One of my absolute favorite books is Zack Eswine’s penetrating and healing work, Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry As a Human Being (Crossway, 2013). I think this book should be required reading for every seminarian, new pastor and veteran pastor. I first read it about 2-3 years ago and I’m now revisiting it with a dear brother and friend. As we slowly read through it–and it needs to be read slowly for the rich depth and reflection that’s there–I’m helped with my heart and outlook in all kinds of ways. Last Saturday I read chapter 4 in preparation for our lunch discussion. There was a section there that prepared me generally for those moments of human brokenness that defy pastoral strength and for the specific news out of Ferguson that defy good explanation.
Eswine meditates on what he calls “inconsolable things.” I’m quoting the section at length, and I pray it helps you in life and ministry as it helped me.
“Inconsolable things” are the sins and miseries that will not be eradicated until heaven comes home, the things that only Jesus, and no one of us, can overcome. We cannot expect to change what Jesus has left unfixed for the moment. The presence of inconsolable things does not mean the absence of Jesus’ power, however. Rather, it establishes the context for it. There in the midst of what is inconsolable to us, the true unique nature and quality of Jesus’s power shows itself to be unlike any other power we have seen.
This is what I mean. Jesus teaches us that the faith of a mustard seed can move a mountain. “Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20). So we bring faith to what troubles us. And according to Jesus it would seem that there is nothing in the world that we can’t fix if we just have the smallest seed of faith.
But this is not the conclusion Jesus draws for us. This challenges our Herodian ideas. Though nothing will be impossible for us with faith, “you always have the poor with you,” Jesus says (Matt. 26:11). The paradox emerges. When it comes to poverty, there is no knockout punch or decision in your favor. You must step into the ring with faith, knowing that you will not win in the way you want to. Faith takes its stand amid an unremoved trouble.
The inconsolable things, therefore, are identified first by the “cannots” of Jesus’s teaching. These things he identifies as impossible for any human being. For example, no matter who we are, “no one can serve two masters,” no one (Matt. 6:24). Even if we are wise and knowledgeable by his grace, there are still things and seasons in our lives that we “cannot bear… now” (John 16:12). No matter how strong a will a person has, “the branch cannot bear fruit by itself” (John 15:4). No matter how many oaths we take or how much we spin words into boast, we “cannot make one hair black or white,” Jesus says (Matt. 5:36).
These cannots from Jesus teach us that sickness, death, poverty, and the sin that bores into and infests the human being will not be removed on the basis of any human effort, no matter how strong, godly, or wise that effort is. The power to give this salvation is inconsolable as it relates to us. We cannot give people the new birth with God (John 3:3-5). We cannot justify someone, make her righteous, sanctify her, give her adoption, convict her of sin, or change her heart (Luke 19:27; 1 Cor. 12:3).
This presence of inconsolable things reminds us that healing is not the same as heaven. Miracles are real and powerful, but they do not remove the inconsolable things. Those whose leprosy Jesus healed coughed again or skinned their elbows. Those who were blind but now able to see could still get a speck of burning sand stuck in their eye. The formerly lame could still fall and break their leg. Lazarus was raised from the dead only to find his resumed life filled with death threats. Moreover, the raised friend of Jesus would die again someday, along with this company of the healed. Bodily healing in this world is not heaven. Sickness and death are inconsolable things. Their healing reveals Jesus but does not remove sickness or death from life under the sun. A soldier survives combat only to die in a car accident on the way home (or forty years later of cancer). Miracles never remove our need for Jesus.
In my first pastorate we began to make ourselves available as elders once a quarter on a Sunday evening. Our intention was to invite people to what James teaches us in his letter about coming to the elders when sick for prayer and anointing with oil (James 5:13-15). During those seasons of prayer and worship nearly everyone was nourished and encouraged in their faith. A handful of them were even healed. I remember a young girl whose eyes were fading into blindness. The doctors that week were astonished to learn that the cause of the trouble had disappeared. We all rejoiced in amazement and gave thanks to Jesus. I still do. The peace he gives is a sign, as we will see in a moment, that he is here.
Yet, Joni’s healed eyes did not remove eye disease or blindness from the world. Healed eyes humbled us into tears of gratitude, but this did not mean that Joni’s life was no heaven or that ours was. She was still a middle-school girl within a lovely but broken family, with all the realities of a fallen world and an untamed heart. So were we. It’s like being a hero. the moment the hero rushed into the burning home to save a young boy resounds with a sacred dignity. At the same time, we know that buildings still burn. The little boy still has a whole life ahead of him of grace and joy but also of ache and inconsolable things. The hero himself still lives on too for another forty years. But heroes aren’t always so, as a long life of broken moments reminds each of us.
Inconsolable things reveal and refer to the ache that exists in every created thing and within even those who have the Spirit of God (Rom. 8:18-23). There is an ache within us that will remain even if what ails on the porch is blessedly mended. Jesus demonstrated there are some things he did not change but left as they were for a time, until he comes. We minister the peace of Jesus amid the troubling unremoved. He walks there with us and leads us through. Jesus empowers us to resist both adding to the damage and hastily trying to do what only Jesus can.
I love this for its honesty. There are things in life we can neither change or soothe. But Jesus can. Let us all hold fast to the fact that He will hold us fast.