REASONS TO BE HOPEFUL
The news headlines over recent weeks have been as dispiriting as any recent period I can remember. The outworking of the climate emergency is increasingly apparent, unfolding on every continent and with the scale and frequency of extreme weather events outstripping the predictions of climate scientists. And in already shattered Haiti, a broken people have been further impacted by an earthquake in the country.
Then there is Afghanistan. The Taliban are triumphant, whilst the pre-eminent Western superpower appears callous and cynical as it withdraws, leaving moderates, minorities, aid workers, former interpreters, security guards and consular staff, and – above all – women and girls, fearful for their future.
And in the UK, there was also the shock of the mass shooting in Plymouth. What theology equips us for dealing with the horror of a three-year-old girl and her Daddy being shot dead together?
Added to such news, our own personal stories are always unfolding and we have our own travails. Parents who are ageing, teenagers that are sullen or withdrawn, friends or family members that are angry or drinking too much, not to mention unfulfilled dreams and mental or physical ill health. And Covid-19 also represents a backdrop to all our lives that is not going to go away soon.
On a temporal level, there may not seem to be many reasons to be cheerful. But on a spiritual level, are there reasons to be hopeful?
Paul says at the end of 1 Corinthians 13, that ‘these three remain – faith, hope and love – and the greatest of these is love.’
We talk plenty about faith in a church context, and we know about the importance of love, but how many of us can readily say what hope is, or indeed why we’re personally hopeful? ‘What makes you hopeful?’ is a question I like to ask people, and I’m struck on occasions that I’m met with either awkward silence or an abstract answer: what seems to be the right or pat way to describe hope, rather than something that necessarily flows from lived experience.
I can’t recall either, ever hearing a sermon specifically on hope, perhaps because it’s something that’s so hard to define. It requires engagement of both the head and the heart, of both belief and emotion. And it also demands an honest confrontation between peace, joy, light and truth, and the many dark and painful things that we cannot deny are part of this life.
I’m neither a theologian or a pastor, and I claim no particular insight into these things, and so rather than setting out arguments that I believe are rigorously defensible definitions of hope, I’ll write confessionally and say what is the basis of my hope. Maybe that will be a catalyst to others. Maybe some will want to start a thread below this blog and offer their own reflections. Maybe some will want to preach to their congregations on what hope seems to be to them.
Hope for me flows first of all, from knowing how everything will end. This world might be terribly broken, and the presence of evil within it is so real and apparent, and I don’t deny those things. But I know also that Christ died on Friday and was raised to life on Sunday, and that belief and trust in his Resurrection is a true and reasonable thing. And I know that however bewildering and sorrowful it can be to live between the now and the not yet, one day Christ will return and he’ll make all things new, no more death, or sickness or pain, and the glory of God will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. It is a large hope that flows from the big picture of the Christian faith: it is hope as a thing of beauty.
Secondly, hope flows from presence. I don’t know what the future holds and at times I let my worries run away on me, but I always return to a confidence that whatever is on the road up ahead of me, Jesus Christ will be with me. As we read in 1 John 5:18, God holds his children securely, and the evil one cannot touch us. I am loved, I am known, and I’ll never be alone. His grip on me is infinitely stronger than my grip on him, and I’ll let him grip me all the days of my life.
A common statement many Christians use that I often find difficult to relate to is the motif of many prayer meetings that ‘God is in control.’ I’ve never understood how, when a controlling personality is so dark and unattractive in a person, it should somehow be attractive in a deity. God is love, and love – surely – can’t be forced. The statement also raises many questions about how God could permit or ordain so much that plays out in this world.
Interestingly, Scripture tells us in 1 John 5:19 that “we know that we are children of God and the world around us is under the control of the evil one” (NLT). I must respect that we all, to some extent, drive our own theology cars, and what others derive confidence from, I may question. I can’t say that I see the validity of ‘God is in control’ as the blanket statement that it’s sometimes used as, but oh the comfort and hope I draw from the unshakeable conviction that I’m a deeply loved child of God. Hope – for me – flows from such presence, nearness, and intimacy, and from an image of provision and protection.
And I think and sense, finally, that hope flows from depth. Romans 5 tells us that “suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character, and character hope, and hope does not put us to shame [or ‘disappoint us’ as it’s alternatively translated], because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”
There’s more basis for hope in love and presence in those verses, but as Paul’s sequence of growth and maturity flows, it also seems that as we suffer, then persevere and hang in and hold on, so flows character, forged through trust in hard times. The outworking of this is that faithful people, who themselves experience faithfulness, can’t help but become hopeful.
It’s those who mourn that are comforted, and those that hunger and thirst for righteousness that are filled. I’ve much to learn and much more fruit to grow, but I hope I’m hopeful in part because I want to live in the deep and not the shallow end of life’s pool, and I want to sit with Jesus beside me looking straight into this world’s pain and problems, rather than denying them. That’s somewhat counterintuitive, and yet it seems to make sense.
Many of you will have similar reasons that you’re hopeful, or other reasons that are just as valid and personal as mine. But start some conversations about hope. Ask others the question, ask yourself the question: ‘what does hope mean to me?’ and ‘why are you hopeful?’
Colin Neill is a Contemporary Christianity Board Member. Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.
Thanks Colin; most helpful and timely.