God Stoops to Turn Our Resignation to Restfulness

[Life must be imbued with meaning if it is to be worth living. But how can meaning be sustained when the end of life seems pointless? Even if one diligently gathers wisdom for three score and ten years, life must still go the way of the grasshopper. It is hard to keep faith in a good God who orders providence when misfortune strikes and one loses everything that has been regarded as blessings of God. Faith clings precariously to a thread worn thin as one suffers unbearable pain caused by terminal illness…

The defiance of the hard core skeptic or Stoic in the face of pointless and overwhelming suffering seems heroic when he counsels that the best way to find peace is to renounce any hope of finding meaning in life and to submit to fate. But is not the resignation of oneself to everything without complaint nothing more than a capitulation to inscrutable fate? Is life not reduced to groping in the dark where all things are colorless and grey? Without beauty and meaning, one loses the desire to act and sinks into paralyzing resignation.

The Christian believer may seem to share the same kindred spirit with the Stoic when he prays through his suffering, the immortal words of Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Thy will be done.” But his prayer is a reposeful confession of faith rather than an utterance of despair or resignation. For he knows something that a person without Christ cannot know. He knows that he is entrusting his life into the hands of the heavenly Father rather than capitulating to impersonal and capricious fate.]

It is true that I can say, “Thy will be done,” pious as it may sound, in a completely godless way. That is, I can say it in a fatalistic way, with the idea that what must come must come and there is nothing we can do about it. And this, of course, is precisely what this petition does not mean! Anybody who knows Jesus Christ does not say to God: “Do what thou wilt! There is no escaping thy will.” Rather he says, “Thy will be done” with a calm and perhaps even cheerful mind. For he knows that the will of his heavenly Father, to whom he here commits himself, is a good will. He knows that it is true that his Father may not do what he proposes in his prayer, what he regards as meaningful and right. Yet that does not matter, for he knows that the Father knows his needs far better than he does. Therefore he can confidently leave the decision to his Father’s will and accept what comes to him from his hand…

Perhaps it is precisely the honest nihilists, who feel so keenly that the world is so cruel and fatherless, who will now say to me: Isn’t all this merely an illusion which you have invented because without it you could not bear to face life? Is not your message about the Father’s heart too beautiful to be true?

What shall be my answer to that? Perhaps this: I too have my doubts about “the dear Father above the starry sky.” A man may believe in someone like that when he gazes at the sky in some exuberant moment of sentimental optimism. It is not likely that in the radioactive, tainted air of Hiroshima any of the survivors had any such dreams of that kind of God…God had become an impotent greybeard who could do nothing but helplessly bewail the misery of men.

The Father I believe in does not dwell above the starry sky. No, he was in a man who laughed and wept as you and I, who was tempted and who despaired as you and I, who was assaulted by meaninglessness as you and I (his last words according to the oldest witness were: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”) and who was shaken by the pangs of death as one day they will shake us. What do I care about the Father above the starry skies? He is far removed from the muck and mire in which I am stuck. And whatever he is doing in the eternal Sabbath of heaven doesn’t help me one bit in the sweat and drudgery of my daily earthly misery.

But this Father of my Saviour is not merely “dear.” He loves. And that’s something different. When a person loves, he is one with the person he loves…And that’s exactly what I meet in Jesus Christ: the Father who in him gave what he most loved, who suffers more over me than I myself suffer. Every evil thought and every act of hard-heartedness toward my neighbour strikes at the Father’s heart just because he loves me so. He knows better than I that I am always threatening to fritter away that which he bought at so great a price. He sees more keenly than I how I keep shutting the door through which he would enter and then celebrate his advent in me, and thus blockade the road to my own happiness…

He who loves is always the one who loses, said Thomas Mann in his story “Tonio Kroger.” God is the one who loses and suffers, because he loves the most. That’s it! He is the one who loses – all the way to the crucifixion of his Son.

I meet this love in Jesus who suffers because of me and who shares my lot all the way to the torments of Calvary, to the ultimate of fear and despair (far more than that mother who shared the prison miseries of her son!); therefore I dare to say, “Our Father,” therefore I dare confidently to say, “Thy will be done,” and therefore I refuse to talk about a “dear Father above the starry skies.” Only he who has been hurled into the ultimate depths can fathom what he is saying when he says these things, can understand that when he has said them he can say no more…

The longer that I gaze at it [crucifix], I see
That half the burden is removed from me;
For two of us, instead of one, abide –
I and the thorn-crowned Brother by my side

The “thorn-crowned Brother” who loves me most and therefore is the loser – he it is who makes credible for me what, without him, would be nothing but romanticism and illusion, namely, that I have a Father who remembers me and whose remembering me I can believe because he suffers for me and knows me. The name of Jesus is the sign that makes me believe this and build my life upon it.

