I can’t swim the ocean that’s growing between us
The shores are too far apart
Grover Levy, “When We Fail Love”
These words may be simple, but they are some of the saddest ever penned in contemporary Christian music. They bear witness to an intractable loneliness, and what makes that loneliness all the more unbearable is that the singer has no one to blame for his suffering but himself.
I was in college when this haunting ballad was released, and even though my life up to that point had been too sheltered to really understand the ways that people “fail love,” I still felt the melancholic power of the song’s message. How could I not? No matter how sheltered our existence, we all know the pain of loneliness. We have all asked the songwriter’s anguished question, “How do we manage to do so much damage to the ones we love when we care so much?”
In that context, it is heartening to know that there is “a love that won’t fail us.” Hope ignites in the heart darkened by guilt and shame, and we dare to imagine that forgiveness and reconciliation might actually be possible. We dare to dream of a world in which what has gone wrong can be made right.
But then life comes in and cruelly snuffs out our dreams. I have walked with friends—dear women and men who I cherish and admire—who have experienced betrayals too traumatic for words. I have known the sting of abandonment by those who promised to be faithful. Worst of all, I have glimpsed the capacity for wretchedness which lives within my own soul, and I have watched (seemingly helplessly) as that capacity wounds people who have loved me far better than I deserve.
It is enough to crush a person’s hope. And then we encounter, both in others and in ourselves, an unwillingness to confront the truth. Over and over again, we see individuals and institutions unwilling to admit their mistakes and unwilling to confront the harm those mistakes have inflicted on others. It is enough to make one throw one’s hands up in despair.
Perhaps it would be helpful to frame the problem in a different way. Sometimes, “we fail love” not because we did something “foolish,” but because we did something evil. And I, for one, cannot help but wonder if there is anything that can be done to redress the harm genuine evil inflicts. Indeed, we are often unable to even begin the process of redressing that harm, for we are conditioned from an early age to run from the possibility such evil exists at all, much less within our own hearts.
And yet, it is precisely at this point—when we have given up hope that there is a remedy for the evil done to us and the evil done by us—that we must turn again to a God whose love does not fail (cf. Romans 8:31-39; 1 Corinthians 13:4-8). The cross shows us it is a love which does not fail the evildoer, but it is also a love that does not fail evil’s victims, either (cf. Luke 18:1-8). Indeed, the righting of such wrongs is an indispensable part of the Messiah’s ministry (cf., for example, Isaiah 2:2-4; 9:4; 11:1-4; 35:3-4).
Modern interpreters of Scripture are often unwilling to acknowledge the violence associated with the Messiah’s ministry. Those images are not limited to the scene of judgment described in Revelation 19-20. They are sprinkled throughout both the Old and New Testaments. Isaiah 11, for example, bears witness to a ruler who will rule with brutal authority, destroying those who are bent on doing evil. Yet, this would hardly be a reason for hope for most of us. After all, we may be evil’s victims, but we are its partners, too.
But there is another side to the Messiah’s work, one which emphasizes healing. Notice, for example, how the vision of Isaiah 35 unfolds. The chapter opens with a portrait of life overcoming death; the lifeless desert is transformed into a verdant paradise (vv. 1-2). Then comes the exhortation to encourage those who are weak with the knowledge that God will come. He will do more than liberate them from oppression. He will avenge them. Immediately, however, the prophet turns to the healing work God will perform, describing first the healing of persons (vv. 5-6a) and then the transformation of creation (vv. 6b-7, echoing vv. 1-2). The final three verses of the chapter interweave these themes to create a comprehensive picture of what God will accomplish.
Perhaps we should remember, the people who originally received these prophecies were just like us. They had experienced the most extreme trauma at the hands of Assyrian and Babylonian armies, but they had also cruelly oppressed one another (cf., for example, Amos 4:1; 8:4-6). To them, and to us, the Scriptures tell us God does indeed kill. And God also gives life. We can trust Him precisely because both of these alternatives remain in His arsenal. But make no mistake. God prefers to give life, and this is what He will do, if only we will let Him (Ezekiel 33:11; John 3:16; 2 Peter 3:9).
I don’t pretend to know all the ways God will do this. I don’t understand how dead souls can be made alive again and broken relationships can be made whole. But Scripture does not ask me to understand. It asks me to believe. The rest, thankfully, is up to God.
Likewise, I can’t promise you that your abusive parents will realize the error of their ways. I can’t promise your wayward spouse will come home. I can’t promise your child’s murderer will be found and punished. I can hug you. I can cry with you. I can work on your behalf with all the wisdom and power that God gives me. But I can’t make promises. What I can do is invite you to join me on the journey to healing, a journey which will inexorably lead us to God’s throne by way of Christ’s cross. We may not like some of the things we find along the way. Diane Langberg is right; our sin runs deeper than we know. But we do not walk alone. Christ walks with us, and his love is more expansive (cf. Ephesians 3:14-19), more creative, and more durable than we can imagine.