Most of us, I suspect, have either struggled with seasons of hopelessness or know someone who has. The challenges come in all shapes and sizes, and at different rates. One small challenge at a time isn’t usually enough to torpedo our hope, but a large and ongoing difficulty may be, or even a series of smaller insults that pile on top of each other with no let up. If we don’t have a lot of practice, it’s hard to hold onto hope when we feel overwhelmed by circumstances.
Previously, I suggested that the apostle Paul had both “hopes” (small-h) for the near future as well as “Hope” (capital-H) for eternity. As he told the Philippians, he knew that he would soon have to give a defense of the gospel to the emperor, and hoped to be vindicated (1:19) rather than put to shame (1:20). He was convinced that, for the time being, he would survive the ordeal and see the Philippians again (1:25-26). But what mattered most was that Christ would be exalted, even if it meant having to die (1:20-21). All of this was because he knew himself to be following in the footsteps of Jesus, who himself was obedient to death and exalted by God (2:5-11).
What does that mean for our own hope?
Think of someone struggling with a chronic health problem, physical or mental. They’ve seen their doctor. They’ve been referred to specialists. They’ve been told one thing by one expert and something else by another. They’ve tried a host of medications, by themselves and in various combinations, and at a range of dosages. They’ve tried a variety of treatments. Some of the treatments provide some relief, but not cure, and with the trade-off of unpleasant side effects.
Through all of this, the patient and the patient’s family may pin their hopes on this doctor or that treatment. And sometimes — Hallelujah! — it works out. Someone stumbles on the right diagnosis, which others should have seen all along; some new miracle drug or surgery works like magic; or God flat out heals the person, to the astonishment of all.
There is nothing wrong with pinning our hopes on these things, of longing for a cure, of praying for the end of suffering or pain. But we also know how often these hopes are disappointed. Symptoms improve, then worsen. Remission is temporary. Hopes are raised and then dashed.
It’s fine to have hopes, but they are fragile and uncertain.
They need to be grounded in Hope.
We need to understand the fullness of God’s story of redemption, which is not simply about allowing repentant sinners into heaven, but bringing wholeness once again to a world broken and spoiled by sin. We need to practice seeing ourselves as part of that ongoing story, a saga that extends backward to creation and forward into a life of resurrection in a renewed heaven and earth. We need to cultivate the ability to notice what God is doing even in the midst of the most disastrous of circumstances, and to be awed by and grateful for what we see.
All of this requires the habit of seeing beyond ourselves and our own story. That’s not to say that our stories aren’t important, but to say that they are neither ultimate nor primary. They cannot, by definition, be the source of their own transcendent meaning. Nor do we gain transcendence by making God part of our stories — we can only do this by locating our stories inside God’s.
When teaching parents of young children, I sometimes ask them to imagine what kind of relationship they want to have with their kids when they become teens: “If they get into trouble, do you want them to come to you for comfort and counsel? Do you want them to feel like they can trust you with their problems?” They all nod. But then comes my next question: “So what are you doing to establish that kind of relationship now? Don’t expect to be able to create that kind of trust overnight, after disaster strikes. You need to start cultivating it now.”
Something similar can be said of Hope. Anybody can have hopes. But Hope must be cultivated, tended, nurtured. Any adversity of any size is an opportunity to practice Hope-filled ways of thinking, seeing, and praying, to remind ourselves of bigger picture and the wider story. God wants us to trust in his sovereign goodness, and it’s harder to do that if we’re out of practice in noticing the good, or stuck defining what is good too narrowly in terms of small-h hopes.
I’m not telling you to give up your hopes.
Just don’t expect them to do the work of Hope.