Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Hope, and the Problem with People

Yesterday we were talking about hope. I hope you found it hopeful.

Our key text was 1 Corinthians 13:7: “Love hopes all things.” And we were pondering the exposition given to it by the Danish Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. If you didn’t read that one, I really encourage you to go back and read it before forging ahead. Some of what I will say depends heavily upon it.

The big realization with which we left off was this: Christian hope is not ever to fail. It is to persist all the way to its fulfillment in eternity. We are to hope until we see the object of our hope, the blessing, the justice and the righteousness guaranteed to us by God, in eternity. All of life is to be lived in hope.

Now, let me mess that up.

Reaching the Limit

We live in a world with people in it. People are complicated. Maybe it’s true that love hopes all things … but can it really hope all the time, for all people? How far can that possibly go? How far is it even safe for it to go?

“Beware the fury of a patient man,” wrote John Dryden. I have a very patient friend. I’ve seen him truly angry with somebody on only once, and only in response to an abuse that I have to admit was off-the-scale wicked. But then, my patient friend blew up in a way I never imagined — as if the holding off of anger had built the whole thing to a white-hot critical mass. He went postal. Mercifully, it was brief. But it seems even he had his limits.

I know a girl whose family nicknamed her “La Grudge”. She had the most extraordinary ability to hold onto resentment. Like my last friend, she was mostly a paragon of patience, renowned for her generosity and kindness to people. But there was a point past which, if you pushed her, she was capable of a towering indignation. She didn’t become violent or malicious, but if you pushed her there she’d remember your name a long, long time.

For all of us, there are points at which we give up on people. “They’ve got too far,” we say. “They’ve crossed the line.” Henceforth, we will not be thinking well of them. We’ve written them off. If they’re going to fix anything, they’re going to have to fix it themselves; we’re out. Maybe God still has a use for them, but we are done.

Maybe it’s that friend we had who later betrayed us. Maybe it’s that chronically mentally-ill person who never fails to destroy her own prospects. Maybe it’s that guy we tried and tried to help, but who keeps on falling back into those old, addictive patterns of his. And maybe it’s that smiling villain who wooed us into trust, and then burned us in deepest consequence. For all of us, there can be someone who is “past the pale”, beyond any possibility of redemption, so far as we can see, and just not somebody with whom we want — or think it safe — to have any more to do. We’ve just given up hope for them.

How does “Love hopes all things” play in a situation like that? Surely there are times when it’s just too much to hope for another person?

Hoping Against Hope

Well, Kierkegaard points out that just as our hope in circumstances can never fail, so to our hope for other people must never fail.

I’m sorry. I hate to point it out. I know you feel justified in your grief or anger. And probably you are. But love never fails to hope … for anybody.

What does this mean?

Begin with remembering that agapē love is not conditional. It can be commanded — and in fact, it is, even to rank enemies. To love one’s enemies does not mean to wait until we feel like it. It does not mean waiting until the enemy comes around, and stops hating us, or repents himself. It especially does not mean ginning up artificial feelings of love, in defiance of all realities. And it does not imply surrendering yourself to the vicious grasp of treacherous or corrupt adversaries.

It means always believing that, for every person, it is possible he will still become the person God always meant for him to be.

A Vote of Confidence

Really, it’s a vote of confidence in God, not man. It’s always to hope that that vicious enemy, that treacherous betrayer, and that seemingly-abandoned addict is capable of being arrested by the Lord, and then transformed into the better person God always intended for him to be. It doesn’t mean that he does the transforming — far less that you should presume to be the one to do it — it means that you keep a steadfast hope that God himself will intervene and make the kind of changes in that person that no human being, operating by worldly wisdom, could ever hope for.

As Kierkegaard writes, “[I]n love to hope a things signifies the lover’s relationship to other men, that in relationship to them, hoping for them, he continually keeps possibility open with infinite partiality for his possibility of the good.” In other words, love says, “It may not be the case that this man will ever repent. In his stubbornness and wickedness, this man may never consent to become the better man God intended him to be; still, I will pray for him, hope for him, and long for him to be brought into fellowship with his creator, and to become the person he was meant to become. If I can do something to help this happen, I will; but if I can do nothing, then God still can. I will wait in hope, and I will believe; and I will see what God will do. I will not give up hope.”

