The Gospel of Liberation vs. the gospel of emotional imperatives

Don’t be scared! Calm down! Don’t get angry! Be happy, not sad! These and a littany of other emotional imperatives are common in our day to day life. We hear them as funerals when well-intentioned people try to encourage the family of the departed. When someone is visibly emotional, a reactive “cool it” may be uttered. We exist under a set of norms that dictate what type of emotions are acceptable to express and when, if ever. Sometimes, we can control the emotions we feel and when we express it. If what we feel is only a twinge of pain that is on the margin of consciousness, then we can readily suppress our feelings and never notice any effects from it. We can only suppress stronger emotions for a short time period, but we will almost inevitably be tempted come back to the feelings and memory of the triggering events soon. However, in the end, we are not in conscious control of our emotions, only how we experience, express, and direct our emotions.

While these emotional norms may seem burdensome, they are often times the social glue that keeps people together. If one shows and expresses anger every time a friend says some innocuous that mildly irks you, that friendship will not likely last much longer. Suppressing emotions is a vital part of our social. connected life. However, the net effect is that it leaves us feeling more isolated the more we hold back. So suppressing emotions is often a balancing act between authenticity and connectedness; too much suppression may make the relationship feel fraudulent, while too little suppression may ruin the existence of the relationship.

Furthermore, we are deeply aware of the dysfunctionality of emotional haywire, whether it be depression, the persistently low-self esteem of an endlessly shamed person, persistent anxiety, etc. Even though the more adept at helping to heal those people with these conditions don’t speak explicit emotional imperatives, there is an understood emotional norm we place upon people that say they should not be sad, ashamed, anxious, scared, etc. We all have a deep sense of norms about what we should feel, when we should feel it, and how we should express it.

The end result is that we may be tempted to simply promote a gospel of emotional imperatives. We Christians are often times very eager to employ emotional imperatives. These well-intentioned imperatives are geared towards helping people managing the emotions we feel should not exist. “Do not fear!” may be followed up with a Scriptural quotation from 1 John 4:18 saying, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” The Scriptures are employed as a source for emotional imperatives that are supposed to have authority or influence on our feelings in the moment. It is as if being a Christian and committing your life to Scripture is supposed to make you able to control your emotions. But I would suggest the predominant way we employ Scripture to manage our emotions is different from how Scripture calls people into a different emotional experience.

Take Isaiah 35:4, part of the lectionary reading for this upcoming Sunday in Advent. There is an emotional imperative provided there: “Be strong! Do not fear!”However, the emotional imperative is based upon a different appeal. What follows is a vision of what is happening. God is about to come to take care of the evildoers and save the innocent. The emotional imperative is provided, but the reason for people to shift their emotions is due to what God is doing. In order for people to feel as they should, God is going to act to end the injustice. This not a call to emotional suppression, however. Instead, it is what one may refer to as a cognitive reframing: God is doing something, so I should not fear. The management of emotions is grounded upon the action of God, not naked authority.

Looking closer at 1 John 4:18, it is not a naked emotional imperative about feeling love instead of fear. Rather, in context, it is more of a descriptive statement about one’s spiritual state based upon God’s love. John follows by saying “We love because God first loved us.”1 The perfected love that drives out fear is not simply our love. It is not a matter of controlling our emotions in order to vanquish fear. Rather, it is a matter of living and receiving God’s love, which draws love out from us. It is God’s love that perfects us, not our own attempts to makes ourselves love. As God’s perfect love ensues within us, our love is perfected and fear of punishment is vanquished. God’s action is the groundwork of the new, emotional experience.

There are emotional imperatives in the Bible, but the emotional imperatives are based upon God’s action to redeem us. The Gospel is not a set of emotional imperatives about trust, love, fear, hatred, etc. The Gospel is about God’s liberating action in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit that creates trust and love, casts out fear and hatred, and overcomes guilt and shame. Adherence to emotional imperatives are a result of seeing God in action and then trusting, not simply saying one should feel differently because Scripture says so. The Gospel of Liberation in Jesus Christ impacts how we process emotions, not dictating what emotions we should and should not feel. Liberation assumes divergence from the ideal and so there is grace and mercy that accepts, but not celebrates or justifies, the reality of dysfunctional emotions. However, the danger in our modern society that is deeply aware of our inner, emotional realities is trying to employ Scripture as a set of emotional norms rather than as a story of God’s actions that can produce within us a set of emotions. Scripture becomes a way to manipulate and control our feelings rather than as a source of understanding to hope in the One who liberates us. Instead of being the decisive way to be spiritually formed, Scripture becomes a mere authority of imperatives.

