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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