Category Archives: Advent

The Spiritual Life and Divine Assault (When God Hurts Us)

“God sometimes hurts us.”

I said this as I sank with a sigh, exhausted and burdened, into a chair in our living room. Wisely, my wife posed the most appropriate question: “Well, does this happen in Scripture?”

The answer, we agreed, is YES.

God hurts us.

And Christians need a spirituality capacious enough for divine assault. Devotional literature that cannot accommodate a God who at times afflicts his people is inadequate for the biblical vision of the spiritual life.

I am not bitter as I write this—a bit broken, perhaps… but not really bitter. There have certainly been moments over the past several months, though, when I have hammered an ironclad sky with “why, O God?” or “how long, O Lord?”

With such prayers I find myself in good biblical company—spluttering laments are a central part of Scripture’s vision of spirituality. I have written about this sort of spirituality in Faith Without Illusions, especially in what I think is my favorite chapter, “The Way of the Tragic Poet: Worshipful Lament over Cynical Complaint.” But I have had to wade into the waters of lament thicker than I had known when writing the book. As my friend Chuck Hooten said, “you should have seen this coming!”

So where in the Bible do we learn of a God who hurts us?

It is hard to avoid, actually:

“I form light and create darkness,
I make well-being and create calamity,
I am the LORD, who does all these things.”
(Isa 45:7; see also Lam 3:38; Job 2:10; Isa 54:16; Exod 4:11)

For a specific example, let’s take Jacob. He was a child of divine promise. Jacob was a son of the Abrahamic covenant. Central to his identity in Scripture is a night of combat with God himself (or at least with his angelic representative). Fisticuffs with God: this is what being chosen as a progenitor of the covenant people got Jacob. He did not escape without pain. God gave him a limp. Jacob, the beloved child of the covenant, was disabled by the God who chose him.

Jacob was renamed “Israel,” a name meaning “strives with God.” Struggle and conflict with the divine Lord is intrinsic to being God’s beloved. From Israel the person came Israel the nation. So even the namesake of God’s people implies divine conflict.

Qualifications to what I am writing are immediately required, of course. The struggle between national Israel and God is most often due in Scripture to Israel’s recalcitrance or refusal to obey.

I have also written with verve, I think (both in TheoMedia, at The Ooze, and here at the blog) to qualify that we cannot haplessly attribute atrocities and natural disasters to the divine hand. By no means is God the source of every calamity.

But with fear and trembling over the vast theological unknowns, I still think God hurts us. At least sometimes. At least it certainly feels that way.

I know, I know—this is impious God-talk. But try the latest devotional logic on the poet who cried out, “For your arrows have sunk into me, and your hand has come down on me” (Ps 38:2). Reading Lamentations 3 will split open a gentle piety that defends God’s every action.

Then again, after ascribing directly to God the worst atrocities an ancient city could suffer, the tragic poet writes,

For the Lord will not cast off forever,
but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men.(3:31–33)

In a stroke of explicit contradiction to everything penned in the previous verses, the poet ends up suggesting that God really does not hurt us, at least not “willingly.”

Such is the spirituality of those who suffer. It makes theology very confusing.

Of course, Jacob would likely disagree with “he does not willingly afflict” us. And while squirming in spiritual pain deep in the night, some of us might disagree as well.

(Now, a transition: Most laments in the Bible transition at some point from grief to hopefulness. This brief lament is no different…. )

Even so, what we hold to when blood gushes from the divine arrow wounds in our soul is that whatever our take on the source of our suffering, the divine Lord plunged himself into it headfirst and drank the razor sharp cup. The worst cup of all. And not long after the cup was emptied, so also was emptied a tomb, that cup’s inevitable consequence.

I admit that most of this blog post does not resonate very well with holiday cheer. But I think it does echo (to some degree) the dark chords of Advent angst. At the heart of this season in the church calendar is a minor key chorus of moans, those of a forlorn nation looking for a Savior who seems hurtfully absent. The cry in the night of a baby, though, has signaled a key change. And those of us limping and pierced with the blows and arrows of the Lord must check out of the cynics’ ward and peer over the edge of that manger. Even if the Child’s coming is like “a sword” that will pierce even the soul of his own mother (Luke 2:35), it is a piercing we need.

An Advent Devotional

(Throughout the season of Advent, I’ll occasionally post a brief devotional thought. This will be cross-posted from an Advent devotional in the college ministry where I serve. For some general thoughts on Advent, read here.)

Isaiah 2:1-5

1 The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

2 It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills;

3 and all the nations shall flow to it,
and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”

For out of Zion shall go the law,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

4 He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.

5 O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord.

The ancient people of Israel hung their hopes, their identity, their souls on this prophetic vision of the future.

One day, yes, one day, their God would break in and make everything right.

