This is a wilder grace, and one more violent. Over the last three months, I have prayed the same prayer three or four times a week, each time on my handmade prayer stool. I have asked God to help me submit willingly to what seems like barrenness, knowing that the grace of God first kills before it makes alive. I have seen it in Scripture, that Ishmael could not be comforted and that Esau wept to no avail. I will not have an Ishmael, I will not have an Esau. And so I will submit to God’s way of fulfilling his promises rather than mine.
But my heart is breaking as I pray this prayer. Because I never knew, as I said here a couple of weeks ago, that this grace would be so wild or that heaven’s violence would hurt so much. Yet, still I pray this prayer.
I see barrenness in contexts which are precious to me. I see situations which seem to be without hope. And yet I’m reminded that there is good precedent in this. John the Baptist was born to a barren woman who was past the age of childbearing. Jesus was born to a virgin who, the text notes, had not known a man. Hannah, another barren woman, gave birth to a son. Rachel, too, was given a son. And Isaac, the child of promise, was born to Sarah. Sarah, the woman who was past the age of childbearing, who was barren and who laughed in the face of God when he spoke this word to her.
Yes, surely, what is impossible with us is God’s context of choice. We see it most gloriously in the death of Christ. There, too, grace led him all the way to death – yet how glorious his resurrection and how great the celebrations of heaven! What glory, this grace, which has won a hope for all who would come to him.
So I know there is precedent. I know that where others would see each of these situations as becoming more impossible, the eyes of faith make it possible for the believer to tell a different story.
The story of a God of the wildest of grace.
The story of a heaven which is violent in its beauty.
Yet recently, my question has been how to stand right now. What does it mean to stand in faith, especially when my soul feels battered by not just one of these experiences in my life but more than this, and all of them happening around me at the same time? What does it mean to stand in faith when all around me is unstable? For I will stand or fall by faith. And my contribution in these situations of brokenness will stand or fall by faith.
For in the context of Sarah’s barrenness it was by faith that she was given power to conceive.
It was by faith that this same child of promise was laid on the altar by his father, a submission then to the wildness of a grace not shy to ask of us even those things which represent promise fulfilled.
And it was by the same faith that the people of Israel passed safely through on dry land, whilst the Egyptians were drowned in the Red Sea.
It was by faith that each of these conquered and were commended. So what is faith here for me?
As the weeks roll on, and nothing yet seems to change, I am coming to an answer. I am coming to see that despite my desire to add my strength and gifts in these situations, to fight with all my might, this is not God’s will. If I add my strength to fight the barrenness, I risk giving birth to an Ishmael.
There is a reason that God has given me specific instructions in these various situations. Instructions not to use my strength to fight something which is too big for me but instead to lean into him and participate in his strength. And though these instructions are slightly different from situation to situation, essentially they have the same core.
Wait on God.
Hide in the secret of his face.
Allow his Spirit to pray and act through me.
Continue to believe that what the Lord has said will be accomplished.
Yes, to hide in the secret of his face. To live and to pray from the stillness of the cether, the secret place. Eyes on him, no matter what rages around me. Not to step outside of this place of intimacy in attempt to birth my best Ishmael in the one situation and my anointed Esau in the other. No, instead to remain present to Jesus that I might carry his life, his presence and his purposes, into the situations where I find myself.
Because, perhaps then, I will begin to see the birth of hope, a grace which – having killed all human possibility – now begins to make alive.