Sunday, May 26, 2019

Hope Against Hope

I’d like to play an under-par round of golf this summer. I’d also like to play QB for the Browns once Baker decides to hang up his jersey. Sadly, neither the PGA nor the NFL have been in touch to schedule my appearance. If you’re making a list, I also wouldn’t mind winning the lottery; although apparently I’d have to actually buy a ticket to have a chance of that happening.

Some people might call those things “hope”. I call them pipe dreams.

Not a Hope in Hell

The biblical idea of hope is not some arbitrary whim or caprice, it is a firm expectation, usually predicated on the character of God. Abraham famously “hoped against hope”, which seems to be the biblical way of saying something like this: Abraham understood human biology, but he understood too that God is greater than human biology and so he anticipated something wonderful — and was wise to do so. Biblical hope — true hope — is certainty that God will do what God has promised.

“Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” Dante’s Divine Comedy suggests this as an appropriate signpost at the gates of hell, and so it is. There can be no true hope in hell. In hell, there is no possibility of divinely-provided change or improvement, nothing to long for, nothing to count upon when tomorrow comes. Just ceaseless torment and the utter absence of God. There is no hope and no possibility of hope in hell.

Not a Hope in Heaven

But Dante equally could have placed that same sign on the gates of heaven itself. In heaven there is no hope either. “Hope that is seen is not hope” is how the book of Romans puts it. In heaven, every tear has been wiped away, regret is absent, joy is at its fullness, life is abundant and overflowing. Nothing could be better. Nothing could be improved upon.

Heaven is the culmination of all things that are only hinted at in the here-and-now, the culmination of all things that could ever be hoped. Once ashore heaven, nothing need be hoped at all any more, as “All is perfectness above.” God is there — the One on whom all true earthly hope once rested — but now we are present with him and standing in full receipt of all we could have ever truly wanted or expected. There is no hope, and no need for hope, in heaven.

Hope in the Here-and-Now

Where is hope found then? Only here. Only now. And here — outside the glory of heaven or the horrors of hell — hope is an elusive commodity at best; something that is never experienced by those without a saving knowledge of Christ. 1 Thess. 4:13 encourages Christians not to grieve death in the same way that others who are yet unsaved grieve it; never to appear as those who have “no hope”.

In summary, true hope is utterly absent in eternity and is achingly rare right now.

Understanding hope in this way — as a rare commodity evidenced only here and now by some Christians — should inform our understanding of 1 Peter 3:15:
“… in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.”
That famous verse, invariably referenced during any discussion of apologetics, is nestled comfortably in the immediate context of suffering.

Where Hope Is and Isn’t

What can we conclude from Peter’s words? Several suggestions:
  • Hope may be present but cannot be seen when someone is enjoying unmitigated blessing and peace. It does no good to ask a man who has a perfect marriage, a healthy family, a reliable occupation, a bulging wallet and the adulation of thousands WHY he seems so content. The answer appears obvious to casual observation — all is well and no lack is felt. Where is hope in such a setting?
  • Hope does not manifest itself when a Christian who suffers responds to that suffering with bitterness, anger, doubt and fear; that is precisely how unsaved men respond when circumstances are inclement.
  • True hope appears as a supernatural response set against the backdrop of difficulty and struggle. I might go so far as to say that hope is impossible absent conflict. Instead, hope shines brightest when circumstances are at their darkest.
Hope blooms at the graveside. Hope awakens at the layoff notice. Hope calls out at the scan results that say “stage four”. Hope emerges when the family is riven by conflict.

Or at least it should.

Hope Built on a Certainty

How is hope possible in such a setting? Peter begins his instruction about hope in this way: “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy.” Hope is built on a certainty that Christ is Lord, that he will set all wrongs to right one day, even if that day is not this one. Hope is the supernatural power to carry on capably when others would have faltered. Hope is the visible manifestation of trust in Christ and in God’s goodness and wisdom. And when you have it, it shows.

And when it shows, unsaved people will ask about it. Because they don’t have it, and hope is something beautiful and desirable that everyone longs to have.

So be ready, Christian.

Be Ready
  • Be ready to suffer. Without Christians who suffer, this world will never see the beauty of true hope. If you’re going to be a great example of hope, you’re going to have to carry a heavy burden of suffering.
  • Be ready to answer. What’s the point of having hope and showing hope if you can’t explain hope in a compelling and cogent fashion? So think about what you believe, why you believe it and how it could be briefly summarized in a way that draws people in. Practice it. Prepare it. Be ready to answer.
  • Be ready to be humbled and broken. That’s what Peter suggests after all — hope is not offered as an attack or a sharp response; it’s offered with grace. Hope is couched in gentleness and reverence so it can be easily received and understood. Hope is only offered by those who carry weights that would have broken anyone else long ago, and gentleness and reverence are the only things strong enough to endure those sorts of burdens.
Hope is not the hallmark of all Christians who suffer, but it certainly ought to be. True hope. Hope built on the lordship of Christ and the goodness of God. Hope that has been understood, appreciated and can now be communicated even when, especially when, we are going through deep struggle.

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