It’s funny, the weird ways of God. He’s always full of surprises, for there’s nothing more surprising in this world than a love that knows no bounds, no timetables, but that knows you and holds you tight.
Sometimes the best Amen sounds like laughter.
She was dressing when his letter arrived. It was twenty minutes till nine. It was the day of her wedding. And it was the day, the hour, and the minute that were to cast a pall over the remainder of her life. For the man to whom she had given her heart, and dared to trust, had defrauded her, and abandoned her before the altar. Shattered and humiliated, she had every clock in her home frozen at 8:40 a.m. Her daily attire became the yellowed, tattered wedding dress of her ruined youth. And the cake, that sweet, edible emblem of joy, remained uneaten, sitting crisscrossed by cobwebs atop the kitchen table. She is Miss Havisham, one of the most eccentric of Charles Dickens' characters in Great Expectations. And she is a model worshiper in the religion of regret. For her devotion is to a past that will not allow her to live fully in the present, much less to delight in a future. For in Miss Havisham’s religion, hope is the unforgivable sin.
Those of you who have been so blessed as to avoid sinking into a quagmire like the one in which she found herself, might think I exaggerate when I call regret a religion. But I beg to differ. I was a faithful member of this morbid cult for a few years, and I assure you that it so envelops a person's existence that calling it anything short of a religion underestimates the devotion it demands.
As with so many things, regret can begin as something natural, even beneficial, as you struggle to recover from a wound in your past. But over time, regret can devolve from a sadness to a sickness. It was as if I buried myself in the sands of that time of self-inflicted pain and all that marched on into the future was a shadow of my former self. Outwardly alive but inwardly deceased. For the rest of the world, time ticked on, but the hands on the clocks in my head and heart were all handcuffed to that moment.
The odd thing is that, as depressing as this captivity to regret is, we who have suffered through it tend to deify it. It becomes our lord, a god who demands, and usually gets, our all. It is a baptism of ice, which freezes us to the past. Our sacraments are scab-picking and wound-licking, our sacred text the story of our life’s undoing. We read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the bible of our betrayal. Our hearts blather out doleful songs of lament, the refrain of which is always, “If only, if only, if only….”
But the whole time that lament is sung, there is another song, full of enlivening music, that also chants, “If only….” It goes something like this: “If only you would come to me, you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” And, “If only you would remove that funereal wedding dress, I would deck you out in robes of joy, for I would clothe you with my righteousness and life.” And, “Trash that cobwebbed cake and, here, ‘Take, eat, this is my body, given for you; take, drink, this is my blood, shed for you, that in me you might have peace and love and more hope than you ever dreamt of.’” It is the voice of Jesus calling, not worlds but inches away, ever present in the midst of your grief, never giving up on you, ceaselessly beckoning you to life again.
The religion of regret is a religion of falsehood, for its ultimate claim is that there is no more hope in this life. But Jesus is hope embodied, the flesh-and-blood hope of a God who raises the dead. And if he can enliven even a corpse, he can certainly raise you from the grave in which you have entombed yourself under the sands of regret. But he does more than make you alive. He is your life. In him you live and move and have your being. In him you become heaven’s child, one who bears the divine image. And your clocks tick on, unfrozen from the past, counting the days and hours and minutes until you have finally passed through this life of trials, and enter into your Father’s house, where happiness truly knows no end.
My Dear Shadowbrand,
I admire the zeal you have exhibited in your struggle to bring Joseph into the hands of Our Father below. I need not remind you, however, that zeal is never sufficient in and of itself. To zeal must be added cunning, and cunning must issue in success. In your file I see nothing but one dismal failure after another. Joseph stubbornly clings to the Enemy. He still waits for those dreams of his to come true.
This latest turn of events, however, presents you with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Press your advantage. If Joseph will ever be vulnerable, it is now.
As you know, Joseph recently interpreted the dreams of his fellow inmates, the cupbearer and the baker. The latter, I rejoice to say, is now firmly in our clutches; the former is free and serving again in the court of Pharaoh. In the weeks and months to come, one of our brothers will be hard at work on the cupbearer. That disgusting human tendency to repay kindness with kindness will be met with counterarguments such as, “Yes, but we all know those foreigners will lie about anything, including their innocence,” and “If he were truly a man of God, then he wouldn’t be in prison now, would he?” Over time, any inclination the cupbearer might have to speak a good word to Pharaoh on Joseph’s behalf will seem less and less of a moral necessity. With humans, it’s almost too easy to turn “maybe later” into “never.”
