Over the past two decades, I’ve read a number of Christian books that make the case for walking alongside people in need and offer a framework for how to do it. Some have been written by prominent theologians, others by pastors, activists, missionaries, and organizational leaders. They’re all compelling and helpful. But I’ve always found the actual process messier, murkier, and more protracted than the tidy frameworks, guidelines, and stories of transformation would suggest.
Seven years ago, when my husband and I agreed to serve as lay leaders over a racially and socioeconomically diverse church community, we had no idea how challenging it would be. One family who became homeless lived with us for just under five months. During that time, we worked closely with them to resolve their most pressing concerns. But we were also busy helping others under our care with problems ranging from dating issues and financial stress to pornography addiction, domestic violence, mental illness, racism, sexual assault, and divorce.
Even in that small community, the needs were overwhelming. And the books we had consulted didn’t provide us with much practical or spiritual guidance on navigating the mess in real time. Even the pastors weren’t sure how to help us. They mostly said, “Thank you for all you’re doing. We’re praying for you.” Eventually, burnout set in and forced us to take a sabbatical.
For a while, we went back to our comfortable, upper-middle-class existence, but the conviction to walk alongside the needy didn’t subside. We had seen too much evidence that God “is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18). We still believed that our gifts, time, energy, and resources were given by God to serve, love, and refresh others.
In time, we befriended two people from a background of multigenerational poverty and trauma. They struggled with chronic housing insecurity, disability, and other forms of disenfranchisement. After supporting them through a health and housing crisis for a year, we decided to make a serious financial and relational commitment to walk alongside them for the long haul. If we thought our previous experiences prepared us for this commitment, though, we were wrong. It brought a whole new awareness of how the combination of structural injustice and personal sin derails people and conspires to keep them derailed. It also forced us to wrestle much more deeply and intensely with our own sin and insufficiency.
Servants and Sinners
Last fall, just as some of the pressures with our ministry reached new heights, a new book arrived in our mailbox: Eric McLaughlin’s Promises in the Dark: Walking with Those in Need Without Losing Heart. In it, we found both a fellow traveler and a contemplative field guide for the weary servant.
McLaughlin’s thesis is that when we follow Jesus into places of need, the toll it takes on our hearts reveals the unmistakable reality that we are not merely helpers, healers, and servants but also sufferers, sinners, and broken creatures in need of our own healing and renewal. As such, the only way to face the tragedy and brokenness in the world without burning out or becoming cynical is to admit our own need, cling to the promises of God, and anchor our hope in the sea of his faithfulness.
It sounds simple enough, but I read many of McLaughlin’s pages through tears, stopping frequently to pray and process. The book reads like a confessional, but it’s also instructive and convicting. Every bit of wisdom and insight has been hard earned. McLaughlin is an American family-practice physician living, working, and raising three children in Burundi, a mostly rural nation in the heart of sub-Saharan Africa. Burundi experienced decades of political instability following its independence from Belgium in 1962, including two genocides and a civil war. It remains one of the world’s poorest nations, coming in 185th out of 189 countries and territories, according to the Human Development Index. McLaughlin and his wife, Rachel, an obstetrician/gynecologist, have been there since August 2013.
The circumstances in which McLaughlin is ministering are extreme, but the lessons he has learned in Burundi apply anywhere there is human need—in other words, everywhere. In fact, I could have used a book like this when I first started working as a physician assistant at one of the world’s most advanced cancer hospitals back in 2000. Even though it was a state-of-the-art institution, I still witnessed daily the tragic limits—and sometimes the dire consequences—of human intervention. I struggled to find meaning amid all the powerlessness, suffering, death, and grief.
McLaughlin’s book is a courageous and transparent treatment of things most missional people avoid discussing openly but most assuredly wrestle with—futility, failure, insufficiency, despair, guilt, fear, pride, doubt, lack of resolution, unanswered questions, and suffering. But it gives equal weight to the things of God that intersect with them—grace, hope, divine goodness, promise, consolation, patience, daily rhythms, prayer, light, community, resurrection, and redemption. Each chapter explores a single theme through story, confession, self-reflection, God’s promises, and God’s character, concluding with a list of questions for readers.
The God of Eucatastrophe
On numerous occasions, McLaughlin refers to eucatastrophe, a word coined by author J. R. R. Tolkien. In cinema, the term refers to a sudden, joyful turn of events at the end of a story when all seems lost. Unlike deus ex machina, an inept plot device used to wrap up an otherwise dead-end storyline, eucatastrophe is built on the assumption that rescue is woven into the grand narrative from the start.
Christian hope, McLaughlin asserts, is built on the belief that God specializes in eucatastrophe. If humanity had been left to its own devices after the Fall, we would know nothing but catastrophe. But God has revealed himself to be invested in our rescue. As McLaughlin puts it, “Tolkien said the incarnation of Jesus was the eucatastrophe of history, and the resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the incarnation.” And Jesus’ return to fulfill his promise in Revelation 21:5—“I am making everything new!”—will be the eucatastrophe of death, pain, and suffering. It will bring a sudden glimpse of previously unseen truth—that, all along, all things have been in the process of being restored. That means everything we do here and now, no matter how seemingly insignificant or futile, is being woven into that mighty arrival, that joyful rescue, that stunning renewal and resurrection.
