I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you. (Ephesians 1.18)
How’s Your Hope?
I confess an odd sort of ambivalence about hope. Unlike faith and love—the other two abiding principles that complete Paul’s triumvirate in 1 Corinthians 13—hope strikes me as a slippery concept. Faith and love are easier to get our arms around, because Jesus and the epistle writers provide a plethora of definitions for them. On the other hand, as often as the word hope appears—180 times in the NIV—I’ve yet to find one verse that says, “Here’s what hope is.” Tracking down the Hebrew and Greek words only confuses things. Old Testament “hope” derives from “cord” or “rope,” indicating it’s a thing we hold and trust while we wait. New Testament “hope” is more straightforward: “expectation.” That gets to the nub of my consternation. When David says, “I hope for Your deliverance” (Psalm 119.166), he means, “I’m hanging on.” When Paul encourages us to “Rejoice in hope” (Romans 12.12), he wants us to exult in what we expect God will do. Where I come from, hanging on is one thing and exultation is another.
Imagine my perplexed response when thinking about hope brought this to mind: How’s your hope? I had no answer, as I had no idea what I’d asked myself. I fired back, “What do you mean?” (I have these testy inner dialogues from time to time.) Was I wondering about my tenacity to believe or my ability to expect? “All of it,” I heard myself say. “How's that going?” I didn’t like the question one bit. Truth be told, I don’t work too much on hope. I’m confident I have it. I expect God’s goodness and mercy in all things. As a rule, I trust God when I’m left hanging. Yet hope seldom captivates my thoughts. I’ve settled for having it instead of doing it, twisting it into a limbo lobby, a type of suspended optimism I hang with until something actually happens. Is that hoping? It sounds more like loitering. Now I realize why the hope I project on Advent texts feels ambiguous and thin. I’m not seeing the writers and figures do hope. I’ve got them idling—albeit excitedly—until the show starts, and that’s not what they do, since that's not what hope is.
Before Our Stories Happen
Hope is a tough concept for us because we take its operative principles less seriously than our ancestors. Modern cynicism and self-sufficiency lend credence to “promises are made to be broken.” Nowadays, it’s bad form to hold people to their word. Often out of grace, but also to escape appearing needy—Heaven forbid we rely on someone—we overlook most bad promises. (Forgiving them is a conversation for another time.) We forget that little to no faith in promises produces little to no hope. To guard against disappointment, we view hope suspiciously, which is exactly not what it’s for. Hope is given to nurture confidence in promises until they’re honored. The ancients understood hope more clearly. In their day, the burden of hope rested on the promise's maker, not its taker, because they had no alternative to depending on one another. If the farmer didn’t deliver promised grain, no one ate bread. If the weaver didn’t produce promised cloth, everyone wore rags. Promises held the world together. Hope made it spin. Their combined gravity secured daily life. That’s why God’s promises and our hope form the braid—the cord—that ties Scripture together, and why we’re consistently told to be true to our word, even as our Creator honors promises to us.
Rethinking hope as an active pursuit rather than passive—possibly futile—occupation also reveals its hidden beauty. It’s the key to entering our stories before they happen. It puts us where we want to be ahead of actually getting there. Reality-clouded intellect would have us dismiss canny hope as callow fantasy. To go through life hanging on promises, fully expecting they’ll come to pass, seems naïve and weak-minded. We’ve even coined a euphemism for it: living in denial. Paul challenges this, asserting hope is the sign of hard-won, inner strength: “We know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame.” (Romans 5.3-5) Yes, hardship builds character. But ending the process there limits involvement in our narrative to the moment it calls for character. True strength becomes evident when trust in God’s promises presses us to finish the sequence—to muster the guts to hope. According to Ephesians 1.18, that’s what God hopes we’ll do: “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you.” We are called to hope. While murky minds don’t see it, our enlightened hearts recognize we have a place in our story long before promises we rely on come about.
Look at the characters arriving at the Christ-Child’s manger. Need we ask what brings them there? Every one of them, from Mary and Joseph to the Magi to the lowliest shepherd, lands in this filthy barn on wings of hope. They embrace God’s promises and act on them. They leave what they know behind—friends and families, palaces and pastures—answering God’s call to hope. Terrible outcomes cannot be ruled out. Obeying God’s call could end with Mary and Joseph being stoned as fornicators. Seeking Christ’s birthplace could result in the Wise Men’s arrest as covert insurgents. After abandoning their flocks to worship the Savior, the shepherds could return to find their livestock stolen, lost, or destroyed. Yet not one of us would consider any of the Holy Infant’s attendants delusional or weak-minded. They’re paragons of insight and strength!
Hope makes arriving at God’s promises possible and vindicates us from doubts and criticism along the way. God calls us to hope—to enter our stories with God, to follow God in active expectancy, to pursue God’s promises with enlightened hearts. Hope takes us where we’re headed before we get there. It’s what proves strength of character forged in hardship. Hope is what we do, leaving everything we know behind and trusting every risk we take will be rewarded. So how is your hope? How's that going?
O God, our Help in ages past, our Hope for years to come, we have heard your call to hope. Place in us a will to hope, to do the things hope asks of us, to live hope. Amen.
Originally posted on December 3, 2010.
Hope enables us to enter our stories before what we hope for appears. Its radiance rises over the horizon and lights our way.
Postscript: "My Hope is in You"
To do hope is to invest hope in a God Who will not disappoint. Aaron Shust beautifully renders this idea in "My Hope is in You."