In the 1860s, James Clerk Maxwell did some creative thinking about the relationship of electricity and magnetism. By then it was well established that magnetism produced electricity, or (more accurately), a magnetic field produced an electric field. For purposes of elegance and symmetry, Maxwell speculated, couldn’t the reverse be true? Couldn’t electricity produce magnetism?
Maxwell worked his theories into laws, and in the process completed four equations that described all electromagnetic phenomena: how charges attract and repel, how every magnetic pole had its opposite, and how a change in one produced the other. He theorized a series of waves, continually reversing from electric to magnetic, traveling through space. The speed of these waves turned out to be the known speed of light.
“Let there be light!” introduced the possibility of reversal—the dynamic of change—into the universe. Granting that I’m more poetic than scientific about physics, it seems to me that’s also the way redemption works.
The driving power of most stories is reversal: a character starts out in a state of equilibrium, whether good or bad, then something happens to throw his world off-balance. The rest of the story pictures his restoration to a new state of equilibrium. It’s the U-shaped plot: down, then up (unless it’s a tragedy, in which case the shape is often up, then down). Events are not random. The downward action propels the upward; the seeds of return are planted in exile. The classic biblical example is the story of Ruth: from stability down to destitution, then up to a new home and status.
Reversal is the theme of two Magnificats, Hannah’s and Mary’s: “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate,” sings Mary; “he has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). Hannah’s song is more personal, and might even be interpreted as unabashed gloating when she speaks of the barren woman raised to favor while “she who has many children [presumably her irritating rival, Peninnah] is forlorn” (1 Samuel 2:5). We’re not sure how to respond to this; exultation over the fate of the wicked makes us a little queasy in these morally spongy times.
But the proud must be brought down, lest they inherit the earth and destroy it. The humble must be exalted, to Satan’s shame and God’s glory. When the proud become humble, salvation occurs. Psalm 107 is a hymn to this dynamic: “Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man!” Rebellious prisoners languish in darkness, sinners wander near fatal pitfalls, sailors toss in a raging sea. “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.”
Psalm 107 tells how God finds the lost, frees prisoners, and brings sailors to a safe harbor. Those who set out swaggering will stumble and fall, but their fortunes reverse when they cry out to the Lord. The entire Bible is a giant U, tracing a precipitous fall and a sure and certain rescue—and along the way, many failures, many deliverances, many lowly exalted, many mighty brought low.
Reversal doesn’t just drive physics, it also drives history. “The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble bind on strength” (1 Samuel 2:4). Proud kings, empires, and great societies will decline, including ours. But notice how God imposes the dynamic of reversal on Himself. “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:9). Pure radiance, pulsing with the essence of both God and man, came down to a world that didn’t recognize Him.
Who was higher than the King of heaven? Who was brought lower than a helpless baby on a bed of straw … or a criminal on a cross? Christ traced the pattern of reversal by stooping low enough to shoulder His creation. We’re not stuck in an endless cycle or stalled by inertia. When He descends, He meets us at the bottom of the U. When He rises, so do we.