NB: This is an excerpt from a talk I gave last week at Biola University’s Torrey Honors Institute. I will link the full talks here when they are available.
It is within this time between the dawning of Christ’s kingdom and its consummation that we must speak of hope and mercy, the two characteristics that lie at the center of the triads that have governed these talks. “By this they will know you are my disciples,” Jesus tells us, “that you love one another.” Yet charity under duress takes the form of hope, an unstinting and unremitting gladness even in the midst of suffering and martyrdom.
“Blessed are you when they revile you,” Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount, and “and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.” The blessing is tied to the Church’s prophetic witness, its announcement of the end of the age and the dawning of Christ’s reign: “Rejoice and be exceeding glad,” Jesus goes on, “for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.” Opposing the injustices of this world must be done with a cheerful grin of indifference to the impotent powers raging around us, as we echo God’s scornful laughter with mockery of our own.
The imperative to rejoice as victims is admittedly an impossibility: it is almost offensive to suggest that we are commanded to laugh while our oppressors beat us down. Yet where our suffering takes place in Jesus’ name, the impossible happens: hope only becomes a virtue, as Chesterton remarked, when the situation is hopeless. Suffering produces endurance, and endurance character, and character—well, character produces a hope that does not disappoint, governed and determined as it is by the unfailing faithfulness of God to His promises.
Such hope is not optimism: it is not founded upon what is visible, but invisible. It is in hope that we are saved, Paul writes—but “hope which is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what he sees?” The great vision of Christ and His kingdom at the end of all things is assuredly not yet. We walk by faith, not by sight. Much as we might work for the Kingdom of God, its operations will remain mostly invisible to us. The mustard seed grows into a tree without anyone particularly noticing what’s afoot. Growth is nearly imperceptible to the naked eye.
This is especially important, if I may say so, for those who are young and eager to begin their work of sowing for Christ’s kingdom. There is a natural optimism that belongs to youth, which is both necessary and admirable: youthful magnanimity clings to the possibility of doing great things, making it the origins of many influential works and movements. Yet the magnanimity of youth is, like its beauty, fleeting. We protect and nourish optimism among the young, because they invigorate our own pursuit of the possibilities before us.
But optimism withers when faced with challenges that can only be resolved across multiple generations. The natural brightness and cheeriness of youth must at some point give way to hope, as the possibility of greatness is replaced with the sure and certain promise that all shall be made right by God at the end of history. “The only hope,” T.S. Eliot writes in the final of the Four Quartets, “or else despair, lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—to be redeemed from fire by fire.”
Because hope looks forward to this last day, though, it is not merely compatible with lamenting the injustice of the world around us, but demands it. The “kindness of God” revealed in Jesus Christ is the grounds and basis of repentance. But there is no repentance, and no hope, without contrition. Contrition is not compensation: God cannot be satiated by our sacrifices, despite our endless attempts to secure our path to God by making them. Yet contrition is both a sign and a condition of our aliveness to injustices both in our own lives and the world around us. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, oh God, Thou wilt not despise.”
Any lamentation for suffering will have a touch of such penitence, a recognition that we are members of the leavened loaf. Lamentation is not a grief that forgets the kindness of God: those shrieks can only end in death, as Paul notes. Lamentation is a grief that yet names the Friday on which our Savior died as good: the cross reveals God’s love even in its inverted, most tragic form. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” As victims of injustice, our sorrow is taken up into the sorrow of our Savior, whose own experience as victim is the source and grounds of our salvation: “Was ever grief like mine?,” Christ asks us in Herbert’s poem, assuring us that there was not.
But Christ’s victimhood is also swallowed up in victory: like all facts when they are brought into contact with the grace of God, the fact of Christ’s crucifixion is transfigured by His resurrection into a fact of joy. Living within Christ’s life means our victimhood is not the deepest nor truest fact about us, but is a means of participating in His sufferings so that we might also partake in His resurrection. The lamentation of God is stronger than the oppression of man. In this way, godly grief sees double: it cries out for justice against our oppressors without forgetting that we have sometimes been in their place, even if unwittingly. The purity of God’s victimhood can never be ours, for we too as victims live among a people of unclean lips. When grief sees double this way, the prophetic denunciation of the world’s sin will sound like good news, as it will offer full justice to the victim even while holding forth the possibility of mercy for the oppressor.