Heaven on Earth

Apr 14, 2009 |Jessica Inman

Our desire for justice and restoration is natural, and their fulfillment is on its way.

I'm not looking for a reputation as an Oprah fan, but every now and then she's thoughtful, doggone it, and last year one particular episode pulled me in.

I sat down and absorbed the story of an 18-month-old being gang raped in South Africa, a tragically common practice some have linked with the myth that having sex with a virgin will cleanse one of HIV or AIDS. Whatever the reason behind the crime, though, she survived only after hours of surgery to repair her tiny, bleeding body.

I cried. There was nothing else to do. As the segment continued, showing the baby now adopted, named and beginning to show signs of being able to love and bond, my tears kept coming, because I just couldn't imagine that she would ever truly be OK.

In the back of my mind, I knew I was supposed to believe that God could heal her, knit together her broken psyche.

But right then I didn't believe that. She wouldn't be OK. God couldn't fix her. Or maybe He could in theory, but He wouldn't. And I was angry about that, and my cynicism cut me.

Messages from Another World

The word is justice, I guess: I wanted the wrong to be righted on a deep, felt level; I wanted restoration for her.

Sometimes I think the concept of justice is completely lost in our world. Worldwide, we confuse justice with vengeance and clamor for blood rather than cry for the restoration of what we've lost. Or, alternatively, we pretend that what we've lost doesn't matter, as if all earthly pain is temporal, non-spiritual, and, therefore, unimportant.

I feel like we sometimes rush to the part where having God in your life makes everything fantastic, without really acknowledging that things are bad, and without a sense of outrage or injustice (which gets a little Gnostic if you define"Gnostic" as believing that the evil, material world is to be escaped by knowledge and revelation). We skip the"outrage" step, leaving some of us feeling empty and disappointed.

Either way, whether we get lost in the quest for vengeance or transcendence, we simply don't mourn injustice. Maybe it hurts too much to ask God for a reversal of our pain — that would involve facing it head on, along with the fearful possibility that He might say no. Maybe it hurts too much to allow ourselves to feel the pain of others. But even so, I think the need for justice persists in our hearts. Something in us (or at least something in me) refuses to be comforted when we see something wrong — it's wrong, period, and it needs to be set right.

New Testament scholar N. T. Wright says that the human need for justice is like a message from another world. The fact that we're so dissatisfied with our present world suggests that Someone is whispering in our ear, "someone who cares very much about this present world and our present selves, and who has made us and the world for a purpose which will indeed involve justice, things being put to rights."N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (HarperCollins 2006), p. 8.

A just world is a nice idea, but it always seems so far away. But that's exactly what the Christian story tells us: that God is in the business of restoring things, and He's not far away at all.

Good in the World

In The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith, the main character, Alex, laments to his friend Adam that all the things he's tried to do to feel better about his failures and the death of his father haven't worked. He doesn't feel better. Adam responds, "It is better, even if you can't feel it."

Alex shakes his head and says, "There's no other good but feeling good.... Adam, that's what good is. That's what you've never understood. It's not a symbol of something else. Good has to be felt. That's good in the world."Zadie Smith, The Autograph Man (Vintage 2002), p. 341.

This is not an article about the nature of reality and whether what is felt is what's most truly real, and it's certainly true that what's truly good doesn't always feel good. But if God's saving work is real, would it be so bad if I felt it every so often, not just in symbols but in the actual now I actually live in? Can I hope to experience moments of God's restoration, moments when I know I've been healed the way Jesus once restored a man's lame hand? Can I hope that a victim of a brutal crime can grow to love and trust and have days free from nightmares and pain? What I want, I guess, is to see "good in the world."

Jesus was and is that good in the world. He set something in motion: justice, the restoration of the present groaning, broken creation. We live in the overlap, Wright says, between the old age and the new age. We have the privilege of witnessing and participating in God's redemptive work, His remaking the earth and renewing us "according to the image of the creator" (Colossians 3:10). "Every Christian is called to work, at every level of life, for a world in which reconciliation and restoration are put into practice, and so to anticipate that day when God will indeed put everything to rights."Wright, Simply Christian, p. 226.

I guess the trouble is that I can't always predict or dictate the extent of God's healing and restoration in the now or what it will look like. Maybe it's enough to know that the world is moving toward restoration, to hope that justice will take shape in our lives in ways that we can experience and feel — not a resigned hoping, but a confidence and faith in God's goodness and restorative plan. "[H]ope that is seen is no hope at all," Paul writes. "Who hopes for what he already has. But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently" (Romans 8:24–25). I don't know when or how God will enact restoration in our lives. But I do know that He will.

The Hour Is Coming — and Now Is

The night of the Oprah show, I dreamed. It started off as a pretty classic "naked" dream, during which I screamed such as I have never physically screamed in my life, and then I flashed forward to sitting in a living room with people I didn't know. They were talking about a rape that had happened in the woods outside, using the tone of the non-vulnerable: casual, with a sympathy that somehow feels intrusive and irreverent.

I ran into the woods and screamed again, this time not a cry of alarm but a plea for safety. Now half awake, I could direct my dream-self to seek shelter in arms I created — the scratchy tunic of Jesus, perhaps, or the cottony T-shirt of a guy I know who works out a lot — begging for asylum from fear.

I opened my eyes, sweating and angry, sure that it was midnight and I would spend the rest of the night awake, clammily straining at noises in the house. But it was six in the morning, and the gray pre-dawn was already softening the room.

I hope I haven't lost my faith in God's ability to make someone well, to take someone from ashes to cool, green health, because I think that would mean losing my faith altogether. Somewhere, there's this wild hope in me that the Kingdom is at hand, that the hour is coming and now is. The dawn has already blushed, and healing is on its way. And that as the Day goes on, a toddler in Africa will be made whole.

Copyright 2006 Jessica Inman. All rights reserved.

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