Beginning at the end

Hopelessness. Have you ever felt it, or do you know someone who has? I know many of stories of seemingly hopeless situations, and you probably do too. Stories of unrelenting chronic pain. Of systemic injustice. Of deteriorating health and incurable disease. Of the downhill slide of civility in families, churches, and nations. Things keep going from bad to worse, and the situation drags on day after dreary day, week after weary week.

How long, Lord? we pray with the psalmist. Do something, please.

Try to imagine the apostle Paul in prison. He was beaten and then tossed into a Philippian dungeon without a trial. He was taken into Roman custody in Jerusalem, to protect him from an angry mob, then nearly beaten by his protectors. He was transferred to Caesarea and waited over two years for a trial while politicians dithered. He was transferred again to Rome and kept under house arrest (this is probably the time in which he wrote the letter to the Philippians). Eventually, he was released, but later was imprisoned again in Rome; according to tradition, this time he was martyred. Nobody knows for sure, but by some estimates, his ministry spanned about 35 years, and roughly five of them were spent under lock and key.

And yet…

As we’ve seen, this is the same man who says he rejoices in the proclamation of the gospel by others, even while he himself is in chains, even though some of the people doing the preaching are working from selfish motives and deliberately trying to hurt him (Phil 1:15-18). That joy is remarkable in itself, demonstrating Paul’s ability to see past his immediate circumstances to things of greater importance, particularly the progress of the gospel. Paul continues in the same vein, saying that he will both continue to hold onto both joy and hope no matter what happens to him:

Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my salvation. It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way but that by my speaking with all boldness Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. (Phil 1:18b-20, NRSVUE)

“Eager expectation and hope” are neither mere optimism nor wishful thinking. Here, I picture the father in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. Imagine the father longing for the return of his lost son, standing out in the street and gazing forlornly toward the edge of town. When the distant silhouette of his son appears on the horizon, he cranes his neck forward, eyes riveted on the approaching figure. That’s the imagery suggested by the word translated as “eager expectation” — straining physically and mentally toward an unfulfilled longing.

It’s instructive to note that the word is only used one other time in the New Testament, also in a passage by Paul:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God…in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its enslavement to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (Rom 8:19-21)

This is part of the lead-up to the famous words of 8:28 — “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” The verse is overused and misused to encourage something more like optimism than true Christian hope. In context, Paul is not saying, “I know things look bad right now, but just calm down because everything will work out. You’ll see.” Rather, his message is In this deeply broken world of ours, we may look forward eagerly to new life, but we have to groan like a woman in labor first. As he insists by the end of the letter, resurrection is our destiny, and knowing that should make all the difference.

That is the substance of our hope. Paul isn’t pretending his chains don’t exist. He does expect to be vindicated, and as it turns out, rightly so. But his hope isn’t just some naive or breezy form of optimism or a denial of the how dire a difficulty may actually be. It is rather the insistence that what we are in the hands of a gracious God who desires shalom for a broken creation and will one day bring it about.

The end is where Christian hope begins.