Many people who are musically “in the know” regard Itzhak Perlman as the world’s finest violinist. Yet his violin playing isn’t the most noticeable feature about him. Perlman had polio as a child and it is a struggle just to get onto the concert-hall platform, while an assistant carries his violin for him. Perlman is the only violin virtuoso who has to sit to play.
There was a memorable occasion on which Perlman was only a few bars into a violin concerto, with the New York Philharmonic orchestra, when a string broke on his violin. He waved his bow to the conductor to stop. Perlman removed the broken string from his instrument and signaled the conductor to begin again. Then Perlman played the entire concerto on the three remaining strings of his violin. At the end of the concerto, when the thunderous applause had finally died away, Perlman said to the hushed audience, “Sometimes in life we have to do our best with what’s left.” Then he handed his defective violin to his assistant, retrieved his crutches, and shuffled off the platform, once more doing his best with what was left.
Many people who are extraordinarily gifted have, nevertheless, had to do their best with what was left.
Isaac Watts, known as “the father of the English hymn” wrote hundreds of hymns, many of which will never be forgotten. Few people know that Watts was frequently deranged for extended periods of his life when he wrote nothing and did nothing (apart from survive in the care of a kind family that protected him) as he waited until sanity returned. There were periods in his life when brief periods of sanity were the rule rather than brief periods of insanity.
What did Watts write when sanity caught up to him and his suffering abated? “Come, let us join our cheerful songs with angels ’round the throne; ten thousand thousand are their tongues but all their joys are one.” And, “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun doth his successive journeys run.” As ill as he was for so much of his life, Watts could still write from his heart, “My God, how endless is thy love!” Perhaps he is best known for “O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come.” Certainly we’ve all sung what may be his greatest hymn, “Joy to the world!”
It is clear that Watts’ literary output was a matter of doing his best with what was left, what was left of his sanity.
God does His best, too, with what’s left. But God does His best with what’s left of a fallen world. He does His best with a disfigured creation. But God doesn’t merely extract whatever good remains in it. Rather, He restores it.
Isaac Watts knew this so very well. He articulated it for us in his Hymn, “Joy to the world.” “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground”, cries Watts. Plainly it’s a reference to Genesis 3, the old, old story of the man’s fall. Sin opened up a vacuum between God and His creation. Into the vacuum there poured all sorts of evil, marring the creation that was once perfect. Now, “thorns and thistles” infest the ground, as the old, old story in Genesis tells us. Thorns and thistles infesting the ground speak of frustration. Anyone with even a tiny backyard garden knows that only ceaseless labor and ingenuity stave off the frustration of having the flower and vegetable-enterprise end in utter futility. As for “sins and sorrows”, they are as present in a fallen world as thorns and thistles. Jesus says, “Whoever sins is a slave to sin.” Since we all sin, we are all in bondage. Sorrows? “Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows”, says the psalmist. The Hebrew verb can as readily mean, “run after” as “choose.” “Those who run after another god multiply their sorrows.” The fall of humankind means that we do run after other gods; and just as surely do we multiply our sorrows.
Yet Watts can write, “Joy to the world,” because he knows that the coming of Jesus Christ means that the curse upon the world is overturned; it’s reversed. He knows that the blessings of Christ are as far-reaching as the curse has been. It was Jesus who said, “If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.” While those who run after other gods unquestionably multiply their sorrows, those who trust the Lord will multiply their joys.
“No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.”
“He rules the earth with truth and grace.” The same Lord who restores the world now rules it, and rules it with truth and grace. Rulers we are acquainted with rule, to be sure, but they don’t rule with truth. They rule with disinformation, duplicity, propaganda and spin or they rule with sheer, simple, self-interest and self-enrichment. Rulers rule, to be sure, but they don’t rule with truth.
Neither do they rule with grace. Our Lord, however, does. He rules with grace. Grace, throughout Scripture, is God’s faithfulness to His own promise to always be our God. Grace is His unchangeable resolve never to quit on us in anger or abandon us in disgust or dismiss us in impatience.
When God’s grace collides with our sin, it takes the form of mercy. And since mercy, is effectual in dealing with our sin, mercy results in salvation … peace with God. For this reason the threefold “grace, mercy and peace” is found over and over in Scripture.
In view of the fact that when God does his best with what’s left (a wounded, warped creation); He restores that creation wholly; in view of this our doing our best with what’s left is much more than merely salvaging a catastrophe: it’s an anticipation of the day when God’s perfect restoration is going to revealed; it’s a preview of the day when God’s restoration is going to be revealed as undeniable as it is unmistakable.
Watts did what he did not because there was nothing else to do besides fall into total despair. Watts did what he did because he foresaw the day when he, like the deranged man in the Gospel accounts, will be found seated, clothed and in his right mind.
When you and I “do our best with what’s left” we aren’t merely trying to put a happy face on a monumental misfortune. We are anticipating the day, says Watts himself, when our Lord “makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness and wonders of His love.”
In the light of all of this, what are we to do at this moment? Watts knew what we are to do: “let every heart prepare him room.” We are to receive, or receive afresh, Him whose blessings flow far as the curse is found. We are to receive, or receive afresh, the One who rules with truth and grace now and who is going to make the nations prove the glories of His righteousness and wonders of His love. We are to receive our Lord, by trusting Him as the Savior that He is.