Holding on to Hope
George Bernard Shaw once observed that “Both optimists and pessimists contribute to society. The optimist invents the airplane, the pessimist the parachute.” We need a bit of both, don’t we? Christians aren’t required to be optimists, nor are we condemned to be pessimists. Both outlooks are fully human and may be harnessed to serve the Kingdom of God. What is required, however, is hope.
Hope is different from optimism. Optimism sees things through rose-colored glasses and is sure that everything will work out just fine. Hope, on the other hand, sees the possibility of desperation and rejects it. Hope knows the pain and still holds on. Hope is lost in darkness and nonetheless trusts that light will return. Hope has no clear answers about how everything will be made right, except to trust in God’s goodness. It exchanges the surety of the optimist for the faith of the believer. Optimism, on the other hand, can easily be dashed by disappointing situations, and can become disillusioned by failure, lack of progress, and setbacks. In this way, its ungrounded cheeriness could lead to despair. Hope, on the other hand, joins Jesus on the cross in apparent failure and abandonment—crying out, “My God! My God! Why hast Thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46) —and yet trusts that God will somehow make this all right: “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46).
As optimism is distinct from hope, pessimism is different from despair. Pessimism assumes things will go wrong and get worse, and that sin and selfishness will continue to afflict us. If it does not cling to hope, pessimism may indeed devolve into despair. With hope, though, the pessimist puts his/her negative vision of the state of the world into prophetic action for change and compassion. With hope, we comfort one another through the suffering. With hope, we work for a better world, against all odds, fully aware that our best efforts cannot ultimately bring about the fullness of the Kingdom of God. That Kingdom will be God’s gift, the epic restoration (and more!) of justice and harmony won by Christ and accomplished by the Spirit, through the Church and in the world, to the glory of God the Father. It is one way of naming the object of our hope.
Job understood pessimism, and who can blame the poor guy? When he cries out on the brink of despair, can’t we relate? Haven’t we experienced the darkness and depression? Haven’t we known those endless, sleepless nights that he describes? In his tortured state, he even seems to reach hopelessness, but we know he hangs on: “Job spoke, saying: Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery? …If in bed I say, ‘When shall I arise?’ then the night drags on… My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle; they come to an end without hope… I shall not see happiness again.”
The important lesson from Job—the very indication that he holds on to hope—is that from his misery he cries out to God. He complains bitterly. He even accuses God of treating him unfairly. He is terribly pessimistic about life, God’s providence, and his destiny. Still, he remains in communication with God, and therefore in communion. We know from our human relationships that as long as we continue talking and listening, we remain in relationship. There is still hope. When we walk away permanently, it is over. To break off all communication is to give up, to be hopeless. There are few more painful experiences in life than having someone we love cut off all communication. We are afflicted by the devastating lack of hope for healing, and the knowledge that we don’t matter enough for the other person to even continue trying. We suffer from the words and efforts we would like to communicate that are now stunted and moot. It is so painful and frustrating to not be able to speak those words! Job does not do this with God. As distressed, depressed, and close to despair as he is, he remains in communication.
Staying in communication with God—even if our words must be words of pain and anger, even if we bring pessimism to the conversation, even if we feel that God isn’t listening and has abandoned us on the cross—is the wellspring and the expression of hope. It is built on a firm faith that, even though I may not be experiencing it yet, God “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” It is an expression of love that refuses to walk away. So, fly when you can; and carry a parachute if you must; but never stop talking and listening to God, even if only silently in the heart, even if the speech is full of gloom and agony and accusation, for as the title of this blog reminds us, The Word Is Life!