'Good Catastrophe': God's specialty

Author and pastor Benjamin Windle has spent a lot of time searching for hope amidst hardship. “Too much time,” he chuckles.

Windle spent months of this time searching for a word to describe the potential for pain to bring about good. Striking out in English, he turned to Spanish, Greek, Latin and beyond. In the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, Windle finally found what he was looking for: eucatastrophe – good catastrophe.

“Tolkien had this philosophy,” Windle explains, “that at the point where you thought all hope was done – the darkest moments, the bleakest outlook – at those moments there’s ‘a sudden turn’ towards happiness and joy.”

A young J.R.R. Tolkien Wikimedia / TuckerFTW

Windle was fascinated to find that the philosophy permeates not only the Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s other writings, but also his own story. As a young man, Tolkien was sent home from World War I with a debilitating fever, which almost killed him. In hindsight, what seemed like (and was!) a catastrophe saved Tolkien from one of the deadliest battles in human history and gave us some of the most beloved literature of the 20th century.

“Hardship and hope together can do something for us that a problem-free life never could.” – Benjamin Windle

Our catastrophes

Windle wonders whether we have the cultural resilience to meet our catastrophes. “Global upheaval, division, uncertainty about the future, [struggling] economies, conflict. That’s just the landscape that we’re operating in.

“Never mind the challenges we face in our own mental health: anxiety, fear, depression. We have a loneliness epidemic. In the US, the CDC’s most recent survey discovered 57 per cent of teenage girls say they felt persistently sad or hopeless. Three in five. In my generation, Millennials, one in four say they don’t have a single friend to call during difficult times.”

Acknowledging that hopelessness isn’t unique to any generation, Windle is gutted to see that, unlike in his youth, today’s young people look to the future as though the world is getting worse.

He contrasts this with members of previous generations, such as his grandmother, the happiest person he knew. Only in her latter years did Windle hear about her experiences fleeing Athens during World War II, having watched a mass war crime occur right in front of her. He was shocked, wondering how she could be so happy when he expected to see trauma and sadness.

“That’s why I’ve dug into this idea that perhaps hardship and hope together can do something for us that a problem-free life never could.”

“Real hope is not platitudes; it’s not slogans; it’s not clichés – not for people who are going through real pain.”

False hope

Windle wants to debunk the version of hope that means removing and avoiding every challenge. “We spend our lives avoiding pain or running from challenges,” he explains. “But the things that disrupt our lives are often the things that grow us the most.”

When we ask our grandparents about their lives, Windle notes, they don’t talk about the easy times. They talk about sickness, family disruption and breakdown. In his case, they talk about war crimes, immigration and restarting life. “They talk about the crucibles and challenges of life as the things that really made them who they were.”

As an illustration, Windle suggests grabbing a piece of paper and a pen and charting times of breakthrough, when you grew the most. “There’s a very good chance,” he predicts, “that your greatest growth is linked to the crucibles of life, the challenges. They will grow you and unlock things in you that you will never get through leisure, entertainment and ‘the good life’. That way of seeing things allows us to embrace challenges.”

Windle describes his practice of ‘riding the bicycle’. One wheel represents challenge and hardship, the other growth and flourishing. “Life always travels with both wheels in motion every day,” he reflects. “There’s a symbiotic relationship between the two.” No day is so perfect that all challenges are avoided; none too bad to be thankful for breath in our lungs. “Don’t delay your sense of joy until all of your problems vanish in life.”

But Windle warns that adversity on its own does not necessarily mean growth. Growth comes through hardship and hope. As well as advocating for hope, he fights against hype. “Real hope is not platitudes; it’s not slogans; it’s not clichés – not for people who are going through real pain.”

Job’s hardship

One of history’s most profound explorations of hope in hardship is the Old Testament book of Job. Windle thinks many commentators downplay the ‘uglier side’ of this story. Here’s one way to read it: ‘A blameless man of character and integrity loses everything; he has hope in God, and God gives it all back to him two times over.’

“What I’ve come to see about Job as a father of three children myself is that you cannot come to me and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to replace three of your kids for six. Nothing can replace a child.” Far from being an equation or a product, Job deeply loved his children.

“It’s a more uncomfortable way of reading the story,” Windle concludes, “to recognise that not all of the pain is resolved in this man; not all of the questions are answered.”

All of us wrestle with Job’s questions. Where is God in the midst of what I’m going through?

The first step is to decouple hope from outcomes. Even Job did not get to reverse the outcome of his catastrophe, a reality Windle wants us to look ‘square in the eyes’.

So what was Job’s hope? What enabled him to maintain his witness, character and integrity? How did he maintain his faith in God? Where did he get the energy to rebuild his life and dream again for the future?

“Hope is not God’s side hustle.”

Job’s hope

“Where there are dark clouds looming over our horizon, we need something of the bright hope of Jesus,” Windle reminds us. In fact, in a poignant passage, Job laments, “[God] has uprooted my hope like a tree”. Yet he concludes, “I know that my redeemer lives… I myself will see him with my own eyes… How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25-27).

At the end of the story, Windle expects God to come with comebacks to all the accusations of Job’s companions. Instead, he simply doesn’t answer them. He challenges Job, ‘Where were you when I made the world?’ (38: 4). God exposes how unqualified Job is to advise him.

What hope, then, does God offer Job? In Windle’s words, “More than any belief, idea, concept or explanation, God seems to present himself as the ultimate solution.

“In my faith journey, that has led me to the story of Jesus; he has brought immense hope to me and my family. I’ve found hope in the Christian narrative that I haven’t found anywhere else, in the promise of an eternal home. Hope in Jesus allows me to see the redemptive hand of God in every wrong and imperfection and crisis right here, right now.

“I studied Scripture start to end with one goal in mind: what did God do when people were at their lowest? What I discovered is that God specialises in hard situations. He is most at work, most active, most powerful, most strategic when the odds are stacked against people, whether that’s lifting people out of pits, storms, dry valleys, deep waters, shipwreck, islands, deserts, wilderness, even graves. God showed up and redeemed.

“Hope is not God’s side hustle. God is there for you, and the harder the fight of life gets, the harder he is fighting for us.”

Benjamin Windle is an Author, Pastor, and Millennial/Gen Z Specialist. He has been a local church Pastor for over 20 years, based in both the US and Australia.

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