Hope: Friend or Foe?

Hope LetterpressI’ve been thinking about hope lately.

Last year on Mother’s Day, we assembled a panel of moms from our congregation, and asked them questions. My wife was on the panel, and part of what she talked about was our own struggle with secondary infertility before the birth of our second child.

One of the challenges she mentioned was how we faced a constant battle with hope. We wanted to have another child, but there was no guarantee that we would. The hope itself was painful at times, but we couldn’t let go of it either. We needed our hope, but our hope also punched us in the gut every single month for nearly 2 years.

Most of us face this tension at some point or other: Is hope my friend or my enemy? What if the things I hope for never happen? Am I a fool to hope for things I cannot guarantee will happen? Should I simply give up on hope altogether? But if I do, won’t I just turn into a faithless cynic?

I’ve often read Romans 5:3-5 and wondered what Paul was trying to say. What does he mean when he says, “hope does not disappoint”? It seems strange; there’s no doubt that sometimes hope does just that – it disappoints us. Is he simply saying that we should give up on earthly hopes and just accept that all our hopes will be realized in heaven? But then what’s the point of enduring earthly trials at all?

If it’s clear that some kinds of hope disappoint us, what kind of hope doesn’t?

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had to wrestle with the paradox of hope more and more often. And I think I’ve started to see a slightly clearer picture of what Romans 5 is talking about. The hope Paul wrote about is a hope that is forged specifically through enduring trials. He describes this chain of events: trial brings about endurance, endurance brings about proven character, and proven character brings about hope. And that type of hope, the hope that springs out of trial, doesn’t “put us to shame.” It doesn’t humiliate us or let us down.

I used to think, “OK, so hope doesn’t put us to shame, because we are hoping to go to heaven one day, and then everything will be alright again.”

But that’s not what Paul says here. Our hope is not rooted in going to heaven someday, at least not right here in this passage. This hope is rooted in something else, something we have right now: “Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”

Our hope is rooted in God’s love, the love we have right now through the Holy Spirit. Our hope emerges from an ever-deepening understanding that God loves us. God loves us so much that He gave His Son for us (Romans 6:6-7). That’s the objective proof of God’s love. But Paul takes us even further than that.

The reason that endurance produces hope is that enduring trials leads us to a greater and greater understanding of the love of God on a personal level. In other words, we don’t simply know about God’s love, we actually feel it. As our character is tested by trials, we paradoxically feel God’s love in a deeper way – not some future version of God’s love, but a “right-now” version of His love. In our hearts. Today.

Here’s what I’ve found on a practical level in the midst of trial: At every single stage of that trial, I am forced to ask myself, “Do I really believe that God loves me? Even now? Do I really believe that He is the Giver of every good gift, even now?” If my answer to that is, “No,” then my suffering is meaningless, and my hope turns to despair. If God doesn’t see me, if He doesn’t care, than hope truly is my enemy. But if the answer to that question is, “Yes,” then there is always, always hope. And it’s a friendly hope.

It’s a hope that is rooted squarely in the reality of God’s love for me. He loves me right now, He’s working everything out for good right now (that’s Romans 8:28), and He sees me right now, and He’s with me right now. Yes, I have the hope of a future resurrection, but I also have the hope that something critical and meaningful is happening in me and through me right now.

And the more I train my mind and my heart to cling to that type of hope, the more I come to realize that it never disappoints me, even when things don’t work out like I hoped they would. I start to see all of life through the lens of a greater hope – I see evidence of God’s work where I previously saw a barren wasteland of hopelessness. The trials don’t hurt any less, but somehow my hope in God grows ever deeper.

This isn’t a straight line of ever-increasing hope and trust, by the way. All too often, when I ask myself the question, “Does God love me, even now,” I find that my heart and mind respond, “I’m not so sure.” But the longer I walk with Him, the more I have days when I say, “Yes. I don’t see it clearly right now, but I trust Him anyway.”

And so my character is trained to trust Him. Because either God is at work in the midst of life’s pain, or despair is the only logical option. And the deeper I lean into the love of God, poured out in my heart through the Holy Spirit, the more I see that this kind of hope never disappoints. Regardless of what happens to me next, God loves me right now, and God sees me right now, and God is at work even now to make all things new.

So there is always hope. And we can make friends with hope, because we know that this sort of hope never disappoints.

