A while back I wrote on the Sullenness of the In-Between, exploring the emotional angst of the crossroads in life, and I naïvely thought that was that. But life continues to frustrate me: my dreams get dashed, my hope wavers, my faith flames out, and I often wonder how to go on—specifically, how I’m supposed to keep dreaming. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me, right? But I wonder—does my Christianity demand me to be the little energizer bunny of dreams? I’m never supposed to give up, right? So am I supposed to apply Christ’s principle of forgiveness and keep on dreaming, even after 70x7 catastrophic failures?
Which all leads to: Am I expected to juggle my expectations and dreams the rest of my life, forever dancing between failure and success? And I guess I’m realizing what I’m asking is, Will it never end? Will my dreams never be fulfilled? Will there never be Rest?
Almost on cue, a good friend of mine sends me this quote from an article on Desiring God:
We’re imperfect people living in an imperfect world, but this perfect future becomes our future when we’re united to a perfect Savior through faith. We can then be completely assured that this future is ours. In the Bible, that firm assurance is called “hope.”
Now that’s the Jesus answer. That’s the capital-A answer, and I have faith in that. Sure. No matter what happens, I have this objective Hope that not even the grave can overcome. But that answer skips right over the 80-year long process of getting there. But he goes on:
Christian hope is the confidence that an amazingly good future is securely ours, and this hope changes the way we view our present. It strengthens and equips us in every life situation, including singleness. It heightens our restlessness for the new creation, and that restlessness makes us more content.
Our hope heightens our restlessness. Holding firmly to those ideals of, oh you know, eternal bliss and everything really is hard work, because it makes life now so much harder. Because of the Fall, there’s this tension between hope and Rest: I think I want Rest, that I’m sick of dreaming and the turmoil of failure, when what God wants is for me to need and exhibit hope. It’s shocking to realize that God’s goal for my life right now isn’t so much attaining that Rest, it’s desiring to attain it. It may sound odd, but God really likes to see us squirm, because only then do we exhibit character.
Squirming is best, because if I possessed the Rest I wanted so much, I’d have no need for hope and no need for the Gospel. Paul tells the Thessalonian believers that the Gospel has sounded forth from them, not in their perfection and Rest, but in their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope” (1 Thess 1:3). In their squirming. It’s these three theological virtues (faith, hope, and love) that identify them as having been renewed by the Gospel, and without them, God’s entire drama of redemption in history would fall completely flat. God needs us to squirm in order to show off how much He’s changed (and is changing) us.
So here’s what I’m saying: that all of God’s plans for redemptive history ride on our ability to have and display hope. That even though God’s ultimate desire for us is Rest (Heb 4:9), His greatest desire is that we get to that Rest the long way around, because the trip isn’t just about the destination; it’s about the process.
And since the process is so important to God, we can’t really spend enough time and energy trying to understand it—it, this restless anxiety, this crazy frustration, this burnout of dreaming. This is where literature and poetry benefit us so much: they help us see and meditate on the process (the way things are now) so that we don’t really miss what’s happening. I’ll let Mr. George Herbert take it from here:
When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by,
“Let us,” said he, “pour on him all we can.
Let the world’s riches, which dispersèd lie,
Contract into a span.”
So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure.
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure,
Rest in the bottom lay.
“For if I should,” said he,
“Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature;
So both should losers be.
“Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness;
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.”
Herbert tells a story of God withholding Rest from us in order to keep us close to Him. He says that Rest itself would actually ruin the whole purpose of our being created. God gave us restlessness in order to fix our gaze on Him, because life isn’t about us and our comfort—it’s about Him and His glory.
St. Augustine said something very similar in the opening of his *Confessions*: “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in thee.” But Augustine goes further than Herbert. He says “until.” Augustine seems to indicate that once we get saved, we’re set. No more restlessness. Phew. Once I found God, all my struggles went away. And that’s how it’s usually quoted—in the context of evangelism, as if accepting Jesus into your heart fills a God-sized hole, never to gape wide and consume you again.
But it does gape. Sometimes it consumes us and it does it when our dreams are crushed, when we fail, when we feel like giving up. And this is why I’m writing: when I’m desperate, what am I supposed to tell myself about my life that makes sense of this desperation? Where do I turn for “inspiration” to not give up on my dreams and not stop trying to attain what seems unattainable? Do I look within, and believe in myself, the very self who is burning out, or do I look to God and believe in Him? I know the answer, but that’s exactly my question. What does it look like to believe in Him?
When I burn out, I’m to look to God’s plan for redemption and find my life within that plan, making His goal for my life, my goal for my life. Which means I have to see my pain and frustration and endurance as not just a speed bump to that purpose, but as the very purpose itself. I must see the darkness as more redeemable and capable of glory than my happiness, and I must choose to love and make myself vulnerable to pain and disappointment. I have to submit myself to all the brokenness of life, otherwise, I diminish His glory by my desire for self-protection.
What does it really mean to live? Tolkien said it is to fight the long defeat. Paul said it is to crush the head of the serpent in the sweet victory of redemption (Rom 16:20), which he says begins in our hearts in sanctification (1 Thess 4:3) and looks and feels like an all-out race we have to win (1 Cor 9:24). The author of Hebrews said it is to lay aside every little thing that slows us down and run the race that Jesus ran, bearing our own crosses in pursuit of holiness (Heb 12:2, 10). Peter said it is to suffer as Christ suffered (1 Pet 2:21). James said it is to pursue the wisdom from above which only comes through suffering (James 1:2, 3:15). Nobody said it was to give up and take the easy road of mediocrity and self-protection. Nobody but me.
And it seems like true Rest is alluding me. And that causes me to panic. But, two things. One, it’s OK. Freaking out isn’t the enemy, it’s just a necessary piece of the drama of redemption. I don’t have to be stoic—I just have to respond well. Two, Augustine was kind of right: I do have Rest, and the harder I fight for holiness, the more I get it (Heb 4:11). The more I immerse myself in the Word of Truth (Heb 4:12), the more laid bare I am before God (Heb 4:13), and the more open and vulnerable the Word makes me to Him, the more Rest I can experience. “Therefore, let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace,” not so that everything will be easy or all my frustrations will go away, but so that I can find “grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16).
George Herbert, “The Pulley”. ↩