Two competing soul-states must have animated the various sufferers whom we encounter in the gospels. On the one hand, the specter of hopelessness was ever-present. Some had been in their pitiable condition for many years, as is stated on several occasions. The maladies of body and mind with which they were afflicted could not but have had a doleful effect on the soul. Even believers sometimes feel that their hope and strength are perished from the Lord (Lam. 3:18). While we would like to be possessed of that “hope against hope” that so inspired Abraham (Rom. 4:4), long-standing battles against sin, nagging uncertainty and fear, the world’s constant antagonism, and physical disease often weaken hope. We think: it is simply impossible for things to change, improve, for me to go on much longer. If hopelessness ever takes deep root in the soul, its consequences can be horrible, even tempting to suicide. Though hopelessness is not usually joined with such fatal bitterness, unchecked it can drown the soul in despair and paralysis. The cave of hopelessness is very deep, a dark labyrinth. It is difficult to find the way out after one begins the descent into its recesses.
Their other state was hope. Yes, I know that hopelessness and hope do not seem to match, but is this not something of what Paul means by Abraham’s “hope against hope?” However much we desire the “full assurance of hope” (Heb. 6:11), we often find that our hope is mixed with haunting hopelessness, belief with unbelief. Do we not often cry out: “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief?” Had the lepers, paralytics, and otherwise afflicted not possessed some spark of hope, they would never have cried out after our Lord or expended sparse energy and, in some instances, risked public outcry, to seek him out. And what kept hope alive in them? When all human helps are exhausted, when there does not seem to be any possibility of deliverance, why is hope not extinguished, reducing the sufferer to a miserable existence of hopelessness, no longer willing or able to seek relief or often even to desire it?
This is a question worthy of our careful consideration, for hopelessness pervades western culture. It seems, of course, that everyone is quite happy in his own little world. Life on a credit card, life lived in the constant flicker and feedback of electronic wizardry fosters this delusion. Yet, evidence of hopelessness abounds: constant noise that is intentionally sought to mask the emptiness of the soul; the growing preference for fantasy worlds of entertainment and communication; general apathy toward the loss of liberty, constant regulation, and legalized, government-sponsored theft. What else are these but the fruits of hopelessness? When men lose hope, they no longer have the courage to pursue change and defend liberty but content themselves with surviving. Escapism, isolation, and self-absorption become normalcy. Perversion and even masochism are preferred to the numbness of life in a universe expunged of God. Men abuse their bodies and torture their souls simply to prove to themselves they still live, that they are still men, and not machines, that the shaky shadow of their lives is not simply an illusion.
Are there not also evidences that the church has been infected with hopelessness? Why do the old doctrines and old paths no longer generate enthusiasm? Why is novelty all the rage? Why has church become theater? Why do we think that compromise is necessary to avoid irrelevance? Why do some look to the arm of government to enforce their moral convictions? Why do we hear so little of the triumph of the gospel, the victory of grace over sin, and the onward progress of Christ’s kingdom? Why must we kiss existentialism and its sentimental religion in order to survive in this world? Why is much Christian literature self-centered rather than God-centered, about my problems and curing them rather than concerned with his glory? Descending to the level of the individual soul, why have we grown so desensitized to sin, become moral cowards, and eaten regularly at the swine trough of the world for fear that we are missing out on something? Yet, all hope is not gone, for we keep up religious appearances, tenaciously hold to periodic church attendance, and occasionally hear calls for revival. We still speak of God, Jesus, and the Bible. We have not completely forsaken hope, but hopelessness sits in the back pew, looking for more of the truths of Scripture and practices of apostolic Christianity to sacrifice upon his bleak altar of acquiescence to the spirit of the age.
We should pause here and consider Romans 8:24: “We are saved by hope.” This places us before the significance of hope and clarifies its significance. Saved by hope? I thought we were saved by grace. God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ brings a full complement of virtues and fruits, of which hope is one of the holy triad: faith, hope, and charity. Beyond this, the context of Paul’s statement is the believer’s conflict: with the flesh (vv. 12-14), with fear that often accompanies suffering (vv. 15-18), with this fallen world (vv. 19-22), and with waiting for the full enjoyment of redemption in Christ (v. 23). In the midst of so many occasions for hopelessness, hope enables perseverance and patience (1 Thess. 1:3), frees us from fear of being ashamed of God’s gospel promises (Rom. 5:5), inspires us with the courage to be transparent and bold in our gospel witness (2 Cor. 3:12), and fills us with the joy of the Lord (Rom. 12:12), which, as Nehemiah said, is our strength. Hope is paramount. In a very real sense, we are saved by hope, for whether we consider our redemption itself through Christ’s mediation (Rom. 5:2), being declared righteous before God’s tribunal (Gal. 5:5), God’s calling upon as his sons (Eph. 1:18), or our eternal inheritance (Col. 1:5), hope is the confident expectation that God is faithful, his word certain, and his promises infallible. It is hope that gives us a daily foretaste of the blessings that are ours through our Head, Jesus Christ, strengthening us for conflict, weaning us off the love of the world, and inspiring us to serve God with patience and joy.
