It is a curious paradox that the pleasures we plan most carefully to recreate give us less joy than the serendipitous pleasures that overtake us. I think this provides a clue for how God thinks about happiness. Not only are we surprised by joy, but the surprise increases the joy. This is why “He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!'” (Revelation 21:5 NIV).
She got up two hours before sunrise. She couldn’t sleep, and lying wide-eyed in the dark was not doing any good. She had to be up and getting ready. She dressed quickly and took up the basket she had prepared the night before. She checked it again to make sure everything was there. She didn’t want to come back for anything.
The outside air was cool after the closeness inside. She pulled her cloak close around her. No one would be abroad at this hour. No one except the other women, who, like her were going to the garden. Her grief, still painful but now kept at bay by the task at hand, went with her like a dead child she had to carry.
As she walked she examined her feelings. She felt bereft, of course, but there was something unexpected, and she realized it was anger, not just anger that he was gone. No, it was the senseless, uselessness of his death. His friends had warned him. They all knew that the authorities were looking for any pretext to get rid of him. But he would not listen. He insisted on going into the city, teaching in the temple, and deliberately antagonizing the religious leaders. She was angry at him.
She couldn’t fathom it. He had been so different. He had done such extraordinary things. She had almost believed that he was the anointed one the Prophets had talked about. Who was she kidding? She did believe it. But now, how could it be true? He was going to restore the kingdom. He was going to rule with his closest followers. She had heard him talk about it in that confident, so-certain voice that made you sure whatever he said was true.
That was enough to make her angry, feeling they had all been duped. The fickle crowds had praised him only a week ago and demanded his execution just two days ago. His death could have been avoided. It was all so pointless, so hopeless. She couldn’t see any way forward for herself.
That was the worst part. He was utterly different from any man she had ever known. With him she felt seen, felt heard, felt respected. She could hardly articulate it to herself. There were men she felt comfortable with. There had been men she had loved. But there was only one man who made her feel so present. She didn’t know how she could go back from that. Part of her grief was for a loss she had no words for, a loss of her very self.
When she got to the garden, she saw that she was the first to arrive. She didn’t have long to wait. The other women, looking as forlorn and empty as she felt, soon approached.
“We’ve been talking,” Joanna said. “The tomb is sealed by a great stone. Who will roll it away for us?”
“Maybe we will find someone to help us,” she replied. “Let’s just go and see what needs to be done.”
When they got to the tomb, they found the stone already rolled away. At first they thought it would make everything easier, but they soon realized why it was moved. His body was gone. Someone had come in the night and taken his body.
“Who would do such a thing?” she cried. But she knew. The religious leaders feared his followers would steal his body and claim he had risen from the dead as he had said he would. To prevent that, they must have moved the body themselves. She thought about Peter and the other men, how devastated they had been. There was no way any of them could have done this.
The other women were conferring together, deciding what to do. They agreed to go tell the men and urged her to join them, but she wanted to be alone. “I’ll just stay here,” she said, and that seemed to satisfy them. She wondered if they could read the anguish in her heart on her face.
After they left, the grief would no longer be held back. She cried. Her whole body shook with sobs, and she made no attempt to conceal them. Her misery and despair seemed as vast as the sea. She did not know how long she cried. A voice behind her startled her.
“Ma’am, why are you crying?”
“Because they have taken away my lord,” she said without turning around, “and I don’t know where they have laid him. Please, sir, if you know where he is, please take me to him.”
“Mary,” said the voice, and that one word sent an impossible thrill through her. It couldn’t be. She turned, hastily wiping tears from her eyes. It was! He was there, looking more alive than ever. Without thinking, she threw her arms around him and buried her face in his warm chest. She was sure she would die. Then she thought perhaps she already had, and this was that heaven he had so often talked about. She did not know how long she held him and felt the vitality of his body. She kept looking up into his face, trying to see in it the horror she had seen him undergo. She saw him smile, and she held him even more tightly. Then he gently pried her arms from around his body.
“Don’t hold on to me now,” he said. “I have to present myself to my Father. Go and tell my disciples, especially Peter, that you have seen me.”
