Hope, in the Face of Despair – Br. David Vryhof
I have to confess that at times I am tempted to despair. These past few days we have witnessed yet another Black man shot and killed by a white police officer, this one slowly bleeding to death in the front seat of his car, in the presence of his girlfriend and her daughter, after being pulled over for having a broken tail light. We have watched defenseless police officers present at a peaceful rally being picked off by a sniper who was bent on ‘evening the score.’A few weeks ago we learned of a man who entered gay nightclub with a legally-obtained assault weapon and randomly spray bullets into the crowd – resulting in the worst mass shooting in our country’s history. And in the midst of such madness we hear some advocating more guns, not less; urging private citizens to arm themselves – to carry deadly weapons in shopping malls and movie theaters and in classrooms and even in church! – and to be ready to open fire when they sense they are in danger! And our ineffectual leaders, paralyzed by partisanship and intimidated by the NRA, cannot even bring themselves to limit the access of private citizens to assault weapons whose only purpose can be mass destruction. This seems like ABSOLUTE MADNESS to me, and I am tempted to despair.
We watch the world teetering on the brink of economic disaster, while corporate and individual greed goes unregulated and the gap between the few who “have” and the many who “have not” grows wider and wider. We read the dire predictions and witness the devastating effects of environmental changes brought about by global warming — extreme temperatures leading to increasingly-violent storms; rising seas threatening to overwhelm our coastlines and, in some cases, swallow up entire islands; massive droughts induced by intolerable heat affecting parts of the world that can least afford to lose their crops. We witness tragedies like that which took place last month in Baghdad, when hundreds of people, celebrating the end of Ramadan with their families and friends, were blown to bits by Islamic State terrorists. We watch with fear as nations rattle their sabers at one another – only now the sabers are world-destroying nuclear weapons– and wonder what will happen when these weapons fall into the wrong hands. I confess that all this tempts me to despair, and causes me to wonder if the world’s population will survive this century.
I long for hope.
The temptation to despair is not only the result of the state of the world or of this country; it also stems from my awareness of my own faults. Sometimes my own inability to rid myself of unhealthy attachments or to change the ways I think or behave leaves me full of despair. I resonate with Paul’s words, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate” (Romans 7:15).
Then I recall the words of the psalmist: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God…” (Ps 42:5). There is a struggle going on within the soul of the psalmist – a struggle between hope and despair – in response to which he carries on a dialogue with himself, urging himself to reject despair and to put his trust in God.
I recognize the same struggle within me.
Hoping in God does not come naturally to us. We must preach it to ourselves, and preach diligently and forcefully and repeatedly, or we will give way to a disquieted and despairing spirit.And we must preach it to others, over and over again, interjecting hope into conversations that are heavy with despair, lifting world-weary faces towards the light of God. We are called to be people of hope, a hope that is strong enough to combat despair, a hope that the world desperately needs.
What is hope? And do we have reason to hope?
Typically, when we speak of hope, we are speaking of our desire for something good in the future: “I hope I’ll be able to visit Rome someday,” we say, or “I hope I get this new job.” We wish for something good to happen, but there is always a degree of uncertainty to it. We don’t know if we will ever see Rome, but we hope to. We don’t know if we’ll get the job, but we hope we do.
The hope that Christianity offers us is a different kind of hope. It is not wishful thinking, or blind optimism, or the careless assertion that everything will be all right in heaven. It is a hope that is rooted in God and is grounded in the sure knowledge of God’s love for us. It is a hope that is built on trust.
The Scriptures recognize that there are many things in which we are tempted to put our trust, none of which have the power to save us and all of which will ultimately disappoint us. They warns us that we should not trust in riches[i] or in idols[ii], or in foreign powers[iii] or military might[iv], in princes[v] or in other human beings[vi]. GOD is the true object of hope. We may put our hope in God’s steadfast love[vii], in God’s ordinances[viii], or in God’s word[ix], but we are to be rooted and grounded in GOD. “Hope in GOD,” the psalmist tells us, and perhaps we should write this on the doorways of our homes and on the walls of our workplaces and on the deep places of our hearts.
