My brother knocked on my bedroom door at our childhood home. “It’s happening,” he said. I jumped out of bed, threw on a sweatshirt, and ran downstairs to my parents’ room. All my siblings and I had moved away from home years before. But that week, we’d returned to the house with the cedar siding and floral wallpaper, not for a holiday or a celebration, but to be there when Mom died.

We had known this day was coming. About seven months earlier, the oncologist said she didn’t think my mom would make it until Christmas. But here we were on a February morning, weeping and listening to those final guttural breaths the hospice nurse warned us about.

Cancer had devoured my mother’s body. Her skin hung over her bones and the smile she held on to as long as she could had faded. She was ready. And I was ready for her to not be in pain, for her to not have to deal with bed sores and fight to put air in her lungs and consume a whole pharmacy’s worth of medication just to take the edge off.

After she died, my dad, sister, and I removed her soiled clothes and dressed her in the clean outfit she’d picked out a few weeks before. I’d helped take care of her for months, but these few minutes caring for her limp frame undid me. I didn’t expect her to feel so heavy. When alive, she had been skin and bones, almost no weight at all. I remember crying as we laid her back on the hospital bed and set her hands gently on her stomach. All there was to do now was wait for her body to be picked up.

Eventually, two men arrived to take her away. But they came earlier than we had anticipated, so we asked for more time. Can you come back later? Don’t take her quite yet. Please. They understood, and kindly returned after a few hours, wrapped her in a black bag, and carried her out the front door. Just like that, she was gone.

I remember that moment as if it were yesterday. I remember feeling, as Leif Enger wrote in Peace Like a River, “a grief so hard I could actually hear it inside, scraping at the lining of my stomach, an audible ache, dredging with hooks as rivers are dredged when someone’s been missing too long.”[1] That scraping hurt like nothing else I’d ever experienced. God denied our prayers. He said no to our pleas for her health. 

Along with her body, the hope of healing left in a black bag out our front door.

When It’s Too Hard To Hope
Sometimes, our hopes feel like milk bottles stacked in a pyramid shape in a carnival game. Life is the baseball, aimed, thrown, and knocking down each hope one by one. We hope the treatment will work. Smack! We hope our marriage will heal. Smack! We hope our finances will turn around. Smack! We hope justice will be served. Smack! Life hits those hopes hard, and down they crash. It’s all too tempting to give up, believe nothing is going to change, and sink into despair.

Despair says hope has run dry. Despair looks at our circumstances and declares, “Why bother trying? Just give up.” Despair is the phrase spoken by Job’s wife when she said, “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9). Even for those of us who have grown up hearing the Christian message of hope, despair still lurks around the corner, waiting to pounce when hope feels weak. Grief forces you to ask if your hope is real and if it’s worth holding on to.

I knew my mom loved Jesus. And I believe in my head God will one day raise her body back to life. But watching her be carried out in that bag through the door caused me to reckon with the truth of my hope in a way I’d never had to do before. That body will come back to life? Seriously, God?

When we look at our circumstances, despair can seem far more in line with reality than hope. Hoping a dead body will one day walk around healed and restored and glorified . . . that truth doesn’t align with what my eyes saw that morning. Holding on to the hope that justice will one day roll down like waters doesn’t make sense when we watch people get away with corruption and abuse and all kinds of evil. Hoping God will remake a world coming apart at every seam—that kind of hope feels foolish. Where is God? Why bother holding onto him when he leaves us with all (waving my hands wildly) this?

Waiting on God
We’re not the only ones who have been tempted to despair. The Old Testament prophet, Habakkuk, grieved the wickedness and injustice he saw in Israel, and he was angry God didn’t seem to be doing anything about it. “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?” (Habakkuk 1:2–3a). When are you going to finally show up, God? To make matters worse, God answers that he’s doing something about it—he’s been working. And part of his plan includes using the nation of Babylon to bring justice.

