I will restore to you the years that the locust has eaten.“ Joel 2:25
There’s this quote that goes around social media this time of year: “Autumn shows us how beautiful letting go can be.” Don’t get me wrong, it is a nice idea…but most days I do not agree. It might be more accurate to say, “Autumn shows us how things change before they are let go, and with time and perspective that can be beautiful.” (Not as tweetable, I suppose.) Fact is, I do not think the leaves are so beautiful once they fall and require hours of clean up or make my toddler slip. More importantly, I am not a person who has always found letting go a beautiful experience. I think it is important that we don’t always go calling sad things beautiful when they can be just plain painful or gut-wrenching. (This is something that’s easy for me to point out, as an artist and an enneagram 4!)
The fall leaves are beautiful as they change, but all it takes is a good storm and the trees are completely bare for months and months. Let’s be honest; much of the time, we don’t have any more say over when and how we’d like to let go than the average tree with leaves does. We only see the process as beautiful way after the fact, when we realize it was part of our journey towards being a different-looking tree. Following this logic, it isn’t the autumn that shows us how beautiful letting go can be, but the spring… when we get the new buds, when we’ve had months to come to terms with our leaves’ absence. (Done with this metaphor yet?)
I am not one of those Christians who can say that I have heard the voice of God. I have felt the presence of the Holy, sure, but not a heavens-parting mystical experience, per se. Although something incredibly mysterious occurred last week. I randomly came across another quote, (one that is not a common-place meme on Facebook) in two completely different locations within two days. I heard the words of the Prophet Joel, “I will restore to you the years that the locust has eaten” once on a (non-religous) podcast and, again, as a lyric in a (non-religious) song. If God spoke to us in memes, this was the peculiar GIF I was seeing everywhere. So, message received. Leave it to God to offer you something much more complex than a tree metaphor to unravel.
When I went searching for some context (I had a lot to learn about Joel), I found that the book is a short, yet complicated, depiction and exploration of themes around a catastrophic locust swarm that destroys Israel’s crops. Some scholars believe it is an allegory, a metaphor about Israel’s rebellion against God’s law, since the book contains no reference to any people or places that might give it a specific date of composition. Others believe the events actually occurred: a locust army destroyed multiple years’ worth of crops. Either way, reading the whole book left me wondering how this might apply to me now.
During this wondering, I learned more than I ever wanted to know about locusts. This type of devastation described in Joel meant a multi-year crop catastrophe. Crop-yield was life in the ancient world (something we shoppers in aisle 9 might not appreciate as much) and so the loss of crops meant the people were in serious danger. One commentator mentioned that when an entire crop was decimated, it also meant the seeds within the crop (from the previous year) were destroyed as well as the seeds that were supposed to be the basis for next year’s crop. Therefore, a locust attack meant not only losing everything they had, but everything they had worked for and everything they hoped to have in the future.
Not to be dramatic, but I can commiserate with Israel in that moment. I look back on my personal life and see periods where I was squandering my time and energy, searching for the wrong things, loving the wrong people, being physiologically enslaved by things that do not even matter now. I was so self-focused, so anxious, so hungry, so lonely. As far as my professional life as an artist, I spent years making music just to please others--I went after jobs that were not right for me, looking for validation and security that, even when it came, left me feeling empty and lost all over again. I wasted years trying to win approval from the wrong people, trying to “succeed” in ways I no longer even value. I had a God-sized hole in my heart and wasted so much time trying to fill it with many things that did not satisfy me long-term.
To move past it, I had to let go of the crops the locusts ate, sit in the painful place of a bare tree. I remember praying at that time, almost in desperation, asking to get off the roller coaster, to find true joy (if that was even possible), to stop caring so much about what people think, to be free from the torture that was the inside of my own mind. The answer I received from that prayer was this: the only way to do that was to let go, as painful as that was. And just like Israel, it felt like everything was lost beyond repair. The past, present and future felt full of regret and hopelessly lost forever. That process was not beautiful, but it was something better; it was necessary, healing.
What I think I am learning this week (after getting God’s meme via this verse popping up everywhere) is this good news: all that I lost in letting go will be returned to me as something far more meaningful.
When we are willing to see those years for the locust-eaten crops that they are, we can finally begin the painful process of pruning and (ultimately) healing. It is not a beautiful process until way after the fact when you begin to see that something new, something we desperately needed, begins to spring up.
Whether you lost years due to your own negligence, irresponsibility, or laziness, or through things that seemed to plague you out of nowhere— illness, addiction, depression, loss— no matter the reason for your lost time, no matter what brought you to this place of painfully letting go, in this Scripture we are promised something that is almost too good to be true. God not only gives Israel back the crop they lost to the locust army, not only the grain and wine harvest, but other gifts that they didn’t even see coming.
Maybe there is someone out there that needs to hear it: know that all that you let go of will be returned to you, too. And that whether or not you can believe it in the painful moments, let Joel and I remind you that “God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.” It is safe to say: that process—like the remnants of orange, yellow, and red underfoot— can be beautiful with just a little time and perspective.