Hope is prominent throughout the Bible, for hopelessness is a constant temptation to sinners. Dark times, evil men, and fleshly struggles all combine to attack hope. While hope is our corporate inheritance in our Savior, it is also very personal. Its strength widely varies from believer to believer. It can be almost crushed, but where implanted by the Holy Spirit, it will always gain the victory, for God-given hope will never be disappointed or ashamed (Rom. 5:5). This is because hope is not a whim. In the Bible, hope is always built upon two things: God’s word and resurrection. The former pertains to God’s very veracity. He cannot lie (Heb. 6:18). When he speaks, his word will certainly come to pass. All true, conquering hope is based upon the truthfulness of God himself (Ps. 119:49,81,114; 130:5). This is the reason there is a direct relationship, an unbreakable relationship between hope and our knowledge of God’s word, submission to God’s word, and living in God’s word. A Bible-less Christian, while fundamentally a contradiction in terms, is practically a soul precariously perched upon the precipice of hopelessness. Abraham’s “hope against hope” – from where did this hope arise except from his inward persuasion that “what he had promised he was also able to perform” (Rom. 4:21)? Hence, it is upon this foundation of God’s holy word that we must ever so carefully build if true, vibrant, and invigorating hope is to be recovered in our lives. It is our abandonment of word-centered lives that has greatly weakened our faith and made us easy prey for Satan’s lies, fearful of the world’s mockery, and filled us with cowardice rather than holy boldness in serving our great God and defending his authority.
I said there were two foundations of hope. It is remarkable that the resurrection is already in the Old Testament closely associated with hope. David, speaking as the type of the Messiah, affirms this in Psalm 16:9. Job, in the midst of blackest struggles and agonies of soul, eventually falls back upon: “I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And though after my skin worms destroy my body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed with in me” (19:25-27). Turning to the New Testament, the connection is made clearer. Hope in the resurrection invigorates to action (Acts 24:15-16). Peter says we are “begotten again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3). It is the hope of the resurrection that gives us confidence that our “labors are not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58). Paul was willing to “die daily” and live in constant jeopardy because of his hope in the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:29-32).
What is so significant about the resurrection in its relationship to hope? The resurrection, preeminently of our crucified Savior, but also our resurrection by the power of the “Spirit that raised Christ from the dead,” vindicates the truth of God’s word. It is the supreme vindication. By raising his Son from the dead, the Father fulfilled his central promise: that death would not triumph over life, sin over righteousness, man over God. Every other hope flows from this central hope, for since God has shown himself faithful on the darkest day of human history, he will certainly fulfill every other promise, for they are sealed by the blood of the One who died but who is now alive forevermore.
Seeing that we have such hope, how should we live? In dark times brought on by our sin – and all dark times are brought on by human sin at one level or another – it is not time for hopelessness but repentance (Ezra 10:2). Of course the hope of the hypocrite shall perish, for it is often based upon his wealth, position, and earthly prowess in one form or another (Job 8:13; Prov. 11:7; Prov. 31:24-18), but the hope of the believer never dies. It cannot; it is based upon the certainty of God’s word as vindicated by the resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord. Whatever we see with our eyes, we must hope in God continually, for he is the help of our countenance, and our God (Ps. 39:7; 42:5,11; 43:5; 71:5,14). We must remember, moreover, that the Lord takes great pleasure in those who hope in him (Ps. 147:11). Need we any greater proof of this than our Lord – even surrounded on the cross by so many enemies, the sword of divine justice hanging over him, and being totally abandoned by his friends and forsaken by his Father, he cried: “Thou didst make me hope when I was upon my mother’s breast” (Ps. 22:9). Hope did not forsake him in his darkest hour, and it will not forsake us either, as we abide in him, his word abides in us, and we build our lives upon his word. He is our Head; we are his body, his church for which he shed his blood. To live without hope is to live in denial of his hope, even of his cross.
Let it never be said of us that we lost hope. Yes, we sometimes feel like Jeremiah did: that all our hope and strength is perished from the Lord (Lam. 3:18). The hordes of godless men can make us afraid. The weakness of our flesh and the battle against sin can “dry out our bones and fill our bed with tears.” The sins of our lives are like so many cancers destroying hope. What are we to do? Remember the Lord’s mercy, the sure mercies of David, God’s word and its realization in our Savior’s resurrection. When we call these to mind, when we give ourselves to them, hope will return (Lam. 3:21). For then we will know that the Lord is our portion (Lam. 3:24). “He who spared not his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not much more with him freely give us all things” (Rom. 8:32)? It is a good thing, then, for us to wait quietly in hope for the Lord’s salvation (Lam. 3:26). His word cannot fail. When he raised his Son from the dead, our Father gave a universal, incontrovertible witness of his intention to save this world, trounce Satan, and give the nations to his Son. He made this pledge to you, believer.
Would you have hope rekindled in your breast? Look, there he is – Christ himself is our hope (1 Tim. 1:1)! Hope is not a whimsical feeling, a momentary impulse – it is a person. And where is he? He, our hope, is the anchor of our hope within the very veil of God’s presence (Heb. 6:18-20). This is the reason “full assurance of hope” is our duty and our privilege – because our Lord has purchased it for us and reigns at the Father’s right hand to guarantee the fulfillment of all God’s promises. One day, we shall not need hope, Paul once said. On earth, however, words fail to enforce how necessary it is. It motivates to holiness, for we shall see him and be made like him; hence, hope leads us to purify ourselves even as he is pure (1 John 3:3). Hope makes our life focus his soon return, and thus animates to labor for that day as wise virgins (Tit. 2:13). It gives us a solid vision of heaven, which inspires ardors, motivates service, and deepens love. It helps us live without despair, for we know that “here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come” – not that we are unconcerned with this life but that hope in heaven places this life in its right perspective. All of this is ours in Jesus Christ. Let all our thoughts and affections fly to him immediately! Despair will give way to joy – fear to courage – “hiding our light under a bushel” to “proclaiming from the housetops” – compromise to faithfulness.