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I Can Tell You of Hope

 

forest-sunrise-1425966-mNote: I posted this on my personal Facebook page earlier in the week and felt it was worth reposting on my blog.

Heavy week. Violence in Baltimore. Marriage debate before the Supreme Court. Natural disaster in Nepal.

All of it seems way above my pay grade, way beyond my capacity to fix or fully comprehend.

That’s why it matters today that God is present, even in the darkest corners of a broken world (Psalm 139).

That’s why it matters today that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, that God’s own Beloved Son made a home among rebels like us (John 1:14). He came because He even loves people I don’t like or understand. He came because He even loves me.

That’s why it matters that the Son who is full of grace and truth humbled Himself to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:5-11).

That’s why it matters that the same Son rose from the grave three days later, vanquishing death, conquering sin, and offering life to all who trust Him (1 Cor 15).

That’s why it matters that His Spirit is here, right in the midst of suffering, right in the midst of pain, whispering to a broken world, “God loves you” (Rom 8).

That’s why it matters that Jesus is coming back, not only to join our world this time, but to fix it once for all. No more pain. No more tears. No more death or sin or violence or disaster. No more death (Rev 21:4).

I can no more fix the world than I can raise the dead, but I know Somebody who can do both. So what can I do? I can grieve. I can pray. I can try to understand. I can help others with the limited resources God has given me. I can look with hope toward the day of final redemption and pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

And I can tell you about the hope found in Jesus, praying you’ll come to know it deeply, through the Spirit of the One who loves Baltimore, Nepal, and even Washington, D.C. He loves His world, and He loves you too.

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Hope from Barrenness

tear-drop-573486-mReDiscovered Word 17

(1 Samuel 1-2)

Hope was no friend of the barren woman. Hope served only to disappoint, month after month, year after year, as the hoped-for child never appeared. Longing turned to bitterness, and bitterness became hopelessness.

Hope became Hannah’s enemy, and she wept bitterly. She made promises to God and begged Him for mercy. Her emotions were so strong that her priest thought she was drunk. Her pain was so piercing that she couldn’t even speak when she prayed. She poured out her soul to God, hoping against hope, even in the face of hope’s enmity.

She yearned to bring forth life, but her body betrayed her. “Barren” was a terrible word, but accurate. Hannah’s heart dwelt in the desert. Lifeless. Devoid of hope. Barren.

But God brings hope to the hopeless. “He raises the poor from the dust, he lifts the needy from the ash heap.” Out of barrenness God calls forth life. It has been His way since the beginning of the world.

The God who sits enthroned on high heard the prayer of a poor barren woman. He took away her reproach and gave her a son.

She named him Samuel. “God heard.” He listened to her prayer. Her weeping did not escape Him, and He answered.

When God is near, hope is near. Hopelessness, barrenness, and death may have their day, but they cannot prevail forever. 

Out of the ash heap of Hannah’s broken dreams, God brought forth a prophet who would judge the nation. A leader who would anoint and depose kings. He proclaimed hope and life to a nation mired in despair and far from God. He was a living representative of the power of God, this man who sprang from a barren womb.

Hope from barrenness is God’s specialty. He knows what it is like to weep for a lost son. He knows the sting of death and hopelessness, but also He has the power to overturn it. Only He can bring hope from hopelessness, life from death, growth from barrenness.

He hears your cries. He knows your hurt. He is drawing us toward the day when He will restore eternal hope to we who live in the shadow of lifelessness and death.

In His presence, hope will never disappoint. Month after month, day after day, we will dwell in the presence of all-consuming Life. Barrenness will cease forever and Life will drown out all hopelessness. Forever and ever.

“My heart exults in the Lord…because I rejoice in Your salvation.”

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How to Be Joyful (When You Don’t Feel Like It)

Last weekend, as I was relaxing with my family and preparing to preach on Sunday, I received the news that my 91-year-old grandfather had passed away. It just so happened that I was preparing to preach from Philippians 4:4-9, which begins with this command: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, ‘Rejoice!’”

The juxtaposition of grief and joy shaped my sermon in some significant ways. Living with the tension between loss and hope, between death and new life, sharpened my thinking about what it looks like to be joyful in the midst of our fallen world. I thought I would share the sermon with my readers this week, as it expresses what I’ve been thinking about lately. In this case, I think the spoken message communicates my thoughts more clearly than would a long blog post.