This hope is not merely a state of mind. It is not just wishful thinking that somehow God will make things better, or will rescue us from the flames if they get worse. It is instead a firm grounding, a conviction from which we draw inner strength and quiet confidence, a belief that spurs us to work tirelessly for the changes we seek. Hope is like the deep roots of a tree that support its weight and keep it upright, or like an anchor that holds a boat steady in its place against the wind and waves. When we hope in God, we lean upon a sure foundation;we stand strong in an unshakeable fortress;we hide ourselves in the cleft of a rock which shelters us from the storm.
“Hope is not the same as optimism,” writes Cornell West. “Optimism adopts the role of the spectator who surveys the evidence in order to infer that things are going to get better. Yet we know the evidence does not look good. The dominant tendencies of our day are unregulated global capitalism, racial balkanization, social breakdown and individual depression.”[x]
“Hope is not the same as optimism,” says West. “[because] Hope enacts the stance of a participant who actively struggles against the evidence in order to change the deadly tides of wealth inequality, group xenophobia, and personal despair. Only a new wave of vision, courage and hope can keep us sane… To live is to wrestle with despair yet never to allow despair to have the last word.”
Notice West’s claim that hope is an active force, not a passive mindset. Hope “actively struggles against the evidence” in order to bring about change. It “wrestles” with despair and never allows despair to have the last word.
Christian hope is confident and assured. Its confidence and assurance do not depend on outward circumstances, but on the character and person of God. “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering,” urges the author of The Letter to the Hebrews, “for he who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:23). Our confidence and trust is in God – not in ourselves, or in our government, or in our leaders, or in our investments, or in our accomplishments, or in science or technology, or human ingenuity. Our hope is in GOD, and it is this that gives us strength to carry on, to live and try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.
Throughout history there have been men and women who have embodied this hope and inspired us by their examples. I think of Martin Luther King, Jr. who never gave up hope – he held onto his “dream” even when he and his family were threatened, even when his cause was resisted, even when he was jailed for speaking the truth. Always hoping in God, he refused to give in to either hatred or despair. “Everything that is done in the world,” he once said, “is done by hope.”
And I think of Victor Frankel, a survivor of the Holocaust who lost his father, mother, brother and wife in German concentration camps. Reflecting on one of his darkest moments, digging in a cold, icy trench, he wrote: “In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious ‘Yes’ in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose… At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. Et lux in tenebris lucent – ‘the light shines in the darkness.’”
The light does shine in the darkness, and the darkness cannot and will not overcome it.
I think of Corrie Ten Boom, a Dutch Christian woman who also survived the Holocaust, emerging from that experience with a deep sense of hope in God. Even recalling the horrors of the camp, she was able to conclude, “There is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still.” This is the voice of faith, the voice of Christian hope.
Wherever you find yourself today, especially if you are overwhelmed by life or tempted to hopelessness and despair, remember these words and actively claim the hope they embody, preaching the message to yourself as well as others: “Hope in God.”
The kind of hope I often think about (especially in hopeless situations…) is, I believe, a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t. Hope is not a prognostication — it’s an orientation of the spirit. Each of us must find real, fundamental hope within himself. You can’t delegate that to anyone else.
Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy when things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something to succeed. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. It is this hope, above all, that gives us strength to live and to continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now. In the face of this absurdity, life is too precious a thing to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily, without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope. – Vaclav Havel, in Esquire magazine, October 1993
[i]Job 31:24-28, Ps. 52:1-7, Prov. 11:28
[ii]Ps. 115:3-11, Hab. 2:18-19
[iv]Isa. 30:15-16, 31:1-3, Hosea 10:13
[ix]Ps. 119:49, 74, 81, 114, 147
[x] Cornell West, from a commencement address given at Wesleyan University in 1993.
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Many thanks, Brother David. You have wonderful spiritual insight. Yes, we must hope and not despair. It is easier to despair and fall into depression but as Christ taught, we must carry on with hope in our hearts because He is walking with us on this journey and He will not leave us. God bless you!!
This site I come to for spiritual nourishment, not your own political views. I’ll be alert to not read your articles any more. Thank you.
