Years ago I got stranded with a few friends and strangers in the elevator of a tall building. We waited for help to arrive, chatting awkwardly and laughing nervously. I’m not claustrophobic and don’t remember feeling terror. But I definitely felt helpless. It was clear that we were never going to escape that suspended metal box without intervention from the outside. And sure enough, within 45 minutes or so we heard noises. The elevator doors opened. Friendly faces appeared above us. We lived to tell the tale.
Stuck. As helpless as we felt that day, there is a far worse feeling we experience: feeling hopelessly stuck in ourselves, believing we’ll never be able to change.
Marilynne Robinson’s fictional character Jack Boughton is that kind of stuck. He sabotages himself, hurts others, and damages relationships, sometimes through his own deliberate choices and sometimes without conscious intention. Cycling downward into prison and homelessness, he misses his mother’s funeral and breaks his father’s heart. He is “oppressed by that old feeling that he was enmeshed in a web of potential damage that became actual in one way or another if he so much as breathed” (Jack, 274).
Throughout the novel, Robinson presses the question: Can a man change? I resonate with that question because I’ve asked it many times, over many years, about myself.
Can I Change?
Can I change? Now squarely in middle age, with the vast possibilities of youth constricting, I’m coming to terms with certain limitations. I’ll never dunk a basketball or perform in a bluegrass band. Well and good. But much more painfully and troublingly, there are lingering places of brokenness and sin where I feel stuck.
I long to be less fearful and more bold in faith, more servant-hearted and less selfish, less concerned with my own success and more joyful at the success of others. But, oh, it’s so hard to grow! Progress is slow. I spin my wheels. I lose ground. I groan. I grieve. Like Jack, I have that old feeling of being enmeshed, caught, limited, stuck.
I wonder if you ever feel the same way?
Finding Hope in New
God gives us a vision of the future in Revelation 21, a vision filled with strong and vibrant hope for stuck people. John sees a new heaven, a new earth, and a new Jerusalem (Revelation 21:1–2). Then he hears God’s voice proclaiming, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5).
The fourfold repetition of the word new demonstrates its importance. So does the word behold at the beginning of the promise: “Behold, I am making all things new.” And not only is God’s promise of newness important; it’s also certain — for God immediately tells John to write it down (Revelation 21:5).
That one little word new is a life raft on ships sinking in despair. It’s a shaft of light in a dark room. It’s the key that will open a locked door, and the pick that will release the handcuffs. It’s the welcome sound of elevator repairmen arriving to save me and my friends. It contains a world of fresh possibility and eternal hope. New demonstrates that the future of the universe isn’t limited by its present reality, by its present resources (or lack thereof).
Newness Now and Later
There is newness on the way at the last day. And that newness comes from outside the system — from the Creator God who made everything from nothing. He says, “I am making all things new.” The word new shows that he’s still in the business not just of moving old things around, but of making new things. It shows that the law of entropy, the processes of decay, all the laws of nature, will not get the final word, because there will be at last an infusion of fresh, creative, renewing divine power into all we know.
There are two encouraging realities about this newness that God brings. First, it doesn’t refer just to the non-human material creation. People are included, too. Although in the new creation I’ll still be Stephen Witmer (not someone else), I’ll be an even better version of Stephen Witmer than the best Stephen Witmer I’ve aspired to be. The change to the new Stephen Witmer will be enormous.
Second, newness isn’t just something God will bring at the end of time. He specializes now in calling into being things that don’t exist (Romans 4:17). His work of new creation is experienced already in the present as people enter into and experience more deeply their union with Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).
This means that the word new opens up genuine present possibilities for us. We’re not limited to who we currently are, or even to what we’re able to make of ourselves. That longing so many of us feel to change, to improve, to grow (it’s why we make resolutions each year) is meant to be satisfied, and for all who believe, it will be fully satisfied one day. But even now there is divine help available from outside ourselves. Even while we wait for final deliverance, his divine power can get us unstuck where we are now.
Freed from Fixed Despair
In one of the central scenes of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, Sydney Carton reveals his love for Lucy Manette to her, together with his “fixed despair” that he will ever change his scoundrel ways. “I shall never be better than I am. I shall sink lower, and be worse.”
Even the flickering hope of shaking off sloth and sensuality that Lucy inspires in Sydney is “a dream, all a dream, that ends in nothing, and leaves the sleeper where he lay down . . .” When Lucy pleads with him to believe that he’s “capable of better things,” he replies, “I know better.” He’s stuck.
Many readers, over many years, have been drawn to the character of Sydney Carton — perhaps because we resonate with his despair, having sometimes felt that way ourselves. But, of course, there’s another reason: we thrill at the redemption he finds in the end. In laying down his life for Lucy’s husband, Carton finds his life. His fixed despair isn’t the final word. It turns out he does change, and the help he needs comes from outside himself (in the love Lucy has awakened in him). Lucy’s earlier plea for him to believe that he is “capable of better things” is echoed in his famous final line: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.” She was right after all.
Don’t believe the lie that you’re stuck forever. You’re not. There’s help available that far exceeds any resources you can muster up yourself. Hear God say, “Behold, I am making all things new” — even you.