God’s rule and his reign would be permanently established and recognized fully and finally. All nations would participate. Pagan peoples would no longer be feared because they would recognize the God of Israel as highest and best.

Then God himself would rule in personal proximity to his people and this would bring about a true and everlasting peace. Weapons of war would turn to weapons of farming.

The only task left after this final epic act would be for the people to walk in it, and enjoy.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the full realization of this dream lies in the future still. Just as Israel had to wait, so do we. Last time I checked, false worship, sin and brokenness, violence and strife, are very much present in our world…..and in my heart.

Advent is a time for us to long and wait for the realization of this prophetic dream. To anticipate a day of fresh and final salvation. To enter into Israel’s story and to hope for God to enter into ours.

He will make things right cosmically, and personally. Just you wait.

Just you wait.

The Advent of Our King

Advent with the Gathering Church

Inspired by my fellow contributors’ Advent posts, I’d love to share a few items from my community’s Advent observation.

1) Each of the last several years, I’ve had some part in writing and/or curating a church devotional.  Even though these reflections usually take place while there are still leaves on the trees and it’s not yet sweater weather, this rhythm of pre-Advent preparation has been a pastoral boon for me.  Unlike some things, even some sermons, I’ve found this exercise to be preparatory rather than exhausting.  By the time we’re lighting candles on Sunday morning (in an elementary school gym), I’m more prepared and excited rather than bored or tired.  Here is this year’s devotional (available for free download).  Clicking here will get you to some of the previous material, also freely given.

2) It has been really special as a pastor immersed in a community (both church and wider) chock-full of creative types to attempt to foster that creativity.  To pastor people who consider (and some who don’t) themselves artists has been one of the most joyful, challenging, and favorite parts of my duties and the Lord’s provision.  This season, I especially enjoyed the give-and-take that went along with commissioning this piece for our church’s Advent.  I got the opportunity to work conceptually with the artist, Nathan Hood, on a work that would adorn our bulletins and the advent devotional.

© 2012 Nathan Hood
© 2012 Nathan Hood

Here are some of Nate’s words on his process:

When putting things together for this Advent imagery there were a few themes in my mind upfront, including the power of God in the helplessness of a human baby and the mystery of God made known in Christ. Reflecting on it now, two things come to mind most readily.

First is the awesomeness, the wonder, the amazing happening of the Uncreated becoming a created being, becoming human. The question always arising from that thought for me is, “If God himself were to walk among us, what would God do, what would God be like if we could see, touch, hear, taste, and smell him?”  “What would he be up to?”

Secondly, comes the thought that Christ is at once God and man, our King and our Servant, the Lion and the Lamb. There are many realities alive in Him at the same moment. There are many alive in us, and so many if we have received the love and the sonship he holds out to us.

What do you see? What are your thoughts during this time?

Ultimately in our expression of these truths words fail us, as does imagery. Forgive me for attempting both, and thank you for letting me be a part of this. May our capacity to receive the love of our Father grow, increase, abound. Peace to you church.

3) Finally, our music ministry at church decided to give some of our Advent music away.  In 2010, this short record came together as a companion to our Advent devotion.  At the time, we were (and still are) trying to figure out what it means to observe this season of waiting and how Advent tempers our unabated early embrace of Christmas (or at least the sentimental christmas-iness around us).  The result is a “night-themed” collection of alternately chilly and warm devotionally-sprung, but missionally-minded tunes.

I’d love to invite you to take advantage of this here:

Hope, peace, joy, and love during this season.  May God enable you through his Spirit to be an attentive and expectant wait-er.  May we anticipate our Lord’s second coming with the “thrill of hope” that we experience and celebrate his first.

-Chris Breslin


On Locked Rooms & Empty Tombs: A Resurrection Reflection… for Advent

Advent is about waiting for Someone to come. Christmas shows us that He can appear  in unexpected ways and in unsuspected places. The Resurrection teaches us something similar—you never know where the Risen Christ will appear. Or when. Luke, Matthew and John all portray the disciples as stuck after the tragedy of the Crucifixion. We find them crammed in locked rooms or trudging sorrowfully toward Emmaus. It is as if they are waiting for something. But for what, they do not know.

Below is a brief reflection on a verse from a Resurrection scene in John’s Gospel, excerpted from a sermon I preached over the weekend. In all our waiting, you never know when or where he will turn up….


On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”(Jn 20:19)

A locked room is no good when there is an empty tomb.

If a tomb’s sealed stone has been knocked to the side, then your room’s locked doors don’t mean anything.  Shut entryways are no match for a Man whose tomb just lost its stone doorway. A Man who will not stay dead, cannot be kept out.

At the end of John 19 there is a sealed tomb. Near the end of John 20 there is a locked room. The 1st cannot kept Jesus in.  The 2nd cannot keep Jesus out.

