I grew up in New Jersey where most homes had some form of a basement, some finished and furnished, others skeletal and scary. Our basement was some combination of the two. At one point, it had been completely habitable, as family and friends had lived with us before I had the ability to remember; however, by the time I was a child, multiple flash floods had left it with a stench of mildew and the only thing inhabiting it were mice, spiders and an extra refrigerator. Every once in while, when our supply of Eggo waffles needed to be restocked or some missing decoration needed to be retrieved, someone would have to brave the basement. Even during the light of day, such a recon mission felt risky and dangerous; one did not even consider descending the stairs at night.
Basements can be intimidating, even to an adult.
Every human heart, every human story is equipped with a basement, a level far below the surface, mostly unseen and unvisited. Lurking in these basements are deep fears, painful experiences and a capacity for evil. Many people have beautiful heart homes, welcoming, tidy and bright. The upper stories are often moral, sometimes generous and occasionally shockingly beautiful. It is well that we acknowledge and appreciate the beautiful, moral, divine sparks that we see in our own lives and the lives of others; however, those who don’t know Christ will never see the desperate need for redemption and those who do will never fully appreciate the redemptive work of Christ until we brave the basement.
We live in a day and age that seems to have two polemic options: cynicism or optimism. Cynics look out over the landscape of human history and into the depths of the human heart only to report a hopelessness verdict. Mankind is broken and no system of government, education or religion seems to have the cure. Cynics live in the basement.
Optimists tend to see the silver lining of every situation and every person. They love the upper stories of the human heart, but even if they acknowledge the basement, which is rare, they surely never brave an good long assessment of it. Sentimentality, positive thinking and hoping for the best reign for the optimist, at least until war or tragedy or inescapable pain hit to close to home.
Both have an element of the truth to them, but neither is sufficient in itself.
Oswald Chambers had the unique perspective of having lived through not only of the Age of Optimism and Progress that followed on the heals of the industrial revolution but also the age of deep disillusionment and pessimism that was the residue after the the first World War. He wrote the following in his book on the suffering of Job, Our Ultimate Refuge.
“Sin, suffering, and the Book of God all bring a man to the realization that there is something wrong at the basis of life, and it cannot be put right by reason. Our Lord always dealt with the ‘basement’ story of life, with the real problem; if we only deal with ‘the upper story’ we do not realize the need of the redemption; but once we are hit on the elemental line, as this war has hit many men, everything becomes different.”
Christians step into a polarized world with the unique ability to be realists offering the hope of redemption. We know from the Word of God, human history and our own experience that humans simultaneously have scary basements and the capacity for evil and beautiful upper stories with the capacity for great good. The problem is that we tend to start with cleaning and straightening and teaching the upper story of the human heart before people have truly understood the basement. Only when we have looked long and hard at our own basements can we stand in awe of the God who braved the ultimate basement, death on the cross and the harrowing hell of separation from His Father, that we might be able to experience the fullness of the upper stories of the human experience.