In the end, the emphasis of Scripture and the Gospel is on God’s action, not on our inner realities; how we employ Scripture and how we direct and encourage our brothers and sisters who struggle with various emotions should reflect the liberating realities.

  1. 1 John 4:19 []

Grappling with forgiveness

Forgiveness is one of the most difficult, if not at times, the most difficult part of following Jesus. It is one thing to struggle with what one wants and to sacrifice our desires to God; these struggles of the flesh are difficult but I would suggest it is generally to offer those up as a sacrifice. However, it is another thing to have to forgive someone, particularly when the violation and hurt cuts deep to a person’s heart. The deepest violations and betrayals cuts against the most basic part of our life lived together: trust. The reknowned developmental psychologist Erik Erikson says that the very first stage of life is about developing trust. Since we are social creatures to our core, trust plays such a vital role in life together; it is the very foundation of healthy relationships, families, organizations, and even nations. So when something happens in our life that cuts at the very foundation of what it means to be human, we can find it hard to find a place for those who betrayed us.

Nevertheless, Jesus’ lifts up forgiveness as one of the central, if not the most important, aspects of discipleship. The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 finds it’s rhetorical center at the Lord’s Prayer, after which Jesus immediately exhorts others to forgive or they will not be forgiven.

Herein lies the dilemma: In cases of serious victimization, it is next to impossible for a person to get rid of the feelings of anger, hurt, and loss of trust. The amygdala, the part of the brain that processes fear, does not extinguish the connection to the source of memories; those memories will last for a lifetime. One of the main routes for managing the regulation of the feelings of threat is via the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for processing memories. In effect, when one remembers a threatening part of their life, people have to access memories that counter those feelings of fear in order to mange fear. One has to experience a threatening reality in an unthreatening way and rehearse the feeling of safety in the midst of the memories of violation. As a result, the feelings of hurt do not vanish; they remain and linger, even after recovery. So how can a person forgive like Jesus calls us to forgive if the feelings can linger long after the harm has been done?

One option may be to say that the Holy Spirit gives us the ability to forgive. However, the experience of many devout and genuine followers of Jesus who have not experienced a deliverance from wounds of days past suggest that the guidance of the Holy Spirit is not a magical answer to the psychological and neurological realities of deep violations of trust.

Another option would be to say that forgiveness is not about emotions but simply behavior in not extracting revenge. While I would suggest this is the beginnings of the answer, it doesn’t go far enough. In Jesus’ Parable of the unforgiving Servant1, Jesus concludes by saying that one should forgive “from the heart.” While the ‘heart’ was not seen as the center of emotions, it would be considered the center of a person’s inner life. This would include thoughts and emotions. So forgiveness for Jesus extends beyond the external aspects of behavior into the inner person, which impinges on the emotional life.

So how then can one who has been deeply hurt find a place for forgiveness if it isn’t a miracle of the Holy Spirit (but no doubt a process that the Spirit can lead us through) yet it does extend into one’s feelings about others?

The answer lies within the wisdom of Jesus’ own teaching. While Jesus was not legalist, Jesus’ teaching suggests he saw the wisdom of heart change coming through behavior. For instance, in teaching people to avoid hate, Jesus does not call people to control their emotions, but calls forth a practice of praying for one’s enemies.2 By taking action in opposition to one’s feelings, one can begin to process feelings differently. In the literature on cognitive dissonance, it has long been noted that people’s actions tend to cause change in people’s beliefs and feelings. If you feel one way but yet act differently, your feelings will begin to change to align with your behaviors. Likewise, the way to forgiveness is through the action of benevolence and kindness, not in trying to directly manage and suppress emotions.

Upon closer examination of Jesus’ parable of the Unforgiving Servant, we can infer the role of action in forgiveness. In discussing the King who forgives his servant a debt, the emotional state of the King is mentioned; he is said to have pity when he forgives the debt and is said to have anger when he decides to hold the servant accountable. When it comes to King figure who is an analog for God, the emotions are mentioned and they lead to the behavior that follows. However, when it comes the unforgiving servant, there is no reference to his inner, emotional state as he refuses to forgive the debt of another servant. He is described simply in terms of behavior and words. Yet, Jesus drawing the parable to talk about forgiveness from the heart is making a reference to our internal part. This suggests the beginning of forgiveness is the relationship between the inner and the outer.

Synthesizing these insights I would suggest the following: inner intentionality in the heart to forgive leads to outer behavioral actions of forgiveness, which then leads to an inner reformulation of the heart. Furthermore, that inner intentionality starts from a deeper inner attitude connect to our dedication to Jesus. As a) our devotion to Christ guides us to value mercy over vengeance, it guides b) our intentionality to act consistent with forgiveness that then c) becomes enacted through various practices of forgiveness, resulting in d) a resolution of the cognitive dissonance between emotion and action by reforming our feelings more in line with the action. However, since deeply felt attitudes such as distrust don’t change immediately, sometimes the intention and action to forgive has to occur multiple times; this is particuarly true if a victim has to repeatedly endure the costs that the violation has had on their life.

Having personally dealt with and still dealing with this in my life with the deep hurts of the past, I would suggest the following points:

1) To forgive deeply starts with a devotion to Jesus and being led by God’s Spirit – One must have a commitment to mercy rooted in our trust in God before one can resist the desire for vengeance and retribution with a contrasting desire for forgiveness. We must be motivated to forgive already, otherwise the experience of anger and hurt will lead us to seek and believe various justifications for enacting vengeance and retribution. Reminding oneself of the very way Jesus lived his life and letting our mind be drawn into the Spirit-led imagining of life and peace serves as the moral and spiritual foundation of forgiveness.

2) With the deepest of hurts, you will have to retake the intention to forgive again and again – There is no easy way to forgive sometimes. In the worst instances, each time of remembering is a little act of revictimization, so one must take those steps again and again to counter the potentially building rage. Over time, our heart and mind can slowly stitch things together.

3) Don’t measure your forgiveness by how much you feel the anger, and don’t accept other’s judgment of the presence of anger as the lack of forgiveness – In a society that wants quick and easy results and in cases where the offender has a vested interest in the victim overcoming their feelings, resist the temptation to assess your faithfulness by how often you feel the anger, fear, and hurt. The Gospel is not a gospel of emotional management, but it is a Gospel of liberation; sometimes that liberation happens over the course of time.

4) Do not feel guilted or manipulated by statements that imply the continuing presence of anger is hurting you – You may hear statements such as “Forgiveness is good for the soul.” While certainly, it is true that learning how to forgive can improve one’s life and outcomes, it doesn’t happen by directly controlling the emotions you feel and pasting over them. It happens by the Spirit-lead-and-motivated processing of the offenses as we move back towards the fundamental position of trust, most particularly towards God. However, I would suggest that overcoming of anger comes when one has overcome the hurt and accepted the reality moving forward. The resolution of anger is the result of a healthy approach, not the cause of it.

5) Forgiveness does not mean failing to speak the truth – Forgiveness should never be justification to cloak an offense, particularly if it is an egregious offense that suggests a fundamental danger to oneself or others in the future. Ceasing vengeance is not the same as ceasing to speak about what happened or getting help if the situation is continuing. While our speaking out against the offenders can readily bleed over into a subtle desire for retribution, wisdom can lead us to discern where, when, and how it is appropriate to speak about the offense without enacting vengeance. In fact truth-telling in a context where one does not seek vengeance can be an act of forgiveness, as we uncouple the memory of what happened from an intention to act with hostility.

6) Forgiveness is a matter of our heart and not about keeping the status quo – Forgiveness is an act of mercy where we do not seek retribution or further recompense on our behalf from the offenders; it is not about blindly maintaining or restoring the same patterns of relationships and authority. If a person has acted in such an egregious and abusive manner that there is a fundamental lack of trustworthiness for them to continue in the same relationship or power that they have, change may be necessary. Maintain and restoring trust is different from avoiding retribution. While the act of forgiveness does seek to keep a basic dignity for the offender, that dignity may necessarily be enjoined with various forms of accountability and restrictions.

  1. Matthew 18:23-35 []
  2. Matthew 5:44 []

The King of Peace and being Peacemakers

In preparation for the sermon this Sunday on Isaiah 11:1-10, which speaks of the coming, empowered King that brings a peace that surpasses all expectations, I am left in reflection on the relationship between the peace that Jesus brings and the peace we seek to make. In Jesus beatitudes, Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”1 Jesus as THE Son of God who comes to bring peace calls those who are peacemakers children of God. Peace is the family business of God, and Jesus is the peacemaker who enables our ability to make peace. In the synonymous language of reconciliation, the Apostle Paul says “All of this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us this ministry of reconciliation.”2 As God in Jesus makes peace/reconciles, we ourselves become part of the business of peacemaking/reconciliation.

Of course what it means to make peace and reconciliation is up for debate amongst different persons; for some ipeace is more about the cessation of conflict and living in harmony, whereas for others may evoke images of justice that makes peace possible. Furthermore, there is even debates on the ways one brings peace: is pacifism the only option or is there any violence and coercion that is justified as in just war theory? But at the core there is a deep Christian conviction that we are called to be people through whom peace develops. Such an idea no doubt sounds very noble; we appreciate the peacemakers of our day and age. People like Desmond Tutu or Nelson Mandela have drawn the respect of millions of people who simultaneously recognize the injustice in society and yet also desire for peaceful resolutions. So, many people, including many Christians, are tempted to take on this goal of being a peacemaker. They idealize within themselves a certain desire to be the source of peace, whether it be due to the joy of seeing people live together in love and justice or the prestige of being such a capable of person. To be a peacemaker is a noble goal.

Yet, to be a peacemaker is one that is not an easy task. With some of my observations, particularly at seminary, I have noticed many people who were ardent pacifists, and yet in their life they demonstrated anger and hostility in so many ways. To be honest, I flirted with the idea of pacifism, but beyond the fact that I could not accord the idea with the totality of Scripture, I saw many of the representatives of pacifism who seemed to be fighting more their own inner demons of anger than really achieve peace. Such a rule-bound ethic seemed to show little power in changing their inner hearts. Akin to Paul’s warnings about regulations in Colossians 2:20-23, pacifism seemed to be wise, but it seemed to be of little help in people’s formation. While acknowledging the brokenness and sin in all people, the passionate pursuit of the idea of pacifism frequently seemed to be an attempt to control one’s own inner anger by idealizing oneself as the opposite. This is not a denial of the ultimate goals of pacifism, but a critique of the means of attaining the goals of peace through pacifism by their ineffectiveness, along with the difficulty that Scripture presents against the pure pacifistic ethic. Peace is hard. Not simply because it is hard to get people on the same page, but because first and foremost we have to deal with our own inclinations towards anger, hatred, destructiveness, judgment, lack of forgiveness, etc.

My personal experience in seminary taught me that. As I struggled with my own struggle with those same emotions rooted in anger and disgust as I dealt with some difficult situations, I found myself become something very different. Up to that point, I had always thought of myself as a nice person who cared but I didn’t always understand what was going on with other people. So I pursued greater insight to overcome my weakness in understanding others that would then be combined with a deepening commitment to grace and mercy. I didn’t think myself as a “peacemaker” at the time, but more along the lines of a helper, and through learning and commitment I would be a more effective helper. However, as I dealt with an incredibly difficult situation in which my failures did contribute to the circumstances, I discovered over the course of time that there is the fountain of anger that existed in me. I no longer felt the the springs of life of God’s Spirit as flowing within me, but the bitter spring of anger. As I struggled to keep myself towards kindness, forgiveness, and peace, the reactions of others continued to reinforce the disdain and disgust. Peace is hard, and being a peacemaker is not an easy task.

Therein lies the wisdom of the Beatitudes. We might be tempted to take the beatitude of being a peacemaker as a stand-alone aphorism about the honor and noble virtue of peace. However, there is a deeper insight into Jesus’ beatitudes, as there is a pattern of spiritual and moral formation from the first to the last contained in the Beatitudes.3 One does not immediately become a peacemaker, but goes through the other aspects of human life; understanding the poverty in spirit, living within mourning over life, the experience of powerlessness in meekness, that deep desire for righteousness/justice, an impulse towards mercy, and a heart that is purified in intention to be in service to God. Each of these stages of human life and experience provides the framework for living into the next stage. Peacemakers must experience a deep understanding of the unfairness and darkness of life in poverty, mourning, and powerlessness, develop a deep desire for the alternative way of life in justice and mercy, and then have one’s intentions, desires, and beliefs purified for those goals.

Why? Because being a peacemaker brings a lot of hostility in return. Being a peacemaker often times entails calling down forms of unfairness, injustice, and abuse that exist because some people’s interests are being valued over and above other people’s interests. Being a true peacemaker where one does not simply paste over emotions to maintain a sense of civility, but addresses the deeper causes of conflict and/or abuse means one must face the harassment that comes when one runs up against people perpetuating the injustice. This is very next step in the beatitudes that follows being a peacemaker; peacemakers are persecuted. When that happens, a person who has not delved into their own anger and hostility will find themselves more becoming contributors to the unfairness rather than simply standing up against the unfairness.4 Without learning how to live with grace as one addresses difficult situations, one becomes a participant in injustice rather than an opponent of injustice.

Living honestly with one’s own desperation and the emotions of anger and fear those bring with the counter-weighing desire of justice and mercy is the start of peacemaking. In the bitter anguish of disaffection from others and even ourselves, we seek for the truth that will set things right, that will be the standard upon which all are expected to act according to. But as we move towards a desire for real peace, we discover the importance of grace. Living in imitation of the King of Peace Jesus who is filled with both grace and truth entails dealing with the fullness of life and its experience, the highs and the lows, the joys and the sorrows, the celebrations and the wounds, when we achieve our goals and when we do not, when we do good and when we tempted to and give in to sin. Then we give the space in our hearts for the Spirit of God to purify out hearts towards the goal of God’s reconciliation and peacemaking. Just as Jesus openly endured the sufferings of the cross as He committed Himself to God’s justice and love so that He Himself learned the necessary obedience,5 peacemakers must both openly face the prospect of death and a commitment to life to be transformed.

So we celebrate the coming of peace in the birth of Jesus this Advent and Christmas as a gift from God. But we should not forget that real, Godly peacemaking is difficult business. It is so difficult that a cross of love is the pathway to accomplish it.

  1. Matthew 5:9 []
  2. 2 Corinthians 5:18 []
  3. I learned this from my seminary class on Moral Development; Donald Joy is credited as the source of that idea, but I can not find any books or articles to cite []
  4. And all to frequently, those who agitate will consider themselves persecuted rather than contributors. []
  5. Hebrews 5:8 []

The Absence of Advent

Advent stands as a season of anticipatory celebration for us followers of Jesus. We stand on this side of the resurrection in history and we look backwards towards the miracle of Christ and His birth. For us, our songs for the Christmas season are sung with celebration, because we know how the story of Christ’s birth goes, whether people truly believe and trust in that story of not. Advent stands as a celebration of God’s coming, Emmanuel, God with us. We celebrate the positive hope that the Gospels make known to us.

Yet, the deeper significance of Advent is frequently missed. For God to come, God must have been absent in some way. Protests of “God never leaves us,” well intended as they are, do not echo the very heart of the worship of the people of God as contained in the Scriptures. There is a deep dissatisfaction in innumerable Psalms that God is somehow not doing what He promised. As tempting as it to paste over this the expression with “it only appears as if God is absent, but He really isn’t,” even Jesus on the cross echoes the lament psalm of Psalm 22: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” God’s absence is no mere appearance, but is cry of a heart that sees God’s protection and provision far from their life, where God’s promises seem to be on the edge of being forgotten. Certainly, the lament Psalms call out after the complaint that God is faithful; Jesus’ excruciating death as God forsook him was followed by a glorious resurrection where God restored life to Him. The frustration and complaint of the laments do not delve into faithlessness and rejection of God; there is a firm conviction of God’s return. Nevertheless, there is the experienced absence of God, to which people long for God to act in fresh new ways to overcome the distance.

So Advent really is more a lament, of complaint and trust, than a celebration. God’s promises seem to be far off, but there is an expectation that it will not remain that way. In the darkness of an Israelite society, groaning under the political, economic, and religious injustice, there is a waiting for something better. As Israel groaned in Egypt, and God acted in faithfulness to Israel’s patriarchs through Moses, Israel groaned again, this time in their own homeland with even some of their own brothers as the oppressors.

One needs to acknowledge the complaint, the darkness, and the experience of absence of the provision and protection of God in order to appreciate the celebration of God’s integrity to His Word. Even as we celebrate, we need to mourn. Even if the mourning isn’t personal to our life, there are reasons to mourn for others, both in our past and our present. Then in the throes of despair, there is the surprising celebration of God’s power in and through His Son. Engaging this emotional process through personal devotion, liturgy, etc. prepares our hearts to recognize Christ’s future displays of unexpected power and love even when all else seems to be devoid of God’s justice. We learn to be open to and recognize the small acts of power in our lives where Jesus can be said to be coming into our lives as a metaphor for powerful action to overturn the inversions of justice and peace we experience and, more ultimately, the final coming where Jesus will right the wrongs of human history and bring forward a new, decisive age of human life in relationship to God. In engaging in lament during Advent, we train our hearts in union with the Holy Spirit to be able to trust in and recognize God’s loving power amidst the times where God’s love is not powerfully showing itself up to that point. The acceptance of the reality of God’s absence is prerequisite for fully appreciating the powerful presence of God.