The Big Write-Off

Kierkegaard writes, “Hope all things; give up no man, for to give him up is to abandon your love for him.” He contrasts this attitude with that of the person who despairs of his fellow, and thus gives up on him: “The despairing person also knows what lies in possibility, and yet he dismisses possibility … to suppose the impossibility of the good.” And again, he writes, “[D]espair hopes nothing at all for others and love hopes all things.”

We need to fear the bitterness and anger that lead us to give up on a man. Remember what Christ himself said about the man who says of his brother, “You are worthless”? Or, as Kierkegaard puts it, “Even if one does not take murder upon his conscience, he nevertheless gives up the hated one as hopeless and consequently takes possibility away from him. But does this not mean to kill him spiritually? Spiritually to consign him to destruction?”

To ‘write off’ another human being is no small thing — and it is no Christian thing, for it denies the redeeming power of Christ to change the darkest soul and save the worst sinners. That is the very core of the Christian hope: and for that reason, Kierkegaard adds, “[H]e who has given up his love for this man is the loser.”

Well, that’s very hard.

I can hear what you will say to me: “You just don’t understand how bad this person was. You don’t feel what I felt or know the betrayal I experienced. You can’t imagine how crippling their choices have been for me, and how much I’ve paid for the evil they’ve done.” And I don’t deny that you are right. But I have also been there in my own way; as, I suspect, have most if not all of us. The problem with living on a planet with people is that they are beings with free will, and they often use it to do things to each other that are quite horrible.

But …

But are you so sure that you have never been on the other side of that equation? Is there nobody you’ve ever let down, hurt or betrayed? I suspect that none of us can proclaim ourselves free of fault in this regard — though certainly there are worse cases than others.

If forgiving those who have mistreated us, hurt us, abused us, maligned us, and betrayed us is impossible, then the disciples of Christ had all better start running — starting with Peter. And what was the Lord’s response to that? We find it in John 14:1-3:
“Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself, that where I am, there you may be also.”
He promised to prepare a place for the very ones who were about to deny and forsake him. He knew what he wants us to know: that now is the day of sowing, and eternity is the day of reaping. Nothing is over ’til it’s over. Not even other people.

How Long?

How long, O Lord? How long must we persist in hope with people? Lo, they fail us, they betray us, the plunge again and again into headlong error. They have hurt us, and they will — again and again, if we were to allow them. Their decisions are all errors, their follies magnificent, and their feet are on the paths of their own destruction. They are not sorry, they are not safe, and they are not healed. They make our hearts ache to breaking. How long must we pray for them, long for their salvation, and hope for their betterment?

We must hope until hope is seen. It can only be seen in eternity. But then, hope disappears — vaporizes safely — for hope is fulfilled, and we see what we have longed for. As Kierkegaard concludes, “[L]ove hopes to the uttermost, to the ‘last day.’ ”

It’s not the last day yet. Keep hoping.

It’s hard to hope; but it’s good to know there’s always hope … so long as there is eternity, and so long as there is God.  

Let hope spring anew: love hopes all things — in all circumstances, in all people, and on into eternity.

Part 2 is now done.

But we are still not done. Hope to see you tomorrow.


  1. A great deal of enthusiasm here. However, there are conflicts with reality that have to be resolved. E.g., it is perfectly natural when encountering these types of situations and individuals or groups that you do want to withdraw and do not want to, nor think it useful, to engage. Therefore, the only thing practical would be to disengage and hope from a distance only. At that point the most effective way to maintain hope is simply to include such persons or situations in your prayers. Naturally that limits the scope of hope since, especially nowadays, many no longer pray.

  2. Hope, says Kierkegaard, is the property of the one who loves, not of the one receiving the love. And if we have to merit love for there to be any hope for us, then really, there's no hope for any of us.

    That's why K. sees love a three-angled, not two-sided. There's the person who hopes, who has been forgiven and loved by God; then there is the person for whom he hopes, who perhaps has not yet repented. It does not matter; he is still to hope, because Christ has loved him when he was unlovable, and saved him from being his worst self -- so remembering this, he is not to give up on any other person, but always hope. (IC)