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Albert Einstein once observed that “the men who know the most are the most gloomy.” Bertrand Russell, the foremost British philosopher of the twentieth century, confirmed this in his pessimistic reflection, “I would not give a fifty-fifty chance for the continued survival of one human being on this planet by the end of this century.” And Woody Allen fit right in with this perspective when he quipped, “The future isn’t what it used to be.”
When a pastor looks out on the faces of his congregation on the Lord’s Day, he is confronted by a company that has emerged from another week of living among the ranks of the gloomy. Six days spent in the company of those who are “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12, NIV) can have a demoralizing effect, and the pastor has a peculiar responsibility to ensure that the minds of his flock are recalibrated by the truth of God’s Word. He does so by helping them to face the “dark days” squarely in light of “the hope of which we boast” (Heb. 3:6, NIV).
Hope is at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian. When Peter wrote to the scattered disciples of his day, he reminded them that their new birth had ushered them into a “living hope,” which was founded upon the reality of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. He then urged them to set their hope on the grace to be given to them when Jesus Christ is revealed. The pastor must do the same for his flock.
First of all, he must remind them of the radical difference between believers and unbelievers. It is not uncommon to hear Christians trying to assure their unbelieving friends by pointing out that “we are just the same as you.” That is certainly true when it comes to going to work, paying our bills, raising our children, or enjoying our singleness. But when we were included in Christ, we were given the Spirit as a deposit, which guaranteed not simply the immortality of our souls but the resurrection of our bodies. So we do not deny life’s difficulties and disappointments, and neither do we seek to run from them in flights of emotional fancy. Rather, we learn to thank God that all our joy is touched with pain. We acknowledge that the clouds darken our brightest hours and thorns accompany the roses. We groan because of these things, but our groans are not the product of futility and terror.
Last September 11, Christians—like everyone—entered into pain and sadness because of the death and suffering that followed the terrorist attacks. But beyond the immediate impact of the events, they saw further evidence that the whole creation groans in travail waiting for the sons of God to be revealed (Rom. 8:19). The Christian’s hope lies in the fact that the world is not spinning hopelessly out of control, but that God’s sovereignty rests upon the shoulders of Jesus (Isa. 9:6).
Second, the pastor must constantly remind his flock that they are aliens and strangers in this world, and that better things lie ahead. They are a peculiar people, and one of their most striking and distinguishing features is an unqualified optimism because God has promised that right, love, and grace finally will triumph when the earth is filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea (Hab. 2:14).
This has all kinds of practical implications, as Raymond Ortlund Jr. points out. “We have the Spirit as others do not. That is why we have longings that others hardly feel. We ask questions they do not trouble themselves with. We are bothered by a state of things they have come to accept. They are living for the weekend; we are living for the End!” As much as we enjoy life, we are aware that the things that are seen are temporary, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
It is this yearning and longing for something yet unseen that is encapsulated in the word hope. When Paul reminded Titus of the “blessed hope,” he urged him to make sure that his congregation did not use it as an excuse to drop out and wait. It was to be for them a call to dig in and work. Holy living marks those who are really watching and waiting. They have taken seriously the advice of Jonathan Edwards: “Never do anything which you would be afraid to do were it the last hour of your life.”
At the same time, the hope-filled Christian longs that others may come to discover that Christ is the hope of glory. The Christian recognizes that history is not cyclical. It is linear, moving toward a grand finale. He or she is going somewhere, living with a goal in sight. This hope means that all our days and all our deeds may prove to be good for something or someone. Such a life will prove attractive in a world that is marked increasingly by futility and despair. Human beings cannot live without hope. Mere survival is not enough if we are going to save ourselves from becoming irremediably hopeless.
Dante, in The Divine Comedy, makes the inscription over the gate of hell to read, “All hope abandon, you who enter here!” What hope do we have that our unbelieving friends and relatives will be converted? Well, we remind ourselves that we were once like them. If God has changed our lives by His sovereign grace, then there’s hope for anyone!
So while the pessimist looks down and the fearful look around, pastors must help their flocks to lift their eyes and look up. The Lord God omnipotent reigns!