When hope seems distant

Two days ago, I received a phone call from a friend, asking if I would do the memorial service for his mother.  Yesterday, my wife and I received the terrible news about another friend’s discovery of cancer.

Tomorrow, I will be giving a lecture on Christian hope.

And today?  Well, today I’m trying to hold yesterday and tomorrow together in one continuous story.  Because if there’s anything we need, both individually and in the body of Christ as a whole, it’s hope.

As suggested in a recent post, Christian hope is not the same as mere optimism.  It’s neither pie in the sky nor a breeziness about the future based on rising social indicators.  People who suffer from the brokenness of a sinful world, and those who have been betrayed by their own bodies, don’t need others to tell them to cheer up and look on the bright side.  They need hope–real hope, the hope that is given to us in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Life is a precious gift from God, one that we should never take for granted.  When disease and dementia threaten our well-being or that of our loved ones, we can rightly pray for a miracle.  There’s nothing wrong with begging God to be merciful in this way and at this time.

But our hope is not contingent on the miracle.  After all, decay and death will eventually come to every human being.  The question for us as Christians is whether we truly believe two things.

First: death is not the last word.  That, I think, is relatively uncontroversial.  Many if not most people already believe it, though they might mean vastly different things by it.  Christians recognize the resurrected Jesus as the “firstborn from among the dead” (Col 1:18, NIV), the one whose triumph over death paves the way for our own future resurrection.

But second: if death isn’t the last word, then neither is life–at least not the life that we already know, the one that we cling to.  Our life in these mortal bodies of ours is a gift; but preserving our present life is not God’s good plan for our existence.  We have another destiny.  Paul puts it bluntly:

It’s necessary for this rotting body to be clothed with what can’t decay, and for the body that is dying to be clothed in what can’t die.  And when the rotting body has been clothed in what can’t decay, and the dying body has been clothed in what can’t die, then this statement in scripture will happen:  Death has been swallowed up by a victory.  Where is your victory, Death?  Where is your sting, Death? … Thanks be to God, who gives us this victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!  As a result of all this, my loved brothers and sisters, you must stand firm, unshakable, excelling in the work of the Lord as always, because you know that your labor isn’t going to be for nothing in the Lord.  (1 Cor 15:53-58, CEB)

This is a man who can tell his beloved friends in Philippi that given his druthers, he’d go be with Jesus in a heartbeat–but if God wants him to stick around for their sake, well, that’s okay too (Phil 1:22-24).  That’s not a death-wish: that’s an eternal-life-wish, a heartfelt desire for life as it was meant to be, a life to which our present existence can only point dimly and imperfectly.

By all means, let’s keep praying for miracles of God’s mercy.  And at the same time, let’s also pray for God to keep kindling and enlarging our hope.  Our friends don’t need our pain-denying sunny optimism, nor the kind of resignation that paints prayer as a last-ditch act of defeat and desperation.  What we learn from Paul’s example is that even though our present situation is always uncertain, our future hope is not.

Let’s pray, therefore, that God would teach us to face the weakness of the former from the strength of the latter.  Let’s pray that God would make us a people of a deep and abiding hope.  When there are those among us for whom hope seems distant or even impossible, let us enfold them into a hope that we hold in trust for them.

For if it hasn’t already, the day may soon come when we need them to do the same for us.