This response seems to set Habakkuk over the edge. Babylon is more wicked than God’s people! How could a good God answer this way? After all, the Law said, “A land on which blood was shed could not be purified through sacrifice but only by shedding the blood of the murderer (Numbers 35:33). Thus, a city or society built by bloodshed and oppression cannot endure.”[2] The prophet appeals to God’s character, saying, “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” (Habakkuk 1:13). He wrestles with the way God is working. What’s happening in the world doesn’t jive with what Habakkuk thought he knew about God.

God makes it clear he will deal with all wickedness and save his people in the process (Habakkuk 3:13). He answers Habakkuk, but doesn’t resolve all the questions. In the meantime, all the prophet can do is wait. “I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint” (Habakkuk 2:1).

We don’t like waiting. We like our “instant pots” and our high-speed internet and our same-day delivery. We want our emails answered within minutes and our children to “just hurry up and get in the car.” Most of us are woefully bad at waiting—and waiting on God is no exception. “Whether in prayer or prophecy, contemporary worshipers demand that God act according to the dizzying schedule of those pressed for time,” wrote one commentator.[3] Then if God doesn’t act on our schedule, we pull a move like Abram did when he slept with Hagar in an attempt to fulfill God’s promise a little faster. He’s taking too long, we think. We’d better just go ahead and figure it out on our own.

But God has never been pressed for time. He’s never been in a rush or scrambling to get out the door. He’s never looked at his watch and realized he missed an appointment or was late making good on a promise. No. The sovereign God works in ways we can’t always understand and on a timetable we don’t usually like.

After a tumultuous history of being slaves, fleeing Egypt, wandering in the wilderness, and finally coming into the promised land, God’s people had God’s promise: “Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass” (Joshua 21:45).  

Think of how much frustration the Israelites would have saved themselves if they believed that truth before God’s promise was fulfilled. When the spies scoped out the land of Canaan, all but Joshua and Caleb returned saying it would be too hard and the people in the land were too powerful to overcome. Instead of believing God, “All the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron” (Numbers 14:1-2a). But instead of that angst, they could have rested in the certain and secure hope that God’s promises would never fail.

Habakkuk’s posture is far different from that of Israel back in Numbers. His example reveals that our suffering doesn’t have to lead us to despair. It can lead us to a place of trust, joy, and security while we wait on God to do what he said he’ll do.

It’s in this waiting that the prophet finally says the words most familiar in his book:

Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places (Habakkuk 3:17-19.)

Habakkuk’s words hinge on the reality that he knows God will make good on his promises. Until the darkness becomes light and tears turn to joy, the prophet watches and waits, trusting that God will come through in the end.

He Who Promised Is Faithful
Maybe, once upon a time, you hoped. You hoped God would heal, change, restore. But you’re staring at the very real and very hard life in front of you, and it seems the hope you once had has all been swept away. So now, you’re left walking from one day to the next, sure that the events of the past have secured the death of your future. You’re left choosing between despair and hope, and doesn’t despair come a little more naturally sometimes?

But as a line from Every Moment Holy says, “It is only false hopes that are brittle.”[4] Our hope is sure and steadfast—not because we always are, but because God always is. So don’t give up. Don’t stop waiting on God. Don’t stop asking him your questions and bringing him your doubts. He can take it! The God who made the universe also sits with us in our grief, and the God who sits with us in our grief is also the One who overcame it through the Resurrection.

We have hope, not just for this life but for the one to come. Because Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. So, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23).

[1] Leif Enger, Peace Like a River (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001), 54.
[2] Kenneth L. Barker and Waylon Bailey, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, vol. 20, The New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 1999), 337.
[3] Ibid., 324.
[4] Douglas Kaine McKelvey, “A Liturgy for the Death of a Dream,” in Every Moment Holy (Nashville: Rabbit Room Press, 2017), 234.

This is a slightly adapted excerpt from Sarah’s new book, All Who Are Weary: Finding True Rest By Letting Go of the Burdens You Were Never Meant to Carry (Moody Publishers, April, 2023).

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