The Psalmist once wrote that hope deferred makes the heart sick. The Old Testament is full of stories of a people who wrestled with hope. In the face of crushing defeats, plagues, exile, and captivity after captivity these people persevered. They managed through generations of tragedy to find the grace to persevere when many would have just given up. Again and again, they returned to God the transcendent source of their hope. For no matter how far they strayed, nor how dark things were they understood who they were in Him. God was central to their identity; as a people, their relationship with the creator, the creation and their place in its unfolding story. This not only provided times of deliverance from the crushing events in their history, but it provided a very profound spiritual grace in the midst of the often horrible circumstances.
Hope is very different than mere optimism. Hope is not the optimistic idea that with enough hard work, right thinking, piety, the passage of time, and good intention that somehow things will work out. Opportunity is a core ingredient for optimism, the ability to identify opportunity and connect the possibility of that opportunity to where you are currently. We often see optimism repackaged as the Prosperity Gospel, spiritualized self-help that if we just work hard enough, say and do the right things that good things are just around the corner. The reality of life is sometimes no matter how hard we pray things don't work out the way we wish. Sometimes being smart, strong, fast, rich, pretty or connected is not enough. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, hard work and dedication, things don't work out the way we want them to. Mere optimism is not nearly robust enough to sustain us through the really tough stuff of life because it doesn't have the transcendent depth of genuine hope.
... the madness of maintaining that everything is right when it is wrong.
- Voltaire, speaking of optimism (Candide (1739)
Hope is much more rugged than mere optimism. Hope doesn't just ignore, spin or whitewash our difficult situations but stares them squarely in the face. Hope is the stuff that failure after failure, one devastating loss after another we somehow find the grace to get up and to go on - it may be with a limp but we endure. There have been seasons in my life where I have experienced catastrophic loss and failures. Loss of health, relationships, loss of a baby, of finances, betrayal by a close friend, loss of ministries and titles and reputation. These incredibly lonely and painful seasons in my life have been nothing less than soul crushing. Periods of time where depression was breath stifling. There were times when my insides were ablaze with such pain, and it was only rivaled by the anguish of feeling the coldness of absolutely nothing. I share this because as I have been reflecting on this post I felt as if the Lord asked me "Michael, why do you get up time after time and keep trying? What is the source, the rationale, the energy to keep trying even after what seems like chronic loss?
The reality of it is there are many times I have my whining laments to the Lord. There are many times I throw grand-mal temper-tantrums with screams of "it's not fair!!" and angrily rant at God and the world. In time, this gives way to desperate sobbing of frustration and sorrow. Sobs of "God, I am so totally screwed if you don't help me". Then, the tempest within me now spent, soft tears of "Oh Daddy, please forgive me. Please help me". This is then the context I can remember. I remember our first kiss, the times I have been enraptured in experiences of divine love. I remember afresh that I am deeply loved. It is then, with my soul laid bare the breath of God blows on the embers of who I am, the raw me. It is there that I see that I have been changed. It is there that I remember how perfect love has changed me, and in many ways is healing me. It is here that I know that the love of God is enough and I remember my place in the story of God's good creation. From this point, I feel the embers of deep conviction glow brighter and my song, the song I was given to sing finds it place on my lips.
It is an intangible tangible. I know, another paradox but as best as I can determine this hope originates in the heart, at the core of who we are. That place where Christ, the seat of the divine, the spark resides within each of us. Sometimes this hope can be hard to discern. To be honest, I better recognize the movements of hope after the fact than in the heat of the moment, but just because I may not recognize it at work doesn't mean that I am alone in the darkness. If this is tough for you, maybe spend some time with a mature, faithful, forgiving friend, a trained spiritual director or competent therapist. Sometimes we can use a little help to recognize these movements inside us.
For me, when Jesus said He would never leave us or forsake us, He meant it. When Paul writes in Romans that nothing can separate from the love of God because of the way Jesus holds us, this has been my experience even in some of the ugliest times in my life. A Scottish philosopher once wrote that pop-religion says "Fear not; trust in God and He will see that none of the things you fear will happen to you. Conversely; authentic faith says "Fear not; things that you fear just may well indeed happen to you, but they are nothing to be afraid of."
The latter brings a rugged faith, a faith that demonstrates that no matter what may happen, even as we walk through the literal and figurative Valley of the Shadow of Death, we are not alone, and we need not fear. The Bible contains 365 "be not afraid" and "fear not" verses (that's almost one a day for a year!). All this to say that authentic hope is not the avoidance of real life, pain and loss. It is not a get out of jail free card. Rather muscular hope is with us in and through the darkest times of life. It doesn't abandon ship as we feel we are going down for the last time. No, this living hope finds us in our darkness, breathes grace and new energy to carry on. This living hope reminds us that in the depth of despair that fear, loss, pain, depression, anxiety, loneliness, failure, sickness and death are not the final word. It reminds us and sustains us with the promise that something, no, someone greater than ourselves has that last word - the God-who-loves has the last word.
Hope is much more rugged, more formidable. As opportunity is the catalyst for optimism, hope is forged on the anvil of real life that includes adversity and suffering. Peter Fitch, in his book Learning to Suffer Well, writes: "when suffering comes to the children of God, so does the Holy Spirit. He flows to the deepest part of our pain. He comes and releases grace; the sweetness and beauty and strength of His unmerited presence. He develops fruit, and we suffer well as we bear up under difficulties. He grants gifts, and we suffer well as we fight against the source of our pain. He forms in us the character of Jesus, and we suffer well."
This is not advocating a victim mentality or martyr syndrome rather recognizing that living life produces adversity and this can kill us, or it can be recycled and used to produce a genuine hope. God can take the hurt, the pain, and loss and recycle it for our good. God uses it to take us deeper, to root us so that we can withstand the tempest of life - we suffer well. The Apostle Paul confirms this as he encourages the Church in Rome:
We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. Romans 5:3-5 NLT
I originally wrote this piece for Advent, and an encouragement as we wrestle with the long awaited promises of deliverance, let's ensure that we don't settle for the many cheap counterfeits - shallow optimism and mere sentimentality adorned in seasonal tinsel. This is no hope and will surely leave us heart sick. The story of hope we read in the scriptures, the stories of promise, of faithful presence and light of the world demonstrate and affirm a muscular hope. An authentic hope that sustains us when the worst that could happen happens. This is a rugged hope and overcoming hope. A hope rooted in the transcendence of a love that will never leave, that will never forsake us. A hope that we are deeply rooted in the God who is at work putting all things to right. A hope that is pregnant with meaning and significance that energizes the night time of our fears and keeps going. A hope that will not disappoint.On this first Sunday of Advent I leave you with the prayer of the Apostle Paul:
And Isaiah’s word:
There’s the root of our ancestor Jesse,
breaking through the earth and growing tree tall,
Tall enough for everyone everywhere to see and take hope!
Oh! May the God of green hope fill you up with joy, fill you up with peace, so that your believing lives, filled with the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit, will brim over with hope! - Romans 15:12-13 MSG