We humans love redemption stories. It must be in our DNA.
Maybe that’s because the potential to screw things up is in our DNA, swarming all around a deep well of hope that things can be better—they can be transformed, fixed, made whole. It’s a hope that our tendency to mess up is not the loudest or last word on the matter.
The many biblical stories of crooked human failings straightened out by God’s love and grace have always captivated me—Jacob and Esau; Naomi, Ruth and Boaz; Joseph and his brothers; King David in the midst of his enemies. In each case, just when it seems like things can’t get any worse for the protagonists, God surprises us—not by sweeping the mess under a God-sized rug or by “fixing” things the way we would, but in some wholly unexpected, beautifully complex and loving way.
So of course we love redemption stories. But do you know what else we love? Thinking we can figure out what God is up to.
I seem to have a particular problem with this. Maybe I’ve seen too many movies and read too many books, following the plot twists and introduction of conflicts, the character development and the tensions that build between them like a good English Literature major should. Then I carry that practice into outlining the arc of stories happening in my life.
For the most part, I’m pretty good at observing the story as it unfolds—to a point. Then I reach a place where all the pieces seem to fall together into neat, orderly succession, and I’m off! I know where this story is going. I can take it from here.
But, of course, I never really know where the story is going. In fact, the more I think I know, the less I seem to know. Not only do I fail to comprehend the ways God loves and works in the world, I also can’t grasp our potential to mess things up as humans with free will. When you put God’s awesomeness and our messiness together, you get a complex world—one that doesn’t follow neat storyboards or outlines. Sometimes the stories seem to veer off course and go wildly wrong; when they do, I tend to blame God.
That’s what happened when my marriage was in serious trouble, a decade ago.
We had been in counseling for a couple of years, without glimpses of anything that looked like progress, when I sensed that God was urging us to move to a new city and state, where my husband had a job opportunity.
I dug in my heels. I didn’t want to move—I loved my home and my friends, I loved my job and our church, and I loved living an hour away from my parents. But one day it occurred to me: I know what’s happening here. God wants me to let go of all these things I’m clinging to so my husband can be happier in his job. If he’s happier in his job, our marriage will get better. God wants to save our marriage!
Let me be clear. I do believe God wanted my marriage to become healthy and whole. He wanted both my husband and I to be edified as individuals through our marriage. But that’s not what happened. Within two years of moving, our marriage ended. I was left feeling like God was some great movie director who had put the plot in motion and then abandoned the story at the most critical moment. Not only was my marriage not saved, but I had given up everything else I loved in the process of “trusting God.”
This isn’t how the story was supposed to end.
A decade later, I still haven’t learned to stop guessing where the story is going. Last week, a man named Vernon, who has been a part of our church family for the past couple of years, died. This isn’t how the story was supposed to end! Not now! I complained, in the general direction of God.
Vernon, who was 50, had struggled with alcoholism most of his adult life and had lived on the streets for the past 18 years. Our church bought Vernon one of those camp chairs with arms so he could sleep during the Sunday teachings without falling out of his chair (which was a regular occurrence). The chair became a powerful symbol of God’s love surrounding and supporting Vernon exactly where he was—surrounding and supporting all of us, exactly where we were. The chair reminded me that God wants me now, as I am, not later, after I get my act together.
When a local organization set Vernon up in his own place last winter, I thought I knew exactly where God’s redemption story was going. This is going to be a great one, I said to God, full of admiration. But Vernon continued to struggle with his addiction. Soon he was living on the streets again. And then, last week, he was found unconscious with a head injury from an apparent fall. God loved Vernon. So many of God’s people loved Vernon. So what happened? Why was this the end of the story?
Yes, we love redemption stories, but we can’t fully comprehend them.
Maybe that’s inherent in the sheer enormity of God and His love. God is the Great Storyteller—so great that we can’t predict the ending or even understand that what we think is the ending never really is. We can’t begin to understand how God works in the world with the messes we create. We can’t grasp that love might not look the way we think it looks or that healing might not happen the way we would have made it happen if we were in charge.
When it came to Vernon, I didn’t want to accept that redemption and healing might look like Vernon’s empty camp chair sitting in our sanctuary. I wanted it to look like Vernon sitting in that chair each Sunday, all cleaned up—his hair combed, his eyes bright, no alcohol ravaging his body and mind. I wanted the story to be about Vernon hosting a Bible study in his home, working as a cook at a local restaurant, building relationships with his nephews.
But my understanding of redemption is so small.
When it came to my marriage, I couldn’t grasp that there was all kinds of room for wholeness and healing after divorce. As the door closed on my marriage, I felt like the door was also closing on any possibility of redemption. I thought there was just one path, one possibility, and it had passed.
But I am here to attest to the fact that God is so much bigger than our understanding of Him. He is also so much bigger than any mess we can create in this broken world.
And I am here to say that our job, when it comes to redemption stories, is not to steer or predict them but to believe in the sheer power and possibility of them. It is to openly expect, with great joy and hope, that any inconceivable plot twist might indeed occur and that even the wildest of outcomes can be infused with God’s great love and redemption in this story that never really ends.