Keeping our gospel-balance

Years ago, on our group’s last night of camping deep in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, a torrential rainstorm blew through and swelled the stream next to our site into a raging river. We had to cross that stream for the hike back to our cars and I was certain I would die a watery death or be dashed to pieces on the rocks downstream.

The bravest among us (actually he was a highly-trained Eagle Scout) secured a rope on our side of the river and tentatively walked it above the current in waist-high water, probing the bottom with each step. This gave us a handhold and ensured the path we followed was level and the stones that supported our weight would be secure.

When it was my turn to cross, I plunged my soggy boot into the swirling water and quickly learned what it would take to reach the other side. I needed to grab the rope, take confident steps and immediately plant my foot on the solid riverbed. Any hesitation, with one foot down and the other suspended in the current while I wavered with doubt, threatened to knock me off balance.

We all made it. But the thought of that crossing still brings anxiety.

Walking the path

We live in a time of strong currents that threaten to dislodge us and sweep us downstream if our feet are not firmly planted. So how do we maintain balance?

Simply put (but not so simply practiced), we follow a gospel path.

We’ve described in Sunday School how the gospel keeps us balanced in the area of self-identity. When we topple toward self-criticism, the gospel reminds us that we’re more valued than we can imagine. When we lean toward self-righteousness, the gospel reminds us that we’re more sinful than we like to admit.

In the same way, the gospel steadies our walk as we travel through times and places of powerful currents that can throw us off balance and leave us as casualties downstream. There are many applications. But let’s consider one that’s foundational:

The gospel keeps us firmly planted on the path between the world’s brokenness and beauty. 

Accepting the brokenness

Right now we see a lot of brokenness – an aggressive virus that’s proven tough to contain, sickness and death, financial stress and fear of an uncertain future. At the same time, there’s beauty in the shadows – frontline workers making sacrifices, scientists fast-tracking remedies, neighbors taking (appropriately distanced) walks together, and communities rallying around local businesses.

Apart from current events, we see signs of nature’s rebirth. Trees are budding, bulbs are sprouting and even this week’s flurries can’t stifle the mid-day warmth of a late April sun. Add to this sunsets that still touch our souls, mountains and lakes that still reflect God’s majesty and good conversations (again, appropriately distanced) with friends and family that still warm our hearts.

The gospel reminds us that we live in a broken world that awaits redemption. We read in Romans 8:22 that all of creation groans in anticipation of its release from bondage. We shouldn’t be surprised by sickness, strained relationships and the fact that everything we see and touch bears the marks of sin.

It’s OK to grieve what’s broken. The pain is real. When Lazarus died, Jesus wept though He knew what he was about to do. I can’t prove it Biblically, but I always thought the grief went deeper than the temporary loss of a friend.

I picture Jesus among the mourners – those experiencing the pain of separation, those wondering why the worker of miracles hadn’t intervened, those watching from distance shaken by the reminder that death eventually catches us all. And I picture Him feeling the weight of sin’s consequences, knowing that the sadness and confusion around Him was not what God intended nor was it the end of the story. 

Embracing the beauty

The gospel of course reminds us there’s good news too – news that not only gives significance to the suffering but guarantees a sweeter blessing for what’s been endured. Sin’s curse was reversed and we have the promise that creation’s right standing with God will be restored. The best news is that Christians will share in the fullness of that blessing.

So gospel balance helps us celebrate the beauty too. In fact, I’ve always considered that Christians should be the world’s most legitimate hedonists — though it’s the giver of pleasures that we worship, not the gift itself.

We radically enjoy the blessings of life because we know they’re a taste of what’s to come – like appetizers before a meal. We can celebrate and savor them like no one else because we don’t have to cling to them desperately for fear they’ll disappear. Nor do we grieve their passing with the pain of existential loss.

Good food, good friends, a good vacation, a restful nap, fun with our “toys” – can all be fleeting in this life. But they are glimpses of the fullness of joy to come. So “gospel balance” allows us to embrace the beauty while grieving the brokenness until we cross this life to the other side. If we walk as God intends, neither of these currents will knock us off our feet.

Rejoice and weep 

In Romans 12:15, we’re told to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” The surrounding verses contain a list of distinct behaviors that mark our transformation by grace. In other words, the Christian can, and should, authentically rejoice and authentically grieve.

We can enter the turbulent waters of a pandemic and mourn the losses – of health, life and livelihoods – without losing our footing. And we can fully embrace the good things of this world, in the midst of the brokenness, without guilt, possessiveness or frantically grabbing at what’s fleeting.

Finally, as we walk, we don’t need to fear the turbulence. We have One who has crossed the river, tested the path and secured the rope.

When we can’t see the spot where the final stride leads to dry land, when we take a tentative step, mid-stream, with one foot wavering, wondering if the stone below will support us, we don’t need to muster enough faith for the whole journey. Grace for the moment helps us at least plant our foot on the next rock to get one step closer to shore.

The lesson, other than for smart hikers to mark the best steam crossings when the water is low, is to stay balanced through life’s wild passages by recalling the fullness of the gospel. Our faith will be firmed for the journey, we’ll give courage to those behind us, and we’ll bear witnesses to those in the world searching for something to steady them through the waters.

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