When Hope Comes Hard

aLife’s harsh realities have a way of squeezing the stars out of our eyes. When I encounter a young couple dreaming of their happy future, my smile comes bittersweet, already feeling the pain they will inevitably encounter but also savoring the naïve hope they can enjoy for now.

For those who have already been around life’s block a few times, hope doesn’t come so cheap. We know that things rarely turn out the way we expect, and allowing our hopes to rise again entails the risk of exposing them to another crash. The inexperienced might call us skeptics, but we can hardly afford to be otherwise.

We want certainty; He offers Himself.

But as people of faith, how do we reconcile our awareness of life’s pain with hope in God’s goodness? The easy way out (and one I have repeatedly given into) is to mentally separate these categories, relegating God’s intervention to the realm of the spiritual and maintaining our self-protective pessimism towards life in the “real world.”

So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.
John 11:3-6

This is the dynamic I observe in Martha’s guarded response to Jesus after her brother’s death. She had every reason to hope that He would have come quickly to heal Lazarus. After all, wasn’t that what He went around doing for everyone else? Of course He would come for the one He loved. But He didn’t.

Faced with such deep disappointment, Martha had a difficult choice to make. She had already lost her brother; she didn’t want to lose her Lord, too. And yet how could she make sense of His unresponsiveness to her heart’s cry? How could she reconcile her faith in His goodness with His failure to prove it?

When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
John 11:20-22

Martha went out to meet Jesus, relieved to be with Him again but steeling her heart against the further disappointment His presence might bring. She couldn’t help but state the obvious: it was His fault her brother had died. But rather than dwell on the gaping wound in their relationship, she quickly covered it over by affirming her faith in what she knew to be theologically true.

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
John 11:23

As usual, Jesus knew the struggle going on in her heart and put His finger right where it hurt. He didn’t just want vague statements of her faith in His sovereignty. He wanted her heart, in all its broken, disillusioned messiness. In a claim that could have seemed almost taunting in light of His recent track record, Jesus promised the very thing Martha was too afraid to hope for. Her brother would live again.

Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
John 11:24

Still attempting the valiant feat of holding on to faith while dealing with disappointment, Martha came up with the safest possible spin on what He had just said. Her theological training came in handy, allowing her to state with certainty what the written Word had already guaranteed. She could look forward to the distant hope of resurrection but could not bear to think of something closer to home. Spiritualizing Jesus’ promise allowed her to affirm its truth while not letting it destabilize her immediate expectations.

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26 and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
John 11:25-26

And as always, Jesus understood. Rather than push the point of what He was going to do in the situation at hand, He met her where she felt safe to go. His claims about Himself were the basis of all that He did. If she was willing to state her belief in who He was and the way He works on behalf of His people, what more was needed?

“Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”
John 11:27

Martha rose to the occasion, just as Peter had. Despite her struggle to see His goodness in the here and now, despite her inability to claim that He would fulfill her deepest longing, she stated her categorical faith in Him. The rest would be resolved in the minutes and eternity to follow. But for now, Martha had found a bedrock on which to rest her hope: Christ Himself.

Like Martha, many of us live stuck between yesterday’s disappointments and tomorrow’s hope. We know God is able to intervene now and we know He will be faithful to make things right in the end. But what hope can we claim for how He will act in between? As He did for Martha, Jesus responds to our hidden fears with a call to trust in who He is and how He works, not just in the distant future but also in the here and now.

We want certainty; He offers Himself.

11 thoughts on “When Hope Comes Hard”

  1. I love this Tif…we want certainty; He offers Himself.
    That’s a fantastic offer for sure, but what a wrestling match to ‘see’ that. What you stated so well could be applied to every longing we have (that ultimately is for Him) though sometimes we think it’s wrapped in the flesh of another person, or in a different outcome of a given situation. He is always the Hope that never fails us. Thanks for this. It really blessed me.
    I am going to send it to my sister. My brother in-law is very ill and in need of a heart transplant. Praying that they would both see that their Hope is near and that Jesus is the provision for a new heart greater than they could ever want for.

    1. You are right, Maria. This is such a struggle to live, precisely because we can’t see just what it looks like. But then that is the essence of faith.

      May God comfort your sister, heal your brother in law, and show His glory in the process.

  2. Sometimes in our deepest sorrows, God whispers, “Come a little closer.” We learn of Him, we sup with Him. Other times, after years of disappointment, we reach and touch the hem of His garment. Healing comes instantly. And other times, only a Heavenly healing comes….the pain and cares of this world are quickly forgotten.

    What we know is that hope doesn’t disappoint when Christ is in focus. He knows the depths of our sorrows; He is with us in the wait. Two things I have learned in such adversity:
    1. There is life IN the sorrow.
    2. These are only moments in eternity.

    Earth has no sorrow that Heaven cannot cure.

    Love to all…
    Miss Sherri

    1. Oh so beautifully said, and clearly from a lifetime of experience with both disappointment and hope. I rejoice in the ways God has and is redeeming your sorrows. And I especially love your point that there is life “IN the sorrow.” It is so easy to miss that and think that life will start again once our problems are resolved. You have always modeled grace under fire, Sherri. May God continue to crown you with His goodness.

  3. Reading this, I feel the Surgeon’s knife doing a work in my heart. As always you bring out the heart issues of this Bible passage in such a living, human and relevant way. I relate to Martha carefully protecting herself from disillusionment. And I heed the call to restate my faith in Christ as my bedrock, and trust him for the outworking of present circumstances. Thanks Tiffany!

    1. Ursula, I think we are all Marthas. Our self-protective instinct is a necessary part of negotiating life in this world, except for when it interferes with our ability to trust God. One of the many things I love about you is your complete lack of pretense with Him and yourself. May He show you all His goodness in your present circumstance. With much love, Tiffany

  4. This rings so true with me, Tiffany. I often find my own heart the battleground between disappointment and hope, earth’s reality and heaven’s. I rejoice in my God’s invitation to give Him my struggling heart, withholding none of the mess, and allowing Him to apply His healing balm. He restores my soul in big ways and small, and though I suspect the battle will continue my whole life long, I know for sure that I’ll never walk alone. Thank you for sharing this with us at Grace & Truth!

    1. Jennifer, the struggle you are describing here is exactly how God grows our faith, so of course it’s a lifelong process. I admire the integrity and grace with which you engage the messiness of it. May He continue to grow your hope and restore your soul.

  5. Tiffany, I have never really considered Martha’s disappointment in quite this way before. But I’ve known my own disappointments, and you described that struggle so eloquently. Thanks for sharing with us at Grace and Truth! 🙂
    Jen @ Being Confident of This

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