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Hope When Everything Is Hard

A review of The In-Between Place by Kat Armstrong

Published on:
February 22, 2021
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4 min.
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I love The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, except for one episode where it becomes clear the talented comic is going to bomb on stage—over and over. After all, failure proceeds growth and she has lessons to learn about getting back in the saddle, humility, perseverance, yada yada. As soon as I realized the writers expected me to sit through a montage of Midge squirming in front of her mic while heaping public shame on her own head gig after gig, I skipped to the end. I couldn’t bear it. All of you serious film and TV watchers can direct your disappointment my way. I get it. 

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If it were up to me, all pain, suffering, confusion, frustration, and humiliation would get the skip-to-the-end treatment. I know I’m not the only one. Most of us don’t crave the uncomfortable—we question it. How did this happen to me? Why do I have to deal with this? What do I do now? In her newest book, The In-Between Place: Where Jesus Changes Your Story, Kat Armstrong comes alongside readers who feel stuck in one way or another, but instead of arriving with simplistic answers or a fast forward option to skip over the circumstances that require them, she introduces us to a God who has never been thwarted by the times in life we’d rather avoid. As Armstrong says in her introduction, “You and I might feel lost, but hope isn’t. He’s making his way to us now.” 

Jesus the Generous

The In-Between Place infuses hope where we need it most in an unexpected way, through the familiar story of Jesus and the woman at the well. The tale, found in John 4, regularly makes the preaching rounds. From most pulpits, the story goes: Jesus asks a woman for a drink. Jesus calls out that woman’s wanton sexual sin. Woman repents from her sexual immorality. The moral of the story? Don’t sleep around, and if you have been, then go and sin no more. Jesus is watching. 

While our sexual morality matters quite a bit to God, Armstrong argues that’s not what Jesus had in mind with the Samaritan woman. Instead, Armstrong tells a different three-part story: Make peace with your past (John 4:1–6), find hope in your present (John 4:6–18), and step confidently into your future (John 4:16–42). Together, this triptych offers a very different image of Jesus from the one who traveled through Samaria to shame a woman into salvation. “If the Samaritan woman’s conversation with Jesus teaches us anything,” explains Armstrong, “it’s that sometimes Jesus saves our greatest spiritual breakthroughs for our in-between places in life.” 

Of the lessons in The In-Between Place, the one every reader is sure to grasp in parting is that Jesus’s love for us is unstoppable regardless of what life brings our way. Through each page, Armstrong transfers her own confidence in God and certainty in Jesus to meet us wherever we find ourselves. The giver of good gifts doesn’t hold back when we feel stuck. Oftentimes he proves even more generous in our in-between places. 

Jesus in Shechem

According to Armstrong, in-between places are those times when we find ourselves in a “holding pattern” and “circumstances that throw a wrench in your dreams or plans.” We have all been there at one point or another: “in-between jobs, in-between kids, in-between our hopes and dreams and the cruelty of real life, in-between sickness and health, in-between confusion and clarity, in-between divorce and remarriage, in-between the ICU and death, in-between the cross and the new heaven and new earth.” 

The places we fill with questions are the places God fills with hope.

Regardless which of these can be counted among our own, Armstrong has a name for it—Shechem, a dot on an ancient map you’ve likely never thought twice about. But it’s right there at the well in Samaria, in the little town of Sychar, which Armstrong notes is called Shechem throughout the Old Testament. As she traces the events that came to pass in Shechem—all wicked in shocking ways—it becomes clear that Jesus’s pit stop wasn’t merely culturally contentious. It was ominous. When Jesus sits down at that well in John 4, readers should be asking themselves, “What’s the next horrible thing bound to happen in that God-forsaken place?” 

As one who delights in finding the biblical details often overlooked in our readings of a text, I was enthralled by Armstrong’s tracing of Shechem through the Bible. Her scholarship added depth and nuance to a story I have, quite honestly, grown sick of hearing. While the details she displays intrigued me, they also arrived at a meaningful interpretation of the text. Armstrong doesn’t indulge in knowledge for its own sake and she refuses to temper the conclusions she discovered by mining those details. “We think Jesus doesn’t belong in bad places,” but the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman teaches otherwise. “He enters into our broken places like he owns them—and he redeems them. No place is too broken, no person too far gone for Jesus to change the narrative with his presence.” The places we fill with questions are the places God fills with hope. 

You Don’t Need a Skip-to-the-End Button

All of the beauty gleaned from The In-Between Place is only possible because of Armstrong’s work to make serious scholarship accessible. She is first and foremost a Bible teacher. A self-proclaimed “preacher girl,” she has spent the last decade teaching at conferences, chapel services, and at organizations like Polished, the nonprofit she co-founded that connects young professional women to each other to explore faith together. In her sophomore release, Armstrong leverages years of honing her study skills and her craft of communication. 

She similarly embraces the task of validating her claims with copious amounts of footnotes, all of which I will be scouring for sources for future teaching and projects of my own. Her first book, No Holding Back, is well worth the read, but in The In-Between Place, Armstrong has leaned into her most evident teaching strengths and it shows. Her detailed exegesis and academic research are served to readers in easy-to-understand ways as she moves seamlessly into recognition of who God is and why that matters to daily life. As a Bible teacher myself, I found myself regularly taking notes on how Armstrong taught as opposed to simply what she taught. 

The In-Between Place meets readers in their in-between place with the hope of Jesus—God with you. It’s a timely reminder that we don’t need the skip-to-the-end button because we have all we need to keep going in the gospel until Christ returns to make all things new.

Kelsey Hency
Kelsey is the Editor-in-Chief of Fathom. She holds an MA from Dallas Theological Seminary. You can find her on Twitter or Instagram.

Cover image by Efe Kurnaz.

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