Several years ago a dinner guest who was exploring Christianity asked me what I liked best about my job as a pastor. The first thing that came to mind was that in some small way I have the opportunity to communicate hope to people in the midst of their doubt, uncertainty, fear and suffering. To remind people (and myself!) that the things promised in the Christian life (joy, contentment, peace) are possible not because Christians avoid suffering, or are naïve about the world, but because in the midst of things like global recessions and other trials, Christians have a resource the Apostle Peter calls a ‘living hope’ (I Peter 1:3) that is rooted in the life, death, resurrection and mission of Jesus.
This hope can be best understood in contrast to the kind of alternative existence portrayed in Jean Paul Sartre’s play titled No Exit. The characters in the play are sentenced to spend eternity together without sleep or eyelids. They tell flattering (and untruthful) stories about their lives in an effort to rehabilitate and redeem their past. Yet despite their efforts the moral of the play is summarized by the line “You are your life, and nothing else,” highlighting Sartre’s point that hell begins when hope disappears.
Which brings me back to the answer I gave to my dinner guest. Hope is at the heart of the church’s message, which is the good news that Jesus fulfilled Jeremiah’s prophecy that we have a “hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11) And it is also at the heart of the church’s mission as we are called to communicate that hope to others.
Yet despite the centrality of this ‘living hope’ many Christians live with a kind of chronic anxiety about the future, or bitterness about the present. Why? The short answer is that instead of “putting our hope in God’s unfailing love and full redemption” (Psalm 130:7) we often invest our hope for significance, security and contentment in things other then God.
For example, if someone invests their ultimate hope for contentment in romantic love and marriage (good things by the way!) but is unwillingly still single, the result is often deep bitterness and doubt of God’s goodness. Or likewise if someone invests their ultimate hope for acceptance in their talent as an artist, the exposure to other talented artists will often lead to insecurity and a competitive spirit. All because of a failure to invest our contentment and acceptance in God’s love for us. So how do we activate this ‘living hope’? Though not an exhaustive list, we at least have to remember our new identity; access our new power; and re-tell ourselves the old story.
New Identity When Paul writes in Romans 8 about the frustration the world experiences due to sin, he writes that “we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons...for in this hope we were saved.” Think of it this way. The lives of my children will be shaped by many people, but their primary sense of who they are will ultimately be shaped by their relationship to my wife and me. No one has more power over a person’s identity then their parents. So when Paul says that our hope is related to our adoption, he’s calling us to remember that God is not some remote deity who is indifferent to our trials, but is a personal and nurturing Father who loves us so much that he sacrificed his only son so that we could be adopted into his family. Of course knowing in your head you are a child of God isn’t enough. You have to experience it in such a way that it fuels your hope during difficult times. Let me show you what I mean.
New Power When I first moved to Manhattan, a homeless man died on the steps of a school in my neighborhood. This story was made more tragic by the fact that this man had money in the bank and family nearby, resources at his disposal that might have saved him. Similarly, often times Christians live spiritually tragic lives, having the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead (Romans 8)living in them, yet seemingly unable to access that power. What’s the solution? Regular use of the spiritual disciplines of worship, prayer and mediation.
And during times of extraordinary trials or uncertainty—which certainly describes what many are going through in this time of economic upheaval—those disciplines become even more critical. This argues for making use of the current season in which we find ourselves, Lent. Historically this is a time when Christians take stock of their spiritual health in anticipation of the celebration of Easter. It is a time of self-examination, repentance and self-denial (hence the idea of ‘giving up something for Lent’)—all of which are great ways to identify and repent of those things that have taken root in our lives as a replacement for the hope we have in Christ. So take time, as an individual and as part of a community, to examine your life and access the power God has given us in his Spirit.
Old Story Of course, there’s always the danger that spiritual introspection can make us more despondent, which is why repentance and self-denial must be done in light of retelling ourselves the ‘old story’ of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection. Peter wrote that this living hope comes through “the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). This reminds us that Christian hope is not a philosophy or a technique but the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the reason Christians believe that Sartre’s hopelessness doesn’t define reality; that injustice, greed, disease and death will not ultimately define us or the world. Death has been swallowed up in victory. When Jesus died, so did death’s power over us. And when he was resurrected, it infused the whole creation with a living hope. It is this old story of Jesus’ triumph that we must tell ourselves. And to the degree that we do, and find ourselves filled with hope, we will naturally want to tell the story to others. For only in the story of Jesus will we find what we ultimately seek—our living hope.