McLaughlin underscores the point: “My conviction is that, as this hope of future resurrection shapes us… the false dichotomy of hope for the present world and hope for the future world rightly dissolves, for the same one is transforming all things with his single living hope.” This hope empowers us to live and toil faithfully in the constant, unresolvable tensions of the difficult present. Hope, then, is not a state of mind we generate so much as a gift we receive. And yet, it can be learned and cultivated as we fix our gaze on God, the weaver of eucatastrophe.
I read the book several times before grasping the significance of the eucatastrophe metaphor. In my first reading, I was so flooded by painful memories from years of taking care of sick patients and years of doing difficult ministry that the negative emotions were front and center. I realized I had gotten through those years with very different and not necessarily healthy coping strategies. In my second reading, I attempted to retroactively apply what I was reading to past experiences, to create meaning out of them in new ways. In my third reading, I almost shouted for joy at the thought of God lovingly, wisely, and actively weaving every present struggle into his grand eucatastrophe.
More Consolation Than Desolation
No book that tackles suffering, injustice, death, and evil would be complete without delving into the realm of theodicy. Promises in the Dark does this in a way that’s neither overly philosophical nor overly simplistic.
McLaughlin acknowledges the questions people typically ask: “Where is God in all this suffering? If God is all-good and all-powerful, then why is there evil in this world?” Instead of engaging those questions, though, he opts for a different question based on his observation that, even amid the worst he has witnessed, he has “never been so acutely aware of the positive presence of the goodness of God in the world.”
That question is this: “If God isn’t there or he isn’t good, then where did all the goodness come from? Its presence also cries out for explanation. If we could speak of the ‘problem of evil,’ could we also speak of a philosophical ‘problem of good’?” Indeed, training ourselves to recognize the good that’s present, even amid so much suffering, can offer a powerful safeguard against encroaching cynicism.
McLaughlin also points out that many of us approach the problem of evil wearing post-Enlightenment blinders. We tend to think of the Enlightenment in terms of positive and expansive progress rather than constraint, but parts of its legacy may actually hinder the sort of flourishing that God intended. Prior to the Enlightenment—going all the way back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—people defined God by the stories of his relationship with his people, and those stories thoroughly shaped their understanding of his character. But afterward, people began to define God by abstract concepts like omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. Thinkers and theologians have long attempted to define and understand evil, but only after the Enlightenment did Christians really begin struggling to reconcile the presence of evil with their abstract conceptions of God.
If, when faced with suffering, evil, and death, we choose to define God by the stories of his relationship with his people, we will find far more consolation than desolation. God’s story with us is that Jesus voluntarily subjected himself to all the suffering, injustice, and forsakenness that human beings endure. As McLaughlin observes, “He walked the paths of suffering and injustice. He knows the pain of violence and hatred and all their blood-soaked consequences.” As a result, “suffering is holy ground.” As for death, whose sting we still feel acutely in the present, we know it is the last enemy to be defeated. “In a strangely redemptive mystery,” McLaughlin writes, “death, like suffering, has become sacred ground because God has walked there as well.”
The Struggle to Remember
After I finished Promises in the Dark the first time, I had a hard time summarizing it to my husband without looking at it. I would start telling him how deeply it had affected me then find myself unable to articulate why.
After two more readings, I realized that the problem wasn’t the book itself but the condition of my heart. I must confess that despite many years of walking with God and following him into hard places, I’m still struggling to incorporate the promises of God, the story of his relationship to me in Christ, and the hope of the resurrection into the language of my thought life. I know God’s promises. I’ve known them for decades. But my heart forgets them so easily when confronted with evil that steals and destroys.
It’s reassuring that the author does too. After writing 15 chapters on how God’s promises sustain us, McLaughlin confesses that sometimes the signs pointing to Jesus’ kingdom feel insufficient. He rehashes how hard it is to “hope in the promises of God while our feet still pound the dust of a world full of brokenness.” He confesses his fear and his impulse to escape to safety and shelter. It’s a comfort to read those words. You find a sense of fellowship in them.
Hearkening back to the charge Moses gave the Israelites in Deuteronomy 6:6–9, McLaughlin writes, “We must return again and again to God’s promises. We must write them on our doorposts and speak them to one another as we walk along the roads of our world. We must sing them together and let them direct our dreams.” After reading his epilogue, you almost get the sense that he wrote the book to embed these truths more deeply in himself. We’re all like the person in James 1:23–24 who looks at his face in a mirror and immediately forgets what he looks like. So we rely not on our own ability to remember and persevere but on others to speak, sing, and write the truth to us over and over until our race is finished.
Judy Wu Dominick is a writer and speaker living in Dallas.
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