After fifteen years of pastoral ministry, I have observed a common thread to the expressed desires of men and women. It’s not the accumulation of wealth, the pleasure of sex, or accolades from achievement. It goes much deeper.
The Ubiquity of Despair
The great English journalist and satirist Malcolm Muggeridge, reflecting on forms of despair in the twentieth century, particularly among proponents of Stalin in Russia and western nihilists devoted to materialism and abortion, comments that modern man has a “suicidal impulse”—a type of self-hatred. This impulse has spawned a bewildering number of proposals to cure, or at least curb, the problem. Unfortunately, varied as they are, these remedies are similar: their ingenuity and power are limited to human resources.
What we need is hope. For many, “hope” is an emotion or positive outlook excavated from the depths of one’s soul. It often comes in the midst of calamity and disappointment. In spite of misfortune, we “hope” things will go well. The actor Josh Hartnett captured this notion when he said, “Hope is the most exciting thing in life and if you honestly believe that love is out there, it will come. And even if it doesn’t come straight away there is still that chance all through your life that it will.” Thus the phrase, “hoping against hope”!
Well-meaning as this attempt is, it is a long distance from the biblical vision of hope. It is not a matter of delivering ourselves or “hoping for the best.” Nor is it wishful thinking or blind optimism. Biblical hope, rather, is a divine gift, which God offers to the world through his Son, Jesus. This, however, raises the question of how one recognizes and receives such a gift.
The Hope of God
The realization of hope starts with the recognition that the life and death of Jesus Christ changed everything. During the Lord’s earthly ministry, the future tense of Israel’s hope (“behold, the days are coming)” became the emphatic present (“the kingdom of God is in your midst”). “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” they cried as Jesus entered Jerusalem (John 12:13). Then, on a certain Friday that seemed anything but good, they killed Jesus by nailing him to a tree. At once, despair asserted itself with such force that Christian hope appeared to die with the Savior on whom it hung. “To whom shall we go?” Peter had said to Jesus, “You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Now, however, the Savior was dead.
Just when all hope seemed lost, something unexpected happened. On the third day after Jesus’ death, hope stepped out from the shadows of Calvary. Alas, it turned out, the tomb was empty. Jesus was alive, having died as an offering for humanity’s sin and risen from the dead. Such good news—what we call “gospel”—is the historical reality into which our theology of hope is rooted. No longer do the chains of human despair bind us. As God’s new creation, we who embrace the gospel enjoy the gift of Christ in us, “the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).
As men and women whose lives are established in the risen Christ, our theology of hope calls us to not simply believe that Christ rose, necessary as this is. Further and deeper and more immediately, God calls us to experience the resurrection in a daily walk of faith (Ephesians 4:1). By the Spirit who lives within us, we have the capacity to encounter the resurrected Christ through the various twists and turns of life, all of which are infused with hope.
Indeed, the blessed progression of the Holy Spirit makes Christian hope accessible. We don’t pull such hope out of a religious hat or somehow conjure it up by the strength of our wills. Rather, the Spirit brings hope as a byproduct of his very presence, which is poured into our hearts. In what follows, we will consider how this Sprit-inspired hope extends from the victory of Christ to define our present-day experience.
The movement of Christian hope has a discernable trajectory. First and foremost, it leads us to approach each new day coram deo, that is, before the face of God. It also moves us toward other people, which requires involvement in one another’s lives. It is a mutual encounter that bleeds from the vertical axis to the horizontal. The New Testament calls this the Body of Christ. We don’t simply believe that this body was born; we believe it currently lives.
As Paul encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, we likewise have our moments of personal awakening. Such encounters enliven the soul with resurrection power and reignite hope. Darkness becomes light, bondage is broken, and bitterness is turned to joy. In this posture we address the world with the Good News. In doing so, we don’t believe that the Father simply declared the Lordship of Jesus in his resurrection; we believe that God continues to declare the Good News through our life and witness.
The Christian life is not peaches and cream. Until Jesus returns, such life involves a measure of suffering. The gateway to resurrection life is the cross of Christ, for we cannot rise with Christ unless we have first died with him. As Paul states, “The sting of death is sin” (1 Corinthians 15:56), which lays all of us in the dust. But Jesus went lower still, even to death on a cross, in order to raise us in new life. Therefore, we have hope that whatever challenge comes our way, God’s grace is sufficient for the occasion (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Because Jesus lives, we don’t delimit resurrection power to a historical event; we believe, rather, that it extends through time in such a manner as to categorically define our past, present, and future, endowing life with new creation reality. For this reason we enjoy a living hope, now and forever more (1 Peter 1:3).