She opened up about her suffering and we drew our collective breath. Party plates jostled holiday lights and a dozen voices hummed musically, when she confessed that perhaps she had been blind. She had poured herself into an effort for years, only to miss problems that had scorched ground she had cultivated. Handing it off to others, a turbulent ending to her season of investment, she now grieved what had been lost. Time. Opportunity. The struggle to bring forth good only to find herself in a desert partly of her own making.
We inhaled her pain, we exhaled reassurance. The room rippled with the murmur of compassionate people at a party, scrambling to make amends.
“Hardship makes us more sympathetic.”
“None of us is perfect.”
“God is definitely going to use this in your life.”
At one point a friend resummarized her experience and ended with, “But now you’re good.” In an instant, I heard all the crevices getting smoothed over, the fissures of suffering flattened in the reflexive urge to rectify another’s pain.
I drove home and doubts rumbled. Certainly we pounced with good intent, but was this the best we could offer? Too bad about the past, but hey, at least now you know better? We squirm when our friend suggests that her own lack of perspective furthered her pain. We scurry to connect the dots, to offer a solution.
And while I drove, my own past flickered to life – images of a women who used to wake at night to cry for hours. Who sat in the parking lot minute after minute because she lacked the emotional energy to leave the car. I had realized something about the world back then. Until then, I’d always thought that people who crawled into therapists’ offices, crushed and suicidal, were the worst ones off. Now I’d realized that they already had a string of successes to their day – they’d made it out of their beds, out of the house, out of the car.
I sometimes think of reaching back to tell that former self – so oblivious to the forces afflicting her soul – what I now know. I long to send her to the right doctor, the right counselor. Accelerating her recovery. Scrambling to make amends. But the past is inaccessible to me, every detail frozen in a timeline I cannot touch. What do we do with these scorched places? With the knowledge that our own blindness, our lack of awareness, kept us circling in the desert for longer?
And that’s when I start to think about Noah.
In many ways, it’s a tale of secondhand catastrophe. Surrounded by wickedness, Noah’s life was unhinged by proxy. Building a massive boat on dry ground, filling an oversized coffin with a zoo – these eccentricities were inflicted on him not by his own sin but by the lives of others. And then, when those others drowned and creation itself unraveled, Noah was ushered into a season, not of consummate deliverance, but of waiting – weeks turning into months aboard the ark.
What did Noah do while his own desert stretched around him, liquid and deadly? Did he bob on the waves in trust or did he fester with uncertainty? What was the point of all this waiting? We aren’t sure what he could see from the ark but this much seems certain, there were changes going on in the geological realms below him, and to these Noah was blind. Did he wonder if there was something he was supposed to do to speed up this process?
Our hindsight does not whitewash Noah’s experience, but it does reveal purposes that are staggering in their import. Tectonic things were happening under Noah’s feet, no knowledge required. No one said to Noah, years later at a cocktail party, “This experience has made you a much more interesting person”. And no one had to. Not only was a speck of humanity being saved from which would come all future generations, but the very ground upon which we walk was being reforged under those monotonous gray waves. Noah’s wait was reshaping the continents.
Where do our platitudes fall short? We come at others – I come at myself – with answers focused on solutions, when some of the greatest anchors are found in God’s character. What was God’s capstone on the months (years? century?) of traumatic upheaval in Noah’s life? A rainbow. A rainbow? But do not miss where the comfort of this sign is placed. God offers Noah no handy platitudes to neatly tie up every aspect of his suffering. He removes the threat of repeating disaster, establishes new order in the world, then ends with this. “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (Gen 9:16, ESV, emphasis mine). Noah is left with the marvel of a God who binds himself to see, remember, and sustain. It is his covenant nature that has the final word.
Our ransom lies not in our ability to put tidy epithets on our suffering, but in the character of God himself – he makes the narrative read right. For Noah, for my friend, for me there is a reality more radical and penetrating than any of us could imagine. Beyond the floodwaters is a God who is taking desolation and making something new. The scorched places will become watered gardens. The blind ones will finally see. And the desert will blossom like the rose.