Here is where your task becomes of vital importance. To begin with, hope will be your most powerful weapon. Stir up in Joseph a lusty anticipation of impending release. With the dawning of each new day, whisper to him that today will certainly be the day when he is vindicated, when his good name is cleared of the trumped up charges of attempted rape. Lure him to hope like he’s never hoped before. Do this, I suggest, for at least the first month.
Then, once you have fattened Joseph with hope, gradually introduce him to a diet of doubt. Make him begin to count the days since the cupbearer’s release. Reacquaint him with the pains of prison life that he may have overlooked during his month of excess hope. At the same time, labor on his imagination. Let him think of the life of ease in the palace that is enjoyed by the cupbearer—the man he helped to free! Let the bitter irony of this man’s dream leading to his release, and Joseph’s dreams leading to his eventual imprisonment, grow more bitter by the day. Your goal, my dear Shadowbrand, is for Joseph to grow angry with the man whom he thought was his ticket to freedom; then to feed that child of anger until it grows into the adult of hatred; and finally to bring forth from hatred’s womb the offspring of revenge, spite, and mistrust.
But even if you accomplish these goals, you have only gone halfway. We are waging war, I need not remind you, on both the horizontal and vertical levels. It is not enough that he hates this man, the cupbearer. Joseph’s blade of hatred must penetrate all the way through this man and plunge into the Enemy himself. Gradually transform the image of the cupbearer in his mind from the Enemy’s emissary to his tease. Suggest that the Enemy was only tantalizing him, holding out hope as a mirage in this desert dungeon.
If you can move Joseph, emotion by emotion, thought by thought, closer to the conception of our Enemy as the Grand Deceiver, then with the mere push of a finger, he will plummet off his mountain of hope into the pit of despair. His dreams will seem nightmares from childhood. His faith will seem an irrational fixation upon a sadistic, celestial tyrant. His hope…well, he will have no hope, for in the religion of despair, hope has been excommunicated. The vacuum left by it is easily filled with bitterness over the past, selfish pity over the woes of the present, and a blank stare into the futile future.
Do not waste this opportunity, Shadowbrand. Our Father below is watching. I trust you will not disappoint him again.
This fictional epistle is, of course, patterned after The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis, whose literary gifts I do not pretend to match. In my studies of Joseph's life, including the chapter in Genesis that is the basis for this article (40), I have often wondered at the temptations he must have faced. I suspect that the two years which elapsed from the cupbearer's release until Joseph's liberation were the most difficult of his life. For there are few sufferings harder to endure than to have one's hope built up, only to see it dashed to the ground. But thanks be to God, who sustained Joseph, and still sustains us, that we might cling to His word of promise even in the face of the most diabolical of temptations to despair.
My thanks to Haleigh Morgan for the suggestion of "Shadowbrand" as the name of the letter's recipient.
A man becomes a man by imitation of his father. There are other influences in a boy’s life, but none greater, or of more lasting consequence, than his dad. A father makes many choices in his life—the woman he marries, the career he pursues, the skills he fosters. But I remain convinced no decision matters more than what kind of man he will be to his children. They are his legacy. And if in the twilight years of a man’s life, he can look back and say, not that he has been a perfect father, but that he has been all the father he can be, then he will have lived a life worth living. Dad, for over four decades of your seventy-two years, you have been a father to me. I have no other, nor have I ever desired another. Like any man, I am full of weakness and strength, good and bad, but the strength residing in me, and the good I possess, I attribute to you. You shared stories from your own life, and the lives of others, from which I learned what to avoid, and what to embrace. The silent witness of your deeds has spoken volumes, and taught me more, than any university degree. Though I could never detail all the gifts of character I have learned from you, these three stand out, above all others, as the legacy you have bestowed.
From you, Dad, I learned that a man is truly a man when, as Ecclesiastes says, whatever his hand finds to do, he does it with all his might (9:10). At every job I’ve had, from a roofer to a pastor to a driver, people have remarked on how hard I work. No one has ever called me lazy, nor will they, for I am your son. I am not a workaholic, but when I labor, I labor from the heart—with diligence, energy, commitment to the best job I can do. Work is, in a sense, a sacred task, given by God. And in working hard we give glory to the One who, even before sin entered the world, gave Adam work to do in Eden.
From you, Dad, I learned that a man keeps going forward, even when he may want to give up. I have gone through some painfully dark times in my life—and life being what it is, will probably go through more—but I have never stopped pressing forward to what lies ahead. Perhaps we are both simply stubborn, and refuse to quit for that reason, but I believe it is something more, something deeper, and better. It is hope. You have never given up on me, never gave me a reason to doubt that I would make it through my darkness, no matter what. And that hope has kindled more hope, and lasting hope, within me.
