We all know people who tend toward the pessimistic. These gloomy Eeyores are realistic about the hardships of life, but seem to see only obstacles and no opportunities.
We also know people who tend toward the optimistic. These perky Tiggers are ever bouncing toward the next adventure, but their lack of discernment has us wary of following their lead.
We all have a sense that both of these approaches overplay their hands.
Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes of the prophetic imagination as being one of hopeful realism. It’s realistic, because it sees all that is wrong with the world and ignores none of it. It’s hopeful, because it believes in God and sees his redeeming hand graciously at work in all times and at all places.
Where I see this imagination at work in ways that have challenged and changed my own imagination for how the world works and how I live in it is in the New Testament letter of 1 Peter. (And, yes, sharing a name with the author, I have an affinity for his perspective.)
Peter and Silas (who most likely did the actual writing of what Peter outlined) do a fascinating job of tying together two words that we would rarely if ever put together: suffering and glory.
Suffering and glory seem like incompatible experiences. But by looking at the Jesus story, 1 Peter ties them together as inseparable experiences.
The means by which Jesus is glorified is by walking the path of suffering. His suffering is not an accidental thing. Neither is it unavoidable on Jesus’ path to glory. It is as essential as it is undeserved.
No suffering; no glory.
J.R.R. Tolkien coined the term eucatastrophe to describe the sudden shift from suffering to glory, from tragedy to happy ending. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” he write:
But the “consolation” of fairy-tales has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it. At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite — I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’, nor ‘fugitive’. In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
And in what is referred to as Letter 89, Tolkien also writes:
I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives – if the story has literary ‘truth’ on the second plane (….) – that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made. And I concluded by saying that the Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story – and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love.
For those of us who follow Jesus, we live in the light of the resurrection of Jesus, which Tolkien above calls the greatest eucatastrophe possible as we live in the greatest Fairy Story possible, God’s history-long act of defeating evil and death and lies and restoring his broken creation. And the eucatastrophe of the death and resurrection of Jesus is itself a downpayment on the deaths and ultimate resurrection of all of his people.
This is why Peter wrote the following passages in 1 Peter (notice his emphasis on present suffering and future glory/inheritance):
This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials (1 Peter 1:4-6).
[The Spirit] predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow (1 Peter 1:11).
Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God (1 Peter 1:21).
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit (1 Peter 2:18).
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you (1 Peter 4:12-14).
To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed (1 Peter 5:1).
And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away (1 Peter 5:4).
Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time (1 Peter 5:6).
And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast (1 Peter 5:10).
This is a mere sampling. Suffering and glory are woven even more deeply into 1 Peter. But these are the obvious ones, where the Jesus story of suffering and glory are referred to over and over again while reminding us that our own personal stories of suffering will be completed in future glory.
What Peter wants for his readers of 1 Peter and what I want for myself is the ability to live a eucatastrophic life — I want to live a life that is so shaped by the Jesus story that I am not surprised by any suffering, but am able to entrust myself and those I love and the whole world to the God who raised Jesus from the dead and seated him above all.
Paul put it this way: I want to know Christ — yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:10-11).
The author of Hebrews puts it this way: Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. … And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him (Hebrews 11:1,6).
Belief that God exists is not enough. We must also believe he is a rewarder.
To miss out on this is to get God wrong. He is gracious. He is generous. He is faithful. He is unshakable. He is mighty. He is loving. He is good. His commitment to us is rock solid. His adoption of us is absolute. His victory is assured. His promises are unquestionable.
If we are his children, it is his fatherly pleasure to not just save us, but to glorify us. Similarly, if we are his children, it is our children’s place to obey him as he leads us into redemptive suffering and to trust him as we wait for the glory yet to be revealed.
It’s this dual belief — that God exists and that this God is a rewarder — is what gives hope to each of the people listed in the “hall of faith” in Hebrews 11. All of them suffered in the light of a God-promised future glory that they only glimpsed from afar and endured because of it.
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country — a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).
I want this eucatastrophic approach to life to affect my parenting, my politics, my marriage, my neighboring, my bank account, my body image, my career, my everything. I want to face the suffering in each and every one of these aspects of my life with hope, knowing that the one who leads me through suffering is the same one who leads me to glory.