I hope you find this message encouraging and helpful: 

http://www.grace-bible.org/resources/sermons/how-to-be-joyful-anderson

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The Growing Culture of Millennial Anger

I’m a bit concerned that the Millennial generation is becoming an angry generation. Not every young adult is hopping mad, of course, or even the majority of them. It does seem to be a significant and vocal minority, though.

Last weekend I ran across this open letter from a recent high school graduate. The Millennial author complains about constantly being told that her generation is a bunch of lazy whiners who think they deserve special treatment just for being born. She places the blame for her current situation squarely on the shoulders of the Baby Boomer generation, who in her opinion wantonly consumed the world’s resources and then placed unrealistic expectations upon their children and grandchildren.

If that letter were the only sign of this growing anger, I’d chalk it up to the ravings of one disillusioned young woman. However, I’ve also seen it popping up on my Facebook news feed. There’s no doubt that the current economic climate is tough for recent graduates. Many are having a hard time finding jobs or making ends meet. As a result, I’ve been seeing some angry comments written by frustrated young job-seekers who are tired of rejection and anxious about their futures.

Here’s the truth: If you’re graduating from college right now, the odds are high that you’re in for a tough road. My generation — the infamous Gen X, another group pegged with the “lazy whiner” label — was probably the last generation for which high-paying corporate jobs were a reasonable expectation upon college graduation. The economic climate has dramatically shifted in the past 15-20 years. Right now, there are simply more college graduates than there are good jobs.

So anger and cynicism and bitterness could be considered a normal and expected response to the current reality of your life. After all, you face a less certain future, in many ways, than your parents or even your older siblings. For your entire life, you’ve been promised that a college degree would result in a good job, and unmet expectations are frustrating. The loss of control, or at least the illusion of control, over one’s future is terrifying. And in some cases, the generations preceding you (including my own) have been completely unsympathetic and unhelpful.

It occurred to me this week, though, that my grandparents’ generation faced many of the same challenges that Millennials are currently facing. The 1930s and 1940s weren’t fun times for most people. The current unemployment rate is between 8% and 15%, depending upon which pundits you read. In 1933, unemployment rates hit 25% – 30%. Ouch.

It was during those years that my grandparents went to high school and college. Shortly after college graduation they faced a major World War, as well. If anybody had a reason to be angry, cynical, and bitter, they did.

Yet we don’t remember their generation for their anger or bitterness, but for their resilience and perseverance. We remember them as a generation that chose to face their challenges with joy and courage, creating a better life for their children and grandchildren. Crummy circumstances, great attitude. That’s why we still call them The Greatest Generation.

Lest this sound like one of those “shut and stop yer whining” speeches, let me make my point clear. I think the challenges faced by the Millennial generation can become a springboard to unbelievable opportunity. I think this generation has the potential to distinguish itself as a generation of perseverance, integrity, hard work, and strong character. I think you have the chance to be remembered as another Greatest Generation, depending on how you face the challenges life is dishing out to you today. In fact, I’m optimistic that your generation will be remembered as a stronger and more productive one than my own, or than my parents’ generation.

Of course, all of this hinges upon the attitude Millennials take as they meet the world that awaits them post-college. Bitterness, anger and cynicism might be justified, but they’re simply not productive. For the Christian students (who constitute a large percentage of my blog’s readership), consider passages like Ephesians 4:31: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” Or Romans 5:3-4: “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”

Will your children and grandchildren tell stories of a generation who allowed trials to shape them into men and women of character and hope? Or will they remember a generation who allowed themselves to be crushed and defeated by uncontrollable circumstances?

To be honest, I can’t really offer you any hope of a near-term economic recovery. I wish I could say that you’ll eventually achieve the American Dream of a well-paying job, a house in the suburbs, and a couple of nice Hondas. But that might not be your future. I really don’t know.

I can say, though, that God is more concerned with your character than with your circumstances. When you reflect on your life in 40 or 50 years, you’ll remember your hardships either as the events that crushed your spirit, or as the events that drew you closer to Jesus. You’ll become a person of hope, or a person of bitterness. I’m curious which one it will be.

For those of you in the Millennial generation, how are you dealing with the poor economic prospects of your generation? What suggestions do you have for those who want to allow trials to shape them into men and women of hope?

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