Years ago, a teenage girl came into my classroom in tears one day after school, asking if she could talk with me. Tea is quite necessary in such situations. Not only is it the best panacea I know, but it gives you something to look at and something to do with your hands while you’re saying hard things. So I made her a cup of tea and listened as she told me about the troubles choking her life. She was doing poorly in all her classes, which was multiplying her stress and causing friction at home. Her parents kept taking away privileges, hoping to pressure her to improve her grades. She was fighting with them almost every night. Sometimes in the morning, she would still be so angry that her knotted stomach couldn’t handle breakfast. On top of all this, she had recently decided to tell her longtime crush about her feelings for him, and he had gently but decisively rejected her. At one point she looked up at me and said, “I had no idea high school would be this hard.”*
That statement has stuck with me all these years. My instinctive reaction to those words is “What were you expecting?” Thankfully, God gave me the grace at the time to not blurt out such an insensitive question. Her problems were real and so were the problem’s effects. But I saw in her the same assumption on which I often stand in my approach to the world: that life ought to be easy and it ought to be very, very enjoyable.
I’ve always been a “glass half full” kind of person with a special aversion to pessimists. The people who bemoaned the coming apocalypse as the indisputable outcome of the latest elections or who expected thunderstorms at a picnic or who said things like, “We’re never going to make the concert on time” made bile rise in my throat. I saw them as not only pathetically unaware of the beauty of the world, but also fundamentally ungrateful for the bounty of God’s blessings.
To some extent, my views haven’t changed; I’m still a cheery person who finds bright spots in dark times. But in conversations like the one I had with my teenage student, I realize that there is something dangerous about rose-colored glasses. Expecting life to run smoothly and expecting relationships to work out and expecting new ideas to be well-received sets us up for crushing disappointment and even bitterness when the worst happens. When I was younger, my philosophy was always, “Well then, let the worst happen. I’d rather have high hopes that get dashed than just be gloomy and depressed all the time.”
But I’m learning that there’s a middle ground that omits the self-pitying rhetoric of the pessimist while also avoiding the unreasonably joyous expectations of the optimist. It’s this simple truth:
The glass really is half-empty.
The world is a broken, harsh, brutal place to live. People fail us, disappoint us, wound us. In the short story “Mail-Order Catalogue,” set in rural Georgia in the 1950s, two boys who live in abuse and poverty make up stories about the people in the Sears Roebuck catalog. Because the “catalog people” appear so flawless, the boys assume that all of their scars are skillfully hidden beneath their clothing, and the boys tell stories about the violence that created the catalog people’s secret scars. In a way, the boys are right. All of us carry around secret scars. Worst of all, “we have met the enemy and he is us.” We ourselves are often the most broken and brutal part of our worlds. We let ourselves down on a regular basis, forever haunted by the feeling that we’re just not enough.
Shall we wear black clothing and crabby expressions through life then? Not at all.
You see, we live in the already and the not yet. The “already” is that we have been saved by grace through faith in Christ’s atoning work. The “not yet” is that we still live in a fallen world and look forward expectantly to heaven, resurrection, glorification. Sometimes we try to create the kingdom of God here on earth. There’s plenty of pressure to do so. We are surrounded by people who are trying to make their brief earthly lives as enjoyable and meaningful as possible. Desperate to lend some significance to their 80-odd trips around the sun, they fill their lives with colorful distractions from their own mortality. They work their hands raw and take pills and book vacations and have drinks with friends in an effort to create meaning. When that doesn’t work, they use blogs and Facebook and texting to try to pretend that the meaning exists. After all, if everyone else believes the narrative you’ve constructed that your life is always easy and fabulous and enjoyable, then you can believe it too, right? It’s easy to get caught up in the Grand Charade of “Life is Awesome!!” Actually, life sucks. The results of man’s fall in the Garden of Eden were pain, enmity, toil, and sweat. “The worst case scenario” isn’t the invention of a pessimist’s mind; it’s the deal we got when we disobeyed God and ushered evil into the world. Hospitals, prisons, and psychotherapists’ offices alike are all the necessary consequences of the broken world.
However, the “glass half empty” statement, while true, is incomplete. It would be better expressed this way:
The glass of the world really is half-empty, but the glass of grace is overflowing.
The bad news is that life sucks. The good news is that where sin abounds, grace abounds much more. I learned a wonderful new term from my Bible study leader, a tiny-yet-spunky Chinese woman who graduated from a tough seminary and can read the Bible in five languages. The term is called “eschatological intrusions.” It refers to those times when that coming kingdom of God unexpectedly crashes in on our broken, bleeding lives and astounds us with a spectacular preview of how wonderful life will be in the next world.** Grace surprises and joy amazes. The white-hot light of that “not yet” world blinds us with its beauty. Sometimes it’s a reversal of the curse shown in the healing of someone who’s sick. Sometimes it’s an extraordinary act of selfless love shown us by someone to whom we’ve been unkind. These things aren’t the norm. They are glimpses of the perfect world we will one day enjoy, free from “the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely.”
I was walking to school one day last week, and for once it was a little cold. I shivered as I walked along the shaded sidewalk, and realized that I was mainly cold because the trees and bushes formed a barrier that the rising sun hadn’t yet surmounted. As I kept walking, step after step, the sun started piercing through the leafy wall at different moments. In those moments, I would feel a quick burst of warmth and light before plunging into the cold again. Eventually, however, I walked beyond the trees and into the full sunlight, with its invigorating rays. This is how life goes. For the most part, our walk is overshadowed by darkness and cold. But there are moments when joy pierces through. Those of us who are hidden in Christ, united to Him, will keep walking and walking and walking until we leave the world of shadows and stand in the full heat and burning beauty and white-hot light of God’s glory.
Both the pessimists and the optimists have gotten things wrong because both expect earthly life to be smooth and wonderful. The pessimists express perpetual disappoint because life is hard; their unstated assumption is that life ought to be easy. The optimists try to artificially manufacture a beautiful life out of a clearly broken one, and their patchwork jobs always fall to pieces.
If we understand that the glass of this life truly is half-empty, but we also know that the glass of God’s grace is overflowing, we can experience the deepest and most lasting joy. We are better positioned to delight in eschatological intrusions that give us a taste of the life to come. And we no longer look to the world as our source of hope and happiness: instead, we look to Christ alone.
*In order to protect my students’ identity and maintain confidentiality, I have combined several students’ stories into one story here.
**Eschatological intrusions can also refer to times when God’s judgment breaks in. Sometimes people get away with doing terrible things, but other times justice is done. This too is a preview of the coming time when both justice and mercy will be equally displayed.