When we come across a Resurrection scene, we need to recognize that something cosmic, something epic, something irreversible, something terrifyingly wonderful has happened… something that changes everything. When a dead Man walks out of his tomb, then a wrench has been tossed into the machinery of Evil. A holy virus has infiltrated the superstructure of the Dark Powers. That emptied grave has sent into reeling Death, Disease, Darkness and the Devil….

And while all this cosmic madness is underway in unseen realms, the disciples of the Risen Lord are huddled up in a locked up room… afraid.

To be clear, the Disciples have not locked the doors to keep out Jesus. They are trying to keep safe from the Jewish leaders who have crucified their Friend. They are dreading that awful sound: the sound of footsteps at the door, that awful sound of a hard knocking.

But Jesus came and stood among them. 

Maybe you are reading this and you feel trapped and stuck, locked up and afraid. Or maybe you are trying to lock yourself up, hoping to keep Jesus himself at bay. It is the footsteps and knocking of Jesus you don’t want to hear at the door. Maybe you are hoping he will observe the “No Trespassing” you’ve tacked up. Or maybe you feel imprisoned and it is your enemies who have thrown away the key. And now it’s just waiting, waiting, waiting… straining the ears sensitive to every sound, hoping Someone might show up for a jailbreak.

If Jesus made a tomb-break, he can pull of a jailbreak.

Both Advent and this particular Resurrection scene affirm this: There is no distance too excessive for the Coming Christ… even if it takes Incarnation. And they do not make doors thick enough or locks strong enough to keep the Resurrected Christ out. No stone is dense enough, no bars wide enough, no dungeon secure enough, to keep you trapped when the Resurrected Christ has broken out of his tomb, descended into hell, and come back to talk about it.

Jesus came and stood among them… “Peace to you.”

Jesus claims in Revelation 3 that he is the One “who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens” (v.7). He is coming for you, clasping the key of a King in His hand.

A locked room is no good when there is an empty tomb.



(A basic little something I wrote for practical purposes at my church. The season of Advent is quite the season for hopeful realism, by the way.)

On Advent

Time, how it’s used and its soul-shaping quality, is really important in Christian spirituality. The daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly rhythms of our lives are not a neutral aspect of the life of faith.

This is always been recognized in the tradition.

Early Christians, using the Jewish rhythms — feasts, holy days, etc. — as a point of departure, began to think of the yearly Christian experience in seasons. This is where we get the idea of the church calendar.

Advent is one such season.

Advent is not Christmas. It’s the season before Christmas, intended to guide us into the desperate longing and somewhat frustrated waiting that has always been associated with the people of God. Longing and waiting for God to come to rescue, fulfill, deliver, restore, make things new and fresh.

Think of profound things you’ve had to wait for. Think of that weird frustration/swirling angst/sometimes faint hope/painful longing you felt. That feeling comes close to the heart of the Advent season.

At Advent, we enter into the desperate longing and somewhat frustrated waiting of the people of Israel, as they hoped and anticipated the arrival of God’s anointed, king-like figure, foretold in the shadowy, mythic oracles of the prophets. This anointed-one would somehow play a role in the re-establishment of Lord’s rule and reign in the world. We feel their desperation, and taste the seemingly delusional hope that their God just might be the kind of God who would break-in and make things right and new.

At Advent, we also enter into desperate longing and somewhat frustrated waiting of Christians everywhere, as we hope and anticipate the re-arrival of Christ. He snuck into our world in a unnervingly ordinary way the first time. The second time will be a different story.

And the great Christian hope is that he will appear to finish the job he started. To re-assert his rule and reign in a final and complete way.

Again, we long, hope and wait. All the while remembering that our God just might be the kind of God who would bring such total and complete restoration.

The Christian journey is lived in the tension of these two Advents, arrivals, comings. God’s kingdom’s re-establishment has been launched in Jesus’ arrival. This kingdom is here, but not quite fully here yet. It will be here fully (eventually) but for now we wait.

By the way, if this living-between-comings doesn’t explain a lot about our lives and our world, I don’t know what does.

Advent is the season when we enter into this story. When, in a uniquely focused manner, we read, think, pray, long, wait and hope along these lines.

If you are in need of Christ in a fresh way in the very mundane ordinary realities of you life, if there are things that only he can give for which you are longing, hoping and waiting, then the Advent season is for you.

Christ came. Christ comes. Christ will come.

Get ready.

Joy to the World

The familiar hymn says, “Joy to the World, the Lord has come.”

If you’re like me, you pass over these words as if they were no big deal. But wait a second.

Our God — holy, living, true, glorious, high and exalted — came?

The Word became flesh and….dwelt. among. us?

So, Let earth receive her king. Let every heart prepare him room.

