Hope Against Hope

I have held off writing on hope even though this virtue has become a constant companion/enemy this last year. Yet, nothing else comes to mind when I think of posting a blog. Life has made hope hard to write about.

In this last year, my oldest son, Peter, has come close to death at least three times. He has been diagnosed with Type One diabetes and has gone into diabetic ketoacidosis multiple times. He has been in three different ICU’s. Twice he has had to be intubated. He has lost so much weight that he looks like a concentration camp survivor. Peter faces many other challenges as well.  He is not a Christian, but we pray and hope.

Teckla has been diagnosed with cancer in both breasts. She will have to decide on a partial or full mastectomy. After surgery, the doctors will stage the cancer to evaluate how far it has spread and whether radiation and chemotherapy is needed. We are hoping for a good recovery.

My brother Stanley died last week. He was 77 and suffering from kidney failure. Teckla and I are cleaning his apartment and sorting through his possessions. It has made us keenly aware of our own mortality and what we hope for as we grow older.

Finding the strength to hope in the midst of all these trials has been hard. Even harder has been thinking through what it means to hope. Both Teckla and I have a secure hope in Christ as our Savior. Our hope for redemption and eternal life is rock solid. Our hope is anchored in the truth of God’s Word and His faithfulness to us over the years.

But this side of eternity, hope gets hard. We are promised fellowship with God; that He will never leave us or forsake us. This is huge! And in some ways, I suppose, should be enough. We are not promised, however, many of the things that our hearts long for.

We are not promised, for instance, that our children will be saved. There is no biblical promise (despite Proverbs 22:6) to anchor this hope. And no matter how securely our own hope for salvation is anchored, we can’t avoid fear and heartache when we think of one of our kids being lost eternally. I know no cure for this fear and pain.

We have no promise that those we love won’t die tragically. I have good (and godly) friends whose children and spouses died. Two friends had sons in their twenties die in accidents. I have thought of this sometimes while sitting at my desk and hoping to hear Peter move around upstairs—evidence he didn’t die during the night.

Teckla and I know women who have died, or are dying, of breast cancer. We hope for the best, of course, and the prognosis seems good thus far, but we also know we have no clear promise from God that Teckla’s cancer won’t be fatal. In the dark of night this fear constricts my heart and unfurls a sad future without her. Is this fear a failure to hope?

Time can erode our hope. For many years I have hoped and prayed to see a real visitation of God on a community—a revival that floods the community and changes the culture of a city. I sometimes despair of ever seeing this. In Myrtle Point the church seems more, not less, irrelevant. God is seldom given a thought, it seems. Of course, I have no guarantee that I will live to see the move of God for which I have been praying.

On this side of eternity hope is dangerous because disappointment can be fatal to our faith. Proverbs 13:12 observes that hope deferred makes the heart grow sick. Langston Hughes captures this truth when he asks, “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore—And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over—like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?” The answer is probably all the above.

Some hearts have shriveled like a raisin because they hoped God would save their marriage, but He didn’t. Some hearts are open sores because despite all the prayers desperately flung toward God, a child suffered and died or a spouse was eaten up by cancer. Some give up, hate God, and let bitterness blow apart their lives and strip away all hope on both sides of death. For me, hope just “sags” like a heavy load. Hope on the other side of eternity can give me strength and perseverance, but hope for things on this side feels heavy.

I could just give up hoping for things in this mess of a life. I could even make it sound spiritual by declaring that my only hope is one anchored in Jesus and the promise of an eternity with Him. But when I contemplate actually giving up hope for things this side of eternity, I realize the paradox of hope. I can’t live with it, I can’t live without it.

There is no avoiding the risk of hoping for good things, protection, healing, help, and salvation in this life. Some will come, and some won’t. We are given the Holy Spirit as a down-payment on your future redemption, but it isn’t the whole thing. Sometimes people will be healed, sometimes a miracle will happen. But all these expressions of God’s presence and power are partial—a sign pointing to our eventual full salvation and transformation into the likeness of Jesus. Despair in this life means missing these signposts pointing to our eternal hope.

I also fear that giving up hope means giving up love. How can I love my sons and not hope for their salvation, their health, and happiness? How can I keep my deep and passionate love for Teckla from hoping for her healing? How can I love my community and the church without aching to see God visit us and heal broken hearts? Love risks disappointment and delay.

And as spiritual as it sounds to place every hope in eternity, to genuinely do so is to hope for death. Paul comes close to this in Philippians, when he exclaims, “I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake” (1:23—24). The rest of the letter makes clear how many good things he hoped to impart and see when he comes to them again. His love kept him hoping for things on both sides of eternity.

So I hold fiercely to my hope for redemption and an eternity in which every tear is dried and every heart healed. I hold tightly, but not too tightly, to every promise for good on this side of eternity. I pray and let my hope nourish my perseverance. I embrace the risk of love.

As a model for how to hope and yet not be destroyed by disappointment, I look at a couple grim stories in the Scripture. After David’s sin with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah, Nathan tells David that because of these sins, his son will die. For the next seven days David prays, fasts, and weeps before the Lord. The son dies anyway. But after his son dies, David washed, put on clean clothes and went to worship the Lord. When asked about this, David replies, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows, the Lord may be gracious to me, that the child may live.’”

Often those facing trials and fears are urged to trust God. My response is to politely ask, “Trust him for what?” The question catches some by surprise. I sometimes follow it up by asking, “For Teckla’s cancer to be cured? For the salvation of my kids? For protection from tragedy and accidents?” I think David gives the right answer. He hopes in first in the gracious character of God, and then has the courage to ask for grace and mercy.

As much as we hate ambiguity, we should love David’s, “Who knows, the Lord may be gracious.” We are called to live and pray in the uncertainty of “Who knows?” If David can hold on to hope in the face of a clear word from God that his son would die, I can find the courage to boldly pray for each of my sons, no matter how far they may wander. Because we have a revelation of God’s everlasting lovingkindness, we pray and hope for things on this side of eternity but are ready to worship if our prayer is not answered. We pray because God is good and “Who knows?”

There is also some ambiguity in the answer of Shadrach, Meschach, and Abed-nego to the threats of Nebuchadnezzar. They assert, “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king.” But then they add, “But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” They make clear that their obedience to God is not conditional on God delivering them. We can hope boldly and pray courageously for things on this side of eternity, but we can’t make any of these hopes the foundation of our worship and obedience.

For Christmas Teckla and I got each other inexpensive anchor pendants—the Christian symbol for hope (based on Hebrews 6:19). Teckla wears hers on a chain and I wear mine on a shoestring.  They are troublesome. When we hug, our pendants sometimes catch each other. They keep getting tangled in things—especially in the curly hair of our grandson, Ari.  

About Mark

I live in Myrtle Point, Oregon with my wife Teckla and am the father of four boys. Currently I teach writing and literature at Southwest Oregon Community College. I am a graduate of Myrtle Point High School, Northwest Nazarene College, and have a Masters in English from Washington State University.
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