Hope is a simple four-letter word that packs unbelievable punch in the Christian life. Unfortunately, hope gets disguised beneath plenty of realities that deserve to go by the name of optimism.
Optimism is wonderful. We’d all prefer to hang around optimists instead of pessimists. Optimists evaluate present conditions and extrapolate a positive future from them. If a 3-year-old throws a ball reasonably well, an optimistic dad starts envisioning the kid’s name on the pitching roster of a major league baseball team. True optimists have the admirable instinct of believing things will improve based on a positive attitude they carry around.
Hope doesn’t work quite like this. It is much more than wishful thinking that current conditions will get even better. Hope grows in the soil of the possibilities of God, not the dirt of life’s present circumstances. Hope is the deep conviction that God is working powerfully in our lives and in the world. Based not on what we can do or see, hope is anchored in the faithfulness of God.
Here’s the real surprise about hope: it thrives especially well in situations where the evidence seems to be mounting against us. When adversity besets us, and worry gets a stronger foothold than it deserves, and the future begins to look grim, hope has its best chance of lighting up the darkness. This is true because hope is the power of God that always comes at us from the outside.
Hope is what keeps a cancer patient going when the oncologist has thrown every drug in the pharmacy at the disease, only to find nasty cells still multiplying. Hope is what tells the farmer that planting seed next spring is the best antidote to the drought that has wiped out his crop for years. Hope is believing in your teenager with every fiber of your love, even when their absence of good judgment thins parental patience to the tiniest thread.
In our best moments as Christians, we don’t place our ultimate hope in the human spirit, human persistence or even human goodness. True hope always comes at us from the outside.
Perhaps you have noticed in the Easter accounts that “Jesus was raised.” Gospel writers use the passive voice. Jesus didn’t raise himself; God raised him up. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was able to determine from this truth that the best place to celebrate Easter is in a jail cell. It’s in a locked cell where one realizes the only possibility for release comes from someone on the outside holding a key.
We are Christians because we have been given a hope that is better than the hopes the rest of the world tries to live by. Your hope and mine is based in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. You aren’t a Christian because you’re smart (though I have no doubt you are), or because you’re nice, or say powerful prayers, or are morally better than your next-door neighbor. You are a Christian because you have been given an infinite hope. Finite disappointment is everywhere, noted Martin Luther King Jr. “But we must never lose infinite hope,” he added.
For those of us who have long believed that hope powers life, much like a locomotive fuels a train, the apostle Paul reminds us that hope is more like the caboose. Speaking of the good things that come out of life’s difficulties—“suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4)—notice where hope emerges for Paul. It comes at the end, not the beginning. It derives from life’s struggles. This may be why those who know how to trust their suffering to God know best how hope never disappoints.
Closing note: This column concludes six years of a wonderful journey. You, the reader, have been a faithful companion throughout—encouraging, supporting and critiquing along the way. I’ve learned and grown much from you, as I hope you have from me. While a new writing commitment for The Christian Century has summoned my energies, I know these pages and this publication will continue to inspire our mutual joy in being Lutheran Christians. Thank you for the warm partnership.