Beauty for Ashes – Where does our hope come from?

Beauty for Ashes – Where does our hope come from?

Are you going through a tough time right now?

Have you ever felt as though you are completely burnt out, smouldering in pain or as though your flame is completely out? Perhaps this isn’t an uplifting, happy thought to get our day started, but the reality is that life isn’t always great. There are moments of loss, grief and disappointment, and perhaps for some of us, over this past year, the reality of this truth has hit us harder than ever before.

Sometimes, life is really tough.

Sometimes we experience immense pain.

Sometimes it can be hard to see the light in the midst of the darkness.

A few years ago now, I went through a really dark time in my life – I was suddenly struck by overwhelming anxiety. On the outside, everything looked as though it was going really well. I was settling into married life, finishing some of my academic studies. I was beginning to really settle into life in my favourite city, Lincoln. Yet in the midst of immense joy and excitement for the future, a dark shadow of anxiety suddenly engulfed me. In what felt like a moment, I was unable to see hope. In the midst of it all, I knew in my heart that my hope was and still is in Jesus, but I just couldn’t see it. Decisions became impossible, and functioning became my sole purpose each day. That time in my life genuinely was one of the hardest times I have faced so far.

The Ashes

We have all had times in our life when we feel as though we are sitting in the ashes.

Isaiah 61, verse 3 says this:

‘The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.’

For me, the past year through the pandemic, and situations I have journeyed through myself or alongside others, has raised a very significant question:

Is there hope in the midst of suffering, death, or even Covid, and if there is, how do we find it?

In verse 3, it says that God will bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes. God can take that situation that is causing you pain, and turn it into beauty.

I looked up this passage in an interlinear Bible, displaying the original language of the text next to the English translation, and what we can see is incredibly powerful! Originally written in Hebrew, you can see that the word for beauty and the word for ashes are written with the same letters but in a different order:

ְ פְּאֵ֜ר
pə-’êr (Beauty)

’ê-p̄er (Ashes)

This is such a beautiful image of the transforming power of Jesus. God takes the ash, the pain, the dust and the dirt, and refashions and restores it into the always intended beauty. He doesn’t change it; he rearranges it. He might not change your circumstances, but He can rearrange your perspective. He does not change who you are but restores you to the beauty before the ashes. The incredible redemption story is the restoration of what was always intended by God!

In the midst of the ashes, when everything seems lost, God is there. He doesn’t change it; he rearranges it.

The Beauty

An additional observation I found fascinating in this verse is that although we translate that Hebrew word as beauty in this passage because that is the representative meaning for us in the 21st century, the literal translation is a beautiful headdress, traditionally worn in Jewish culture by a bride. There is a duality of meaning here. Firstly, the contrast between a joyous day of marriage, and the sorrow of mourning, as during times of grief and loss it was traditional to put ash on your head as a sign of mourning. There is no more opposing emotional experiences than that of a wedding compared to that of a funeral. God takes our grief and sorrow and turns it to joy.

Secondly, we could draw a parallel between Jesus and the Church as his bride, the beautiful redemptive picture of humanity in all of its sin and shame being restored as the bride of Christ through the sacrifice of Jesus. Isaiah paints this prophetic picture in the Old Testament of what is to come! There is always hope!

The Story of Job

One of the Bible characters that really did experience suffering and loss on an immense scale is Job.

The book of Job is a story of loss and suffering. Job was a man of good character; he is described and as blameless and God-fearing. He is wealthy and successful, yet God allows Satan to test Job. In one day, Job receives four messages. Each one bearing the news that his livestock, servants, and ten children have all died due to attacking invaders or natural disasters.

Can you even imagine the heartbreak and loss Job must be feeling at this moment? Yet He still decides to worship and bless God.

Then Job gets ill and is covered with boils. Even his wife encourages him to give up and die! But still, Job blesses God and maintains his integrity.

For the 33 chapters following, we read of Job’s friends giving him lots of terrible advice, and condemnation! They mistakenly blame his sufferings and all that he is going through on his personal sins. In reality, God was testing and growing him.

Then finally, the Lord speaks to Job. God discusses some difficult questions with Job, ultimately bringing him to an understanding that humans do not always understand what God is doing through a situation, and in their lives.
At the end of the story, Job says, “I have declared that which I did not understand”. God then blesses Job with twice as much as he had at the beginning of the story. God doesn’t explain Job’s suffering to him but asks him to trust in him and his wisdom and character. Sometimes we go through things in life and ask why. We go through some things that we might never know the reason for; we might not ever get an explanation from God. When we find ourself in this situation, will we be able to trust in God, as Job did?

There is a moment in Job’s story in 2:8 where it says that ‘he sat in the ashes’. Very few of us have experienced loss to the same degree as Job, but we all have moments in our lives where we just feel as though we are sitting the ashes, surrounded by the shadows of what we feel as though we once had.

Where is God?

Where is God in the midst of our pain and suffering? When our hope is shattered, or our dreams feel lost? He is with us in the middle of it all. He is our hope in our suffering.

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” – Deuteronomy 31:6.

One of the biggest myths in the Christian world is that everything is great and rosy when you become a Christian. The reality is that the Bible tells us clearly that this simply isn’t true.

John 16:33, “In this world you will have trouble, but take courage, for I have overcome the world.”

The splendour of the Christian walk is that although there are moments of sorrow and pain in life, we have God with us, and the Holy Spirit within us, every step of the way. Even in the darkest of moments, we are never alone.

Jesus came to bring beauty from ashes. Our hope is found in Jesus.

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