June 27, 2012

Helpful Hope

I recently saw a sign that read “Evenings at 7:00 in the Parish Hall: Monday, Alcoholics Anonymous; Tuesday, Abused Spouses; Wednesday, Eating Disorders; Thursday, Say No to Drugs; Friday, Teen Suicide Watch; Saturday, Soup Kitchen; Sunday, Our Joyous Future in Christ.”

When do the problems and challenges of life stop? The truth is, they don’t—not on this side of eternity. So what is your reaction when you see the nightly news filled with problems, calamities, conflicts on the local, national, and international fronts? How do you react when the worst possible thing happens at the worst possible time? What is your reaction when external problems become internal problems? Do you sigh about the inequities of life? Do you ignore them? Or do you commiserate about how messy life is?

An Example of Hope
2012 1518 page29In this same vein Paul famously wrote to the Corinthians so that “we do not lose heart” (2 Cor. 4:16). He wrote this passage after summarizing the troubles he and his coworkers had faced: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus” (verses 8-10).

A study published in Nature Neuroscience (October 2011) by researchers at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College in London presents evidence that people who are naturally optimistic learn only from information that reinforces their rosy outlook.

The findings of this insightful study seem to apply to Paul, but do they really? Paul’s positive outlook was based on a hope that was Word-based versus world-based. Paul categorized all his troubles as “light and momentary troubles” that “are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (verse 17). To Paul the “eternal” weight of “glory” was so real he could genuinely view his present troubles as temporary, only for a time.

Paul was hopeful despite the multitudinous problems he faced. While some readers might conclude that Paul was just being optimistic, they miss a profound point. Hope to Paul was a helpful tool to deal with the problems and challenges of life; it was not the end, but a means to the end, an eternal end. Hope helped him to see beyond the problem to the ultimate solution.

Believers can’t ignore the problems of life that daily vex and perplex. Yes, we must deal with loss and sickness and death, often having to pray and agonize through painful situations. And yes, while it is true that we should not be so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good, the Word of God provides helpful hope when things appear hopeless and gives the basis for confidence and provides strength to move forward.

Hope Versus Optimism
In his book Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith, Henri Nouwen offers a helpful distinction between a substantial hope and a rosy optimism. He explains, “Optimism and hope are radically different attitudes. Optimism is the expectation that things—the weather, human relationships, the economy, the political situation, and so on—will get better. Hope is the trust that God will fulfill God’s promises to us in a way that leads us to true freedom. The optimist speaks about concrete changes in the future. The person of hope lives in the moment with the knowledge and trust that all of life is in good hands.”

Nouwen goes on to say that all the great spiritual leaders in history were people of hope: Abraham, Moses, Ruth, Mary, Jesus, Gandhi; and they all lived with a promise in their hearts that guided them toward the future without the need to know exactly what that future would look like.

Choosing Hope
Hope may not be our natural default now, but it can be! We can believe hope, talk hope, and live hope. It is our privilege and responsibility to be hopeful at all times in every situation. We, like the great believers of old, can realize the helpfulness of hope as we move toward our eternal reward (see Heb. 11:16).

Delbert W. Baker is a general vice president of the General Conference. This article was published June 28, 2012.