She stepped back looked at him, trying to take in every detail. The marks of his torture were still there, but his face! His face! She knew she would never forget his face and never be able to describe it. So great was her joy that her own face mirrored his, though she did not know it. She could barely take in what he said to her. He had given her a task. What was it? Ah, yes. She was to tell the men that she had seen him. She turned and ran toward the city, her basket of embalming spices forgotten on the ground. The sun was up, and the world was filling with light.
Ἔστιν δὲ πίστις ἐλπιζομένων ὑπόστασις, πραγμάτων ἔλεγχος οὐ βλεπομένων.Hebrews 11:1 (Original Greek)
The New Testament makes very clear how damaging doubt can be to faith. For example, Jesus tells his disciples that they can move mountains with the smallest amount of faith, provided their faith admits of no doubt. What is less clear, however, is that certainty can also damage faith.
The author of Hebrews is a careful reasoner who leads his readers step-by-step through an argument to show that Jesus’ sacrifice for sin makes the Jewish sacrificial system obsolete. By the time he gets to the end of chapter 10, he is applying what he has taught to the lives of his readers, and he is exhorting them to persevere in their faith despite ongoing suffering and persecution. This leads him to consider the nature of faith and how it has influenced the behavior of believers who have gone before. He starts chapter 11 with a definition of faith: “Faith is what supports our hopes, what proves matters that can’t be seen. (My translation).”
He identifies two areas where faith is essential: things that don’t yet exist because they are future events, and things that exist now but can’t be discerned by our five senses. He then lists several champions from Jewish history, all of them commended for holding on to what they believed despite opposition from those around them and despite having no tangible proof. He says that they were “looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” and “looking for a country of their own.” They were holding on to hope for a better world, a better future which they glimpsed by faith but which they never attained. Instead they were
tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.Hebrews 11:35-38
In a word, they suffered without obtaining what they hoped for. He goes on to refer to them as a “cloud of witnesses,” like spectators at a marathon, cheering and encouraging the participants to keep going no matter how hard it might seem or tempting the desire to throw in the towel.
Faith, because it grasps what doesn’t yet exist and perceives what is invisible to the senses, is essential to every creative endeavor. Creating something—anything from composing a symphony, to writing a novel, from proposing a new philosophy to propounding a new theory—requires faith, a grasp of the not yet, a vision of the invisible. Faith will endure suffering, even face setbacks and failures, to procure a better future that the believers themselves might never see.
Certainty, by contrast, is thoroughly grounded in what is. It focuses on the past, on what has always been true, on what is incontestable, on what can be seen and touched and heard and smelled and tasted. In Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees and religious leaders, we can see their certainty, their conviction of their own rightness. They have devoted themselves to meticulously keeping the law, structuring their lives to maintain the smallest observances like tithing their mint, dill, and cumin because they believe that flawless adherence to the legalistic requirements of the law is the way to have life. In their myopia, they give their attention to minutiae and completely miss the main point of the law, which is love.
When Jesus healed a man born blind on the Sabbath, the religious leaders were divided by their certainties. Some, starting from Jesus’ violation of the Sabbath, declared him to be “not from God.” Others, beginning with the incontestable fact of the healing, asserted that such miracles could not be performed by sinners. The one thing they did not do was question their own preconceptions about what constitutes godliness. Yet that is precisely what Jesus’ miraculous healing invited them to do. Jesus had already told them that the sabbath was instituted for the benefit of people, not to force people into honoring God’s rest after creating. In doing so, he put human needs ahead of legalistic proscriptions of the law. But for those leaders, the law was holy, and any infraction was dishonoring to the law and to the Lawgiver. That is why they plotted to kill Jesus: they were certain that he was dishonoring God.
Certainty is empowering because we will fight for what we believe is true and right. We will commit violence. We will hate. We will kill, as long as we are certain that what we are doing is right, perhaps even God-ordained. Faith is empowering because we will suffer for what we believe is true and right. We will endure violence and still love those who persecute us. We will die rather than give up our hope for a better future and a better kingdom. The devil loves certainty because he is risk averse. God loves faith because he accepts risk in order to access possibility. Certainty is content to leave mountains where they are, accept the status quo, and deal with reality as it is. But faith imagines mountains cast into the sea, yearns for a better world, and reaches for a reality that is still to come.