From you, Dad, I learned that our God is a good, loving Father. From childhood I have known the Holy Scriptures, as Paul did (2 Timothy 3:15), for you took me to Sunday School, sat beside me in church, prayed at every meal, and witnessed in countless ways that God is good. My faith may not be able to move mountains, but it moves me forward through valleys of the shadow of death, moves me to love others, and moves me again and again into the arms of the Savior whose love, and sacrifice, I first learned from you.
A true, loving father is a gift every child desperately needs. I have had, and still have that, in you. And I pray that I may be the same for Luke and Auriana. That, like you, I too may live a life truly worth living.
My father, Carson Bird, and yours truly, 1970, in Jal, NM.
I was sixteen years old when I met the rest of my life. Of course, I didn't know it when it happened. We never do. All I knew, on that February evening in 1987, was that a local girl had asked me if I wanted to go with her to the FHA Sweetheart Banquet. Her name was Stacy. I said yes, we stood at least six inches apart for the official picture that evening, and I took her home afterward. That was our evening. That was our first date. And that would be our only date until over a quarter of a century had passed. We went on about our lives. She eventually married and became the mother of a daughter and son. I eventually married and became the father of a daughter and son. We carved out our place in the world. And both of us, in our own ways, saw those worlds collapse. We both found out what it's like to fall into darkness and wonder if you'll ever see the light again. We both became profoundly different people over the course of that quarter of a century.
Twenty six years later, we went on our second date. We were no longer naive teenagers. We were no longer innocent. But we were both ready to begin life anew, to find love and acceptance and forgiveness in someone who would be flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone.
One year ago today, God joined us as husband and wife. These past twelve months have been the best year of my life. I do not exaggerate. I could never have anticipated how much one person would mean to me, how God would use her to bring such profound healing and hope to my life.
Last year, at this time, right before our wedding, I published a short piece entitled, "Call Me Lazarus." Here it is again. It is even truer today.
Call Me Lazarus
I’ve hunkered down in a dark place, where light is not only absent, but banned. The darkness is loved, almost worshiped, for it is a sanctuary in which to hole up and lick one’s wounds without fear of having even more inflicted upon you. God is unwelcome there, as are his phantasms of hope and love and tenderness and fidelity and all other mirages that slake one’s thirst with a mouthful of sand. Going there are those who flirt with a pistol to the head, whose veins flow with whiskey, whose child lies under six feet of soil, who curse the day of their birth, who spend every waking and sleeping hour playing and replaying the nightmares of their past. I’ve been to that dark place, and some of you reading this have, too. Maybe, in fact, you’re there now.
Today I stand in the light. There is one reason, and one reason only: because the God I once hated, never stopped loving me; the God I screamed at until my voice collapsed in on itself, never interrupted me; the God I damn well knew had become my worst enemy, never stopped being my compassionate Father. I blamed him for my sins, the sins of others, for just about everything wrong in my life. I did trust God, but I trusted that if I asked for a fish, he’d give me a snake; or if I asked for medicine, he’d give me poison. I was angry at heaven, at earth, and everything in between, for my life and my love and my hopes had all gone wrong, terribly, irreversibly, wrong.
But it was I who was wrong, terribly, but not irreversibly, wrong. I’m not here to tell you that God had some grand plan for my life, and I finally discovered it, and now everything is sweetness and light. I do still struggle with my past, and I probably always will, to an extent. The present is almost always charged a certain tax by the past.
What I will tell you is that, despite all evidence to the contrary, despite what you think and feel and imagine, God is indeed in that dark place. You don’t know it, but he’s licking your wounds, too. And he’s keeping the deeper, blacker darkness at bay. And he hears, on the other side of your angry screams, the cries of a hurting child begging for help, but not knowing how to ask for it.
Today I stand in the light, and—miracles of miracles!—this week a woman will stand beside me in that same light, to take my hand in her own, look into my eyes that once beheld only darkness, and tell me, before the witness of heaven and earth, that she will be my wife. I would have believed the blind would receive sight, the lame walk, and the deaf hear, before I would have believed that I should be so blessed as to be as happy as I now am.
But therein is the love of God revealed, a love that gives us gifts beyond anything we could imagine or comprehend. Why, O why, am I surprised, for if God did not spare his own Son, but lovingly gave him up for us all, how will he not, along with him, graciously give us all things?