I wrote the following piece in the wake of the 2016 POTUS election, to offer to my audience a possibly-new view on why the confused, hurting, and anxious hearts of this country, and this world, wouldn’t find healing, nor even just get by, simply on positivity or optimism, and why we need much more than those platitudes. Halfway through President Trump’s term, our country is only more divided; so I do believe there is abundant relevance left in this message.
A brilliant man (Google him if you like) once challenged his listeners with this: “What does it profit a person, if he gains the whole world but forfeits his very soul?” Now, it seems to me that unless you’re a decided physicalist who disavows the existence of the soul or anything metaphysical (meaning, beyond the confines of the material world), then you probably see the truth in this statement. You can have an accumulation of wealth and personal possessions, notoriety and social status, a good career, big family, good physical health, and so on, and still suffer deep despair in an emotional/spiritual way. You can lack joy despite have everything stacked in your favor. The reverse is true too; I’ve heard stories told by missionaries, of poor locals in remote villages who are ever-joyful for metaphysical reasons, despite their unhealthy, impoverished living conditions.
So then what is this foundational thing we all desire in this life, which the physical cannot fulfill? HOPE. What power in those four little letters. Barack Obama ran his first presidential campaign virtually on this single word alone, and won.
“Hope” serves as a relatively commonplace verb in our linguistics, as in, “I sure hope at least one person reading this post makes it all the way to the end.”
You’ll also hear various agents of change using “hope” as a goal or a tool. But like in my sentence above, they are using it more as a “hope that…” rather than a “hope in…” (more on that below). But what sets apart game-changing hope from optimism and positive thinking, from the “if you can dream it you can do it” mentality of your dime-a-dozen gurus?
For starters, optimism requires little more than the individual experiencing it and an environment in which to have the experience. Optimism is training yourself to look on the bright side everytime. “Rain on my wedding day? Lovely; after all, we’re in a drought.” But such an enterprise is only likely to appeal to a person inclined toward a strong willpower, as she will be forced to strain her eyes in search of the silver lining even when there’s nothing available but a silver vapor. Stronger still must the person’s willpower be to let such thinking be the rudder that steers her outlook on all of life. To me this sounds like an exhaustive endeavor; nevertheless I think it might be one undertaken (or attempted) by a surprisingly high number of us — including you, including me at times. Eventually, though, my guess is that optimism wears a person out. When the circumstances become bleak enough, the bootstraps you’ve tugged for so long will probably break. You hear of such breaking points in tragic stories of Jews during WWII who had their families, businesses, homes, pride, and health stripped of them in an instant, and in such an environment, any optimism they once held was stamped out, leaving only despair.
The form of hope that I’m attempting to describe, not hope THAT [X will happen] but rather hope IN [something/someone outside one’s self] is a different matter than optimism. I read a story about a gent named Andy, who was cancer-stricken with a fatal prognosis. Yet the staff at his office and his personal friends all marveled at how calm and at peace he remained. They asked whether he was hopeful that his cancer would be cured, to which he unequivocally answered no. He trusted his doctors and the statistics about his particular diagnosis so that he did not retain any pie-in-the-sky hope THAT his cancer would go away. Andy knew he was very likely going to die from it, and soon. He was a realist, not a foolhardy optimist. (This obviously did not mean he’d very much like the idea of being cured, but that idea was not a fantasy he allowed to take root.) So then what was the source of his calm? It was hope IN…
Let me illustrate. As I write this portion of my post, I’m standing above some cliffs overlooking La Jolla Cove. If I lost my footing and started to fall, I’d instinctively grab at any root, branch or thing I could find, with hopes that my descent will halt. So if I just hope hard enough to stop falling, then grab the nearest twig, will I be saved? No. But a sturdy branch could very well do the trick, even if my hope of surviving is slim. Do you see? There’s no requirement on my part to have any grand measure of hope THAT I’ll not fall, as long as I have hope IN a worthwhile, strong and trusty object.
Pastor Andy had hope IN something. Because for hope to be practically meaningful, and to be real and beneficial in the times that matter, when optimism has no natural place, you must have hope in something transcendent, not just hope THAT circumstances will go a particular way. Andy didn’t blindly hope that his cancer would go away (or if he did, it wasn’t the rudder steering him, as mentioned above); instead, he held fast to hope in a transcendent God who, according to the words of His son Jesus, considers us–Andy, you, me, mankind–His greatest joy. Knowing that the metaphysical God, the Creator of the whole universe and everything in it, loved him deeply, and knew his plight, his fears and loves and quirks and history and dreams, allowed Andy to experience peace that surpasses understanding. As a surprising ending, Andy’s cancer did miraculously disappear. But no matter what circumstances befall him in this life, Andy won’t be relying on the twigs of optimism or positive thinking to save him in the darkest times; he will trust and have hope in Jesus for peace that surpasses understanding.
Now, whether Jesus and the God he claimed to represent are worthy of our hope is a topic I will gladly cover another day, but at least you see the difference between arbitrary feelgoodery and measured trust in a strong object/person. And if there’s any part of you that believes the Judeo-Christian worldview to be true, I urge you to try putting your hope in Jesus when you feel this world is bleak. Jesus’ apostle Matthew, in the biography/gospel that he wrote, quoted Jesus saying: “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house, but it did not collapse because it had been founded on rock. Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house, and it collapsed; it was utterly destroyed!” And then, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry…”