“The gathering of the bitter-sweet myrrh of heartbrokenness over failure and shortcomings – over all the “might-have-been’s” of the past – can bring one nearer heaven than the gathering of frankincense of the hills, for present and future. Such is His abounding grace, even when sin has abounded. The place where we wash His Feet with our tears has a great nearness to His Holy place.” Diary 14 March 1926
I’m an idealist. I admit it. Some might say a romanticist. I grew up with Anne of Green Gables and Little Women and built around myself an “idealized world” of beauty and goodness. And while I was never actually taught this bit of practical theology – much less worded it as such – it amounted nonetheless to something like this: “If I do my best to live a good Christian life, if I cover each problem with prayer, God will spare me life’s tragedies. Sure, I will face trials and testings (necessary for growth) but in the final analysis God will deliver those who love and serve Him.” In short, a fairy tale ending: “they lived happily ever after. . . .” Even though a careful look around me would have proven otherwise, I clung to this idea hoping for the best. While this idea had its obvious flaws, it carried me through the ups and down of childhood and well into my youth.
Then three crises converged, the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college, that shook me to the core – and for which my Christian world view was inadequate – involving death, financial reverses, and a life-changing family situation for a beloved cousin. Each situation touched my life deeply, each had tremendous implications for all involved, and each shared common ground: the consistent and claiming prayers of godly people and irreversible damages – nothing gained (as far as I could see) but pain to all involved.
For the first time I was faced with realities bigger than my world view. I was witnessing Christians with faith and experience far greater than mine go through situations which had no happy ending. My first response was grief. For those I love. For me – innocence lost. And then in time grief was replaced with a kind of shadowy anxiety. How could I – how could anyone – be safe in a world that was not a respecter of persons?
Rare is the person who will sail through life without challenge. (One might rightly think that I was a fortunate person to reach my late teens without having experienced significant trauma.) Sooner or later there comes a time when the props that hold up our small crafts are insufficient. It could be the loss of a loved one – or disappointment in the same. A job loss resulting in a setback for which one does not see a way out. Or, perhaps, betrayal of trust, thrown under the bus by a colleague or so-called trusted friend. Or a physical disability that is chronic, increasingly debilitating, even fatal. It could even be a mistake – or, dare I suggest it, sin – of our own making. We are the ones that let down others. Will they ever trust us again? Can we even trust ourselves – much less be forgiven by another?
The Bible is a story of broken dreams, dashed hopes, failures and disappointments. Human failing is a thread running through the Old and New Testaments. But it is, above all, a book about redemption. God redeeming human failure, pain and loss. It is the story of hope and fresh starts.
One of my favorite stories is about Joseph who had more than his fair share of disappointments, betrayal and setbacks. And it was from Joseph, facing head on the very brothers that betrayed him, thus setting off the series of events that would ultimately lead him to being Pharaoh’s second in command, that we first hear these now famous words: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good. . .” (Genesis 50:20)
Isn’t that the story of redemption? Taking something bad and turning it for good? Slavery for freedom: physical and spiritual. Redemption is a multi-faceted word with many implications but for much of my life I understood “redemption” as exclusive to salvation: once and for all my sins were redeemed on the Cross, Christ paying the cost, His life for mine.
And that, indeed, is a rich and fundamental doctrine of Christianity. But I’ve come to see that it is that – and more. God is continually involved in our redemption. He is in the business of an ongoing redemption in the life of each Christian, continually taking the bad and using it for good – if released to Him for that purpose.
What about those things that I have done wrong – from weakness or lack of intention – or worse, deliberation? What about actions or failings that may have long-term effects on others – my children, my friends? Looking back I can see my mistakes, my failings, but what does one do when it is too late, when the damage – to myself or others – is beyond repair?
This story speaks, at slant, to questions in my heart. There was a young lad who served in the workshop of a great Italian artist. It was his duty to sweep the floor and straighten the rooms at the end of the day. He did his work faithfully and well, requiring little attention from his master.
One day he approached the great artist timidly, “Please, sir, would it be all right if I saved for myself the bits of broken glass you throw on the floor?”
“Do as you please – they are of no use to me.”
Days grew into years. The lad faithfully carried out his task. Daily he sifted through the discarded bits of glass. Some he would set aside, others he would throw out.
One day the master entered a little used storeroom and quite by chance came across a carefully hidden piece of work. Bringing it to the light, he was dazzled by the brilliance of a noble work of art. “What is the meaning of this?” he wondered aloud. He called his servant to him. “What great artist has hidden his masterpiece here?”
“Master,” responded the astonished young man, “it is just my poor work. Don’t you remember – you said I could have for myself the glass you threw to the floor. These are but the broken pieces.” (Adapted from Mountain Trailways, Mrs. Charles Cowman)
God is the great redeemer of all circumstances. There is no situation resulting from either sin or ignorance that is beyond His reconstruction. While neither we – nor sometimes others – can escape the consequences of our actions, when we turn to Him with a humble heart – “washing His Feet with our tears” – and release to Him the shattered segments of our lives, He will take those broken pieces and make from them something good.
We cannot deny the existence of brokenness nor the corresponding pain and hurt, yet there is nothing to be gained in staring at the broken pieces. Once we have, in true repentance, turned from our error, making every possible reparation, we must gather the fractured fragments and give them once and for all to the One who has promised to work all things for the good of those who love Him. The final design may not be what it would have been; the individual parts may be imperfect, yet the Great Redeemer can take all the pieces and make from them a work of art excelling our human imaginings.
And we know that in all things
God works for the good of those who love him,
who have been called according to his purpose.
Painting: Diary 1907