Cuttings of yellow forsythia bloom on my coffee table as March threatens its last (fingers crossed) snowstorm… Finally. I confess a sigh of relief at the resurgence of sunshine, warmth and colors other than brown, gray and white. Winter’s grip on the Earth is growing weak in the face of spring’s insistent return, yet its bleak work has primed me for the impudent joy of crocuses blooming beside melting snowdrifts. Like winter’s firm discipline has prepared the tired earth for sprouting seeds, so God’s work through trials and loss – his humbling craftsmanship – tenders me into a receptive vessel for his grace and mercy.
Winter serves a harsh, humiliating reality check to our illusory independence from nature. For all of our warm houses and remote-start cars, we are a bunch of wimps – especially in the DC area – as far as cold is concerned. By this March even my stalwart Midwestern family confessed that the cold has driven them in full retreat to the protection of home and hearth. Similarly the lessons in humility that God, the perfect Tutor, has given me – the loss of relationships, influence or control – have broken so much of my autonomy from him and others. I increasingly long for the challenging guidance of Scripture, the comforting strength of prayer, the life-giving love of the body of Christ. As I brokenly relinquish trusting in myself, I become childishly dependent on God’s ordinary means of grace, like southern Californians burrowing into down parkas at the threat of sixty degrees.
For me, God’s mercy is like springtime, unexpected and delightfully shocking just when I have accepted walking one step at a time in the heart’s blizzard. I cannot deny the security and comfort of that small trust – akin to curling up by a hearth in an angry snowstorm. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6-7, ESV). In fact it is in the peacefulness of that humility that God’s mercy arrives, to the heart that echoes the author of Lamentations, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:21-23, ESV). The indisputable faithfulness of God’s goodness is the cause for my hope. It is as unavoidable as the inevitable advent of spring. True, certain, unerring and abundant. I have seen God’s mercy before and trust in its return. In fact, I trust its presence even now, working quietly under the hard frosted ground of my heart and the cold bitter branches of my life. How I wish I would trust God more though! To a heart prepared by humbling and loss of self, the revelation of His mercy astounds in the most extravagant displays. How dumbfounded is my meager trust in God’s goodness when His life-giving works burst forth into view! How breathtaking is God’s glory when my watchful, weary, scarcely-hoping eyes look up to the warmth of His love. It compels thankfulness and praise like warm mornings stir irrepressible birdsong.
Words fail me. What is this tension between the hard, deep content of submitting to confusing loss and the ecstatic, airborne gratitude of receiving God’s abundant love?? 18th century Anglican preacher William Romaine elucidates better than I can the interdependency of our spiritual winters and springs. In explaining the vitality of humbled trust to rejoicing thankfulness, he says,
True poverty of spirit is needful, not only to bring the sinner to Christ—but also to preserve the believer in communion with Him; for so long as he walks by faith, everything will tend to promote this communion. He will grow more sensible of his weakness—and that will make him stronger in the Lord. He will know more of his own heart—which will humble him, and keep him dependent on the grace of Jesus…To the humble, God delights to give grace—and they delight to return Him His glory. The more grace He gives—the more glory they gladly return. And He does give more grace, and He receives it back again in thanks and praise. Blessed grace! by which this holy fellowship is maintained. Happy humility! by which the heart, being emptied of self, is made capable of receiving the fullness which is of God.
As spring blooms in the soil of winter’s preparation, so the mercy of the Lord unfurls its glory to the humbled heart. Is it not a wondrous gift itself that he first gives us winter? “I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the LORD; let the humble hear and be glad. Oh, magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together!” (Psalm 34:1-3, ESV).