The dynamics of hope—sacred or secular, are revealed in Romans 8:24-25:
Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
The ancient Greeks understood the dynamics of hope. You remember the story of Pandora. According to Greek mythology she was the first woman. Zeus gave Pandora a beautiful container with instructions not to open it under any circumstance. Impelled by her curiosity, which had also been given to her by the gods, Pandora opened it, and all evil contained therein escaped and spread over the earth. She hastened to close the container, but the whole contents had escaped, except for one thing that lay at the bottom, the one thing that we really need to make life bearable: hope.
Very few people in the history of the world have believed the story of Pandora to be literally true. Yet, most people would agree about the importance of hope