James Matthew Barrie said, “God has given us Memory so we might have roses in December.” But these are last year’s roses. Br. David and the people he quotes tell us,”God has given us Hope so we might have next year’s roses in December.” This is a Hope we can help fulfill. Soon the flower catalogues will arrive, and we can see pictures of the roses we prefer, and we place our order for their root stock with hope that they will arrive. They will, and we wiill prepare our garden soil with hope that the transplanting will take root, while we keep those pictures in our hope. The buds strengthen our hope for the full-blown rose. And with God’s generosity our hope will be actualized into a symbol of Their love.
Dear Brother Vryhof, thank you for this message that remains timely. My deep conviction that God’s will is the only way out of the terrible mess we humans have made keeps me from despair. I am convinced that God will prevail and God’s kingdom will come, eventually. In the meantime, God is patiently loving us and inviting us to say “Yes” to his will, and “Yes” to the ministry of his divine spirit. One by one, we are shepherded into the kingdom as we accept the invitation. God’s steadfast love is always with us.
Thank you for these words. They spoke to what my soul was needing. The examples of those that have gone before us are not only beacons that should be remembered, but they solidify the notion of hope. May there always be hope!
In the five-and-half years since this sermon was delivered, one feels this is even more relevant to read and absorb now than ever. In some ways the world has not changed one iota during the intervening years and yet in other ways it has changed – and changed drastically and dramatically. The message of hope here has not changed and is as relevant, much needed to hear and as vitally refreshing to the soul still today, as the day it was first delivered. Thank you.
So relevant, so needed, so full of hope, however elusive it may seem today. Thank you, Brother, for bringing it closer.
What a great sermon! Thank you, Brother David., I needed to read that, today!
dear Brother David, Thankyou for all you teach us in your writings. I will pray a lot about hope and trust this week.. You teach always with such depth and gentleness.Withgratitude. Connie Dealy
“Hope never disappoints”. Romans 5:5
As he spoke of trees I am reminded of Judith Densh’s YouTube on “Trees”. Very informative and reflective. If we could only live like the community of trees. Thanks. Blessings.
Thank you brother David
I thought it was so interesting that you used the word tempted when talking of the despair that can come. I think when our Lord taught us to as not to be led into temptation it also encompasses the temptation to forgo God’s hope and plan, the fundamental light within us. To let the darkness overwhelm. Thank you for reminding me to let the light shine out in dark times, to be the light.
*Thank you* so very much for this message. It was exactly what I needed to read this morning, and it also addresses a long term spiritual question or puzzle that I’ve had. I woke up full of fear because my employer would like me to accept an assignment that involves a high risk of exposure to Covid-19. I was so fearful that it was difficult to pray, but I gave it my best effort and randomly read some Psalms that were all about praising God. I felt much better, peaceful and even a bit joyful. Your message – that we hope by trusting in who God is and not in people, circumstances, or outcomes – provides the guidance I really needed this morning.
These messages from SSJE have easily helped me a thousand times more often than I’ve left comments, but I had to leave a comment this morning. Thank you.
“ let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess for he who promised is faithful”. My favorite verse. Thank you.
Thank you for this reflection. I need these homilies so much (my church has been closed for services for months). But, in this mean time (and it is a very mean time) I weep for so much that is wrong and pray for a change that will be (if not completely right) at least a little better. I can only hope and pray that things will get better, instead of getting worse.
Thank you and all the brothers for their words of wisdom.
Thank you, Br. David. I’m sharing this on Facebook. My family and friends need this as much as I do.
Mary Lou Thomas
Thank you, Br. David, for a message needed at this time by us as a society and as individuals.
Hope is so important. The light of the world is Jesus; the light which overcomes darkness. I read Corrie Ten Boom’s book The Hiding Place many years ago. What a great example was she of that Christian hope! But, lest we forget, St. Paul reminds us “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love.” I saw love so clearly in Corrie’s story; love and forgiveness. Love overcomes evil, just as light overcomes darkness. I pray that God’s light will shine in our hearts. May God bless you.
Thank you so much for this reflection. I, too, am learning the great lesson in trusting God. I love a scripture in Deut. which says something like, “I led you through the wilderness so that it would go well with you.” At some deep level “all will be well.” How we need your reflection in this time.