Make space in our hearts and lives for this really real reality: Our God here. This coming has consequences. It requires response. — Heaven and nature sings.

By the way, This savior reigns. While humankind celebrates, so do the fields, rocks, hills and plains.

For the earth, the biggest-news-ever is too much to handle. The earth itself cannot contain the excitement.

While men their songs employ, the creation itself repeats the joy.  Repeats the joy. And repeats the joy. If we don’t celebrate, the rocks and trees would….Of course, this is God we’re talking about. And He has come.

The Savior who came, will also come. We celebrate his Arrival, but we also look forward to his Re-arrival.

Then, not quite yet, but then, sins and sorrows — though plentiful now — will not be able to grow, thorn won’t even infest the ground. Because he, the one who came, brings his salvation and redemption as far as that age-old curse is found.

Because, He — no one else — rules the world with truth and grace. And despite evidence to the contrary — in fact, at this very moment — he is already making the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and the wonders of his love.

Joy to the World, the Lord has come. It’s a gospel song. And it just so happens to be all our hope.

Our God came and He will come. And, in the meantime he comes. In the very ordinary realities of our lives, he arrives.

So let’s celebrate.

Advent Calendars, Kids, & the Need for Jesus to Come

A dear friend of mine gave my family an Advent calendar five years ago.  It is a special delight, this calendar, with its tiny little cabinets storing various characters of the Nativity scene.  Grasping the tiny nob on the tiny doors to pull out a sheep or an angel and then carefully hanging that sheep or angel on the proper hook in the provided Nativity background is an extraordinary tactile and visual experience for my children.  We have four of them, so the excitement bounces and rebounds off each of them as we gather around the calendar to remind ourselves of Advent and the “real meaning of Christmas.”

So you can just imagine the sweetness of the scene, right?  Fire in the fireplace / holiday tunes on the iPod / cute little kids adorned in soft, fuzzy pajamas / my wife in a warm sweater and still sporting that scarf that matches her enormous brown eyes / me tenderly explaining the prophetic voices in Israel’s past, summoning hope that had reached a fevered pitch by the time Caesar made census plans / my wife and I tag-teaming the questions about who “Caesar” was or what a “census” does—this is a family holiday scene, merry and adorable.

Except that this is not really how it works.

Now, to be sure, the kids are all cute in soft, fuzzy pajamas, and my wife is looking great in her new scarves she bought for this northern England wintry weather.  But to begin with, it is really hard to get all six of us in the same place at the same time.  Our house is quite small, so we are never far away, but washing dishes, changing diapers, playing with Star Wars toys, doing long divisions homework, coloring a landscape scene with aliens and bad guys—all these activities are hard to draw away from for a ceremonial five minutes before the Advent calendar.  And then we seem to never remember exactly whose turn it is to put the Advent character onto the Nativity scene.  Maybe we skipped someone’s turn because they were having a bad attitude, and that threw us off a bit… who knows.  But every kid knows it is really their turn, not their siblings turn.  And they each remember perfectly who went the night before, though each of them always supplies a differing report in spite of the perfection of their memories.  And then a fight breaks out, someone indignantly puffing about how so-and-so got to go first this year and they also got to go first last year and how so-and-so’s placement in the rotation will have them getting to open up baby Jesus on December 24, which is most unjust and unfair, the only sensible and fair and just option being that the one with the complaint gets to open the cabinet with baby Jesus.  All this fighting over baby Jesus goes on while “Joy to the World” sounds out through the Bose in the other room.  And so I get annoyed and start fussing at any little voice that barks with self-assertions over whose turn it is or is not while holding one child who is crying with hurt feelings and trying in between my irritable disciplinary orders to talk about the role of shepherds in the ancient world and how Mary and Joseph must have felt so frightened though excited after those angelic encounters, all over the sound of at least one kid crying.

Merry Christmas, ho ho ho, and peace on earth.

So maybe not every night goes exactly like the one I just described above.  But many of them do.  Now my kids are all super awesome and the oldest ones who can understand the story truly do love Jesus.  And even though I get irritable, I really love Jesus, too… at least I am certainly enamored with Him and I want to love Him more.  But all that family ruckus seems like a terrible and dishonorable way to celebrate Advent.

Then again, our ridiculous familial strife around the cute little Advent calendar perfectly illustrates why we need Advent.

Fighting over whose turn it is to open the little cabinet with baby Jesus shows just how badly we needed baby Jesus to come.

The Nativity scene reminds us of what happened on the first Christmas.  The quarreling scene reminds us of why it had to happen.

Whether chestnuts are roasting on your open fire or whether there are fiery tempers ablaze amidst family members, both can drive us into gratitude for the coming of Jesus.  The sweetness of the holidays can help us rejoice in Christ’s coming.  The ugliness of the holidays can remind us of why He came.

Advent blessings, to you and yours….