Anybody who has found his way to that faith gains a new serenity and begins to understand the exultation that the redeemed sing out in their hymns. The “dear Father above the starry skies” may, perhaps, be only the product of an overflowing joie de vivre [joy of living], a projection upon heaven of this exuberance. But with the Father of Jesus Christ it is the other way around: fellowship with him bestows joy first of all; it grants power to sing out with that liberated and defiant laughter that resounds so infectiously in Johann Franck’s hymn, “Jesus, priceless Treasure” [No. 82, ELHB]. He speaks of the “Lord of gladness” and of fleeing “thoughts of sadness.” So, if I am in leagues with the Conqueror, shouldn’t there be something of the humour of the Christian man in my life? Humour, after all, is always a way of overcoming the world. It is high time for us to bear witness to our Lord not only through preaching but also by our laughter.

Naturally, there are as many kinds of laughter as there are kinds of men. If I were to name the two focal points in this scale of gaiety, I would say that there is the laughter of diversion and there is the laughter of redemption.

[Summary of the laughter of diversion – The trick of diverting oneself works like this. Perhaps I feel depressed and melancholic. I decide to watch a movie comedy. I laughed uncontrollably at the bumbling hero, but in the background of my heart the dejection still lingers. As soon as the lights go back on, the damp fog of misery creeps back over my soul].

[The Laughter of Redemption] But when I have a relationship with the Father who extends his hand to me in Jesus Christ, all this is reversed. Then, in the foreground of my life, I have to contend with exactly the same stresses and depressions that every human being has to endure. Naturally, I, too, will continue to have many occasions to be angry, irritated, and dejected, and the whole range of what is human, all too human, remains unchanged, a part of my experience. In becoming a follower of Jesus I do not turn into a block of stone; I remain a sensitive, vulnerable human being. In me, too, defiance and despondency still lie close together.

But in what I called the “background of my heart” the picture is now quite different. Whoever has fellowship with the Father in Jesus Christ knows that this part of his life cannot be touched by anybody or anything. Often I may wriggle and writhe like a worm, but in that secret part I am held firm. That is immovable, and the storms of life cannot invade this peace. “If we have thee, then neither devil, world, sin, nor death can hurt us.” There I have a hold, because there I am held; there is the place where the world is overcome. There are the cheer and the calm of those whom the misery of life cannot touch, the hilarity of those who can venture the utter madness of that verse in Paul Gerhardt’s Easter hymn [No. 218, ELHB]:

The world against me rageth,
Its furry I disdain;
Thought bitter war it wageth,
Its work is all in vain.

One can almost hear the grave in which I am imprisoned bursting and see the smithereens flying because the Victor over the dark powers has taken possession of me. Many things, to which I had before given myself with desperate earnestness now become a spectacle on which I can look quite calmly, and what really interest me about it is the end to which the real Director will lead the adventure of my life. “It is a joy,” said Pascal, “to be in a ship on a storm-lashed sea when one is sure that the ship will not sink.” The persecutions of the church are like this. Therefore God’s praise is not silenced even where the church of Jesus Christ exists in the midst of the terrors of ideological tyranny. Ultimately, his church remains untouched by the myrmidons of terrorism, though the hearts of Christians may quail and cringe…

After the reading of the Easter story, they [medieval Christians] broke out into the so-called risus paschalis, the Easter laughter that resounded through their churches. The Eastern Church still observes this custom, even though it is a persecuted church. That laughter praises the Father who snatched his Son from the grip of death and made a laughingstock of the world and all its “fury” and “bitter war.”

Why should there not be this merriment, this great affirmation of life, as we turn away from the pigsties of life and walk resolutely toward the lighted windows of the Father’s house where we are awaited with love?

But to be awaited and to come home means at the same time to come to oneself, to find the truth about oneself.

In every man there lives an image
Of what he ought to be
As long as he is not that image
He ne’er at rest will be

And what that means is that I find the fulfilment of my life only if I have found myself. Then I shall be at rest…in order to know myself, I must know who I am and where I come from. Only then will I also know the goal of my life. But I am never anything but the lost son who seeks to make a successful life in a strange country and yet senses he is getting farther and farther from his goal. I shall not be “at rest” until I am back home again with my Father

One thing is sure: only he who finds God also finds himself. And when Jesus says, “My peace I give to you,” what he means is that he brings us back again to the point where we are at home, where we have a Father, where we are safe, and where our rest, our peace, is full.

So wherever Jesus Christ is, there everything is changed. Where before there was grinning specters, now there is the fact of the Father. Where there was unrest now there is peace, for I have found my way home. And even though I am not a “burnt child” and thus have become an old skeptic, I can still like a small boy saying his childish evening prayer, repeat the assurance of security: “This child of God shall meet no harm!” [No. 33, ELHB]

Source: Helmut Thielicke, I Believe: The Christian’s Creed (Fortress Press, 1968), pp. 22-28.

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