Despair and Hope
After seventeen years of pastoral ministry, I have observed a common thread in the various desires of men and women. It’s not the accumulation of wealth, the pleasure of passion, or accolades from achievement that ultimately satisfies. It goes much deeper. People need hope in something that is solid and lasting, and they despair when they have no hope.
Despair and False Hope
The great English journalist and satirist Malcolm Muggeridge reflected on human desire, noting certain forms of despair in the twentieth century, particularly among supporters of Stalin in Russia and Western nihilists devoted to materialism. From his analysis, Muggeridge concluded 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, man’s despair of himself. Unfortunately, varied and complex as they are, these remedies have a common thread: their ingenuity and power are limited to merely human resources.
One merely human remedy for overcoming despair is an emotive positive outlook excavated from the depths of one’s soul. This thinking is reflected in well-known phrase “hoping against hope.” 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 straightaway, there is still that chance all through your life that it will.”
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 that 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
True hope starts with the recognition that the life and death of Jesus Christ changed everything. During our Lord’s earthly ministry, Israel’s future hope, spoken of in the Old Testament, became an emphatic present hope. “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 had hung. Peter had said to Jesus: “To whom shall we go? 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. The tomb was empty. Jesus was alive in resurrection glory, having died as an offering for His people’s sin. Such good news is the historical reality in which our theology of hope is rooted. No longer do the chains of human despair bind us. As God’s new creation, we who believe the gospel enjoy the gift of Christ in us, “the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27).
Indeed, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in each Christian makes Christian hope accessible. We don’t somehow conjure it up by the strength of our wills. Rather, the Spirit brings hope by His very presence in us.
The movement of Christian hope has a discernable trajectory. First and foremost, this hope directs us to God, encouraging us to approach each new day coram Deo, before the face of God. But this hope also directs us toward one another in love. It moves us toward other people, which requires involvement in one another’s lives. It is a multidirectional hope that is both vertical in our relationship with God and horizontal in our relationship with one another.
But Christian hope doesn’t mean that the Christian life is all peaches and cream. Until Jesus returns, we will experience sin and suffering. The pattern of our life as Christians is the cross of Christ; we cannot rise with Christ unless we have first died with Him. As Paul states, “The sting of death is sin” (1 Cor. 15:56), which lays all of us in the dust. But Jesus went lower still, even to death on a cross, in order to atone for our sins. Therefore, we have hope that whatever challenge comes our way, God’s grace is greater than our sin; it is always sufficient (2 Cor. 12:9).
This kind of solid and lasting hope is what everyone truly wants, and it is a gift that we enjoy in Christ: a living hope.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on April 8, 2020.