One of the criticisms of last year’s Annie was that her hard-knock life didn’t seem that hard, at least compared to the original setting of a Depression-era orphanage. For a better and perhaps more iconic portrayal of the hard-knock life, there’s Sylvester Stallone’s Oscar-winning Rocky. Stallone gave us a convincing underdog, and wisely wrote a realistic ending: Rocky goes the distance, but doesn’t win.
The movie’s well-deserved success gave rise to a whole series of sequels. Unfortunately, each had a more improbable and almost cartoonish ending than the last. As one critic of the day observed, in the requisite climactic fight scenes, enough punches were landed “to kill a whole locker room full of boxers.” (Supposedly, for Rocky IV, Sylvester Stallone wanted more realism, and told co-star Dolph Lundgren to punch him for real. Let’s just say it caused an unanticipated delay in the production schedule.) Then up pops the irrepressible Rocky, ready to pummel his next opponent in another sequel.
Even if we can’t believe the ending, at some level, we both expect and enjoy it. As suggested in the previous post, we like that feel-good movie formula, in which the down-and-out protagonist beats the odds and comes out on top. It gives us hope.
The question is, to what extent do we expect our own lives to play out the same way?
I can tell stories, and so can you. Here’s a Christian brother or sister suffering through some trial: a medical issue, a broken relationship, a lost job. He or she confides in a friend, and is told, in so many words, “Don’t worry! Have faith! Pray about it! God will make everything better, you’ll see.” The friend may even trot out a Bible verse or two, often Jeremiah 29:11 or Romans 8:28, ripped out of context and forced to mean, “God loves you and wants the best for you — so just be faithful and you’ll get what you want.”
Yes, sometimes, we get to celebrate a miraculous intervention of God. But other times…not. And tragically, the sufferer may be directly or indirectly blamed for a lack of faith.
Biblical hope is not the same as Hollywood hope. We are rightly encouraged to cry out to God in the midst of our suffering. But sometimes our prayers seem to go unanswered. Again, we have stories: the terminal illness that wasn’t healed, despite the prayers of the saints; the child who died; the husband who didn’t come back. Why? Did God fall asleep? Did God renege on his promises?
Or did we misunderstand what hope is really about?
I’m reminded here of the potentially disturbing words found in the midst of Hebrews 11, in which the reader is reminded of the great heroes and heroines of the ancient biblical stories: Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and others. All lived by faith, trusting God’s promise. All lived in the hope of the promise fulfilled.
And yet, as the author of Hebrews tells us:
All of these people died in faith without receiving the promises, but they saw the promises from a distance and welcomed them. They confessed that they were strangers and immigrants on earth. People who say this kind of thing make it clear that they are looking for a homeland…they are longing for a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God isn’t ashamed to be called their God—he has prepared a city for them. (Heb 11:13-14, 16, CEB)
They died without receiving the promises? On the Hollywood feel-good version of life — Annie escapes the orphanage, Rocky defeats opponents twice his size — this is treason. But that’s because the story that matters most to us is the one in which we are the main character, and the drama that needs to be resolved is about what happens to us before I die.
What the writer of Hebrews is describing is a different way of imagining life, in which God’s promise is about our heavenly homeland, and we are merely sojourners on the way, living through all the ups and downs of the journey.
Yes, we can pray for God to ease our suffering and the suffering of others. Yes, God will sometimes grant those prayers. But not always, because there’s more to the story than the resolution of our personal suffering.
Does that mean that God’s promises are only about the future and not the present? Does that mean that we’re mostly on our own as we stumble our way toward resurrection?
Not at all. More on that in the next post.