I think most Christians do understand that we have reason to hope, even in the midst of personal and cultural storms. But it’s not a vague hope, not that useless kind of “I’m sure things will be all right,” hope. It’s observable and experiential for us all.
Let me explain what I mean from the simple to the complex. My grandson is almost 3 and his sister is about a month old. Caroline will very soon be obsessed with what things taste like—her toes, bugs, toys, the dog and so on. Daniel will consider that silly because he has either answered such questions to his satisfaction or has moved on to more significant questions of building things and knocking them over. He’s no longer curious about the taste of shoes. One day he will care less about the levers and buttons on a vacuum cleaner, but for now it’s big stuff.
The complex end of the spectrum is the several friends of mine who are facing deadly illness. I’ve been impressed with the strength and faith they’ve shown in the midst of a terrible storm. They are less obsessed with movie reviews, petty church dramas and doctrinal debates than they might have been a year or so back. To some degree, they have a satisfactory answers to such questions and to a greater degree, they’ve become more focused on truly ultimate things—things they’ll care about forever.
“We progress as individuals and as the body of Christ, today’s understanding building on yesterday’s. That’s observable among the first generation of believers (in the book of acts) and in later church history, even as we can see it in the past few decades.”
This progressive understanding comes with maturity as we see the significance of things God revealed of himself long ago. Granted, there is a time when elementary things must be our main focus, but there is also a fit time to move beyond childish things to the questions of adulthood, and even beyond those in rolling waves of maturity. “Elementary” is a bit of a relative term we usually ascribe to something in the past.
We can observe the same kind of progression in the life of God’s people. In the Old Testament, the saints moved from a hope that God will send a redeemer to a clearer understanding that the redeemer would be a suffering servant. In the New Testament, believers moved from fascination with Jesus to fear of him as God in the flesh to faith in him as the hope for all men and women. After Jesus’ ascension, the disciples’ empowered faith still sorted out doctrinal matters such as Judaizers, Gnostics, the canon of Scripture and the Trinity. God’s Word did not change as Christians corporately matured in their understanding of what God said and how it applies to changing contexts.
Most of those “aha” moments are in the past for biblically based Christianity. The doctrinal questions about the nature of Christ and even the sanctity of human life will plague those who still wonder if God has really said anything authoritative but are either arrested in their development as believers or not believers at all. Among those for whom a belief in the God who has spoken is life-changing we need never again ask if believers must become Jews before Christians or if Jesus is fully man and fully God or if all men are precious bearers of God’s image. Those of us who believe that God speaks into today’s events should never again be fuzzy on the value of unborn children or of those born 80 years ago. We progress as individuals and as the body of Christ, today’s understanding building on yesterday’s. That’s observable among the first generation of believers (in the book of Acts) and in later church history, even as we can see it in the past few decades.
Is it possible that there is an inversely proportional growth of Christians’ understanding of God as human society moves toward its vanishing point? It works that way in our lives. Whether we are a newborn in Christ or a 40-year saint, we understand some things about God we never imagined as important or knowable a short time ago. Our flesh is nearer the end and more tiresome to us, but our life is developing.
Consider the way the apostles faced shipwreck, arrests and martyrdom for the Lord. They didn’t welcome it as lunatics, but they did look for meaning in the things being allowed in their lives. They looked for the purpose of God and opportunities for service because they knew that he was sovereign in the events they faced. They assumed purpose from that fact. I believe they understood important things better when the issue came down to only them and only God.
That’s what I see in the lives of beloved friends now facing harsh trials in their personal lives. What genuinely did matter a decade ago is no longer worthy of consideration. The thing they looked on with dread is now upon them, and God is giving grace sufficient for the day. I think that is the point. Whether we are toddlers learning a new hard thing or mature saints facing end-of-life issues, there is a next step and it will be difficult in its way, but it will also give us something we couldn’t have any other way.
It’s my experience, and the testimony of those who walk the path ahead of me that we do understand God better “by and by.” Part of that understanding is when God mercifully answers our pressing questions, but often God’s gift is greater when he shows us more important things than we ever thought to ask.