Preparing for the Mystery of Advent

For the past four years, I have been trying to make sense of what happened to me the last year that I lived in Kentucky. Having faced an interminable contradiction turned double bind, my heart became overwhelmed with the chaos of the situation. In the four years since leaving, my head tried endlessly to make sense of the situation; I felt I had to as it connected so much to questions of who I was as a person in so many ways. But for every answer that I thought I had in my head, it made sense of some things but not others. The littany of explanations I constructed in my head had little power to ease my heart. In the desperation of wanting to turn off a mind tortured by what had happened, I was waiting for someone or something to come along to ease the endless tension. Then, one day recently, a flash of unexpected insight occurred to me that brought for the first time clarity to all of my contradictory memories and feelings. An option I had never considered suddenly brought everything into focus and began to relieve the pressure of the past (although, it presented new challenges of learning to accept what did happened and the consequences it brought forth).

In life, we face circumstances where we want everything to be brought together. Whether it is solving a puzzle of the past or finding peace in present circumstances, as the bucket of life drips slowly empty, we can find our resources exhausted and our hope failing. We can seek release and salvation in any and everything we can. As life seems so untrustworthy, we desperately reach out for anything that vaguely resembles something or someone we can trust or is reliable. Embedded in the heart of desperation is a certain rigidity. Our hearts are not readily open to anything new, anything different, anything unexpected.

But it is in the vagueness and hopelessness of life that God’s newness shines through in unexpected ways. The Savior of the World is a baby? While surely, every person is a baby at some point, how foolish is it to place the hope and expectations of the future upon someone as they are a weak, frail, helpless infant. Let him at least get to the age of being able to take care of himself before you anoint him anything; what can be so inspiring about a baby? Nevertheless, the coming of God was made known in a most unexpected way. Simeon, who longed for God’s comforting of Israel in it’s difficulties, understood that this infant was God’s salvation and light. How could a man who was longing for a sense of peace, and it was granted, find in someone so unexpected the hope that would ease his burdens? How can the inevitable skepticism birthed out of hopelessness be suddenly undone?

As I remembered what plagued me, I did what many would perhaps have considered counter-productive. I sought to keep my mind remember what happened. Despite my fear and pain, I trusted that somewhere there was something good in what happened (along with a trust that my memory would not lead me desperately astray). I could have tried to forget; I could have attempted to direct my attention elsewhere, trying to distract myself from reliving what happened. In the short run, this would have probably made my life better. Yet, it was precisely because I kept my mind and heart open to what had happened that I could then later on recognize the fresh but unexpected insight that brought clarity to the confusion. I had trusted that there was some sensibility in the senselessness and something from God in a situation which had seemed far from Him.

So how could Simeon find Jesus as an infant to be the hope for Israel? The Gospel of Luke speaks of the Holy Spirit being with this devout man. In desperation, clinging to what is reliable and true, the very word of God, can keep us open to the very new possibilities as the One who we can trust is the One who later points us in a new direction. This would have no doubt been difficult to do, however. After all, it was God who made promises to Israel, and yet it was Israel that was in a life far from God’s promised future. It would have been easy and tempting to distance oneself from any serious hope, to relegate the talk of God to language to justify power and rule structures or simply interesting curiosities of discussion. But how does one seriously trust a God who made promises when the promises seem far off? Nevertheless, Simeon did this when so many others didn’t. In aching for the consolation that he still expected, Simeon entrusted his life to the guidance of God. Simeon’s heart remain open and prepared for God’s Spirit to communicate to him the unexpected, glorious future of this small infant.

Often, God’s power shows up in unexpected ways after periods of absence that can try our hearts and minds. So, when God’s solution is revealed in such a surprising way, a heart that is not distracted but continues to direct purposeful attention with anticipation can prepare our minds and hearts to see what is a mystery.

And so as we wait in this season of Advent, we do remember the past coming of Christ. But for many of us, we are looking for Jesus to work new miracles in our life, to bring fresh light into our old, lingering darkness; yet, everything we have tried, everything we have looked for seems to come up lacking. As we look for God’s coming in fresh, new ways, there must be a corresponding disciplining of the heart in order to be able to see and accept what is to come from God. That entails trust, a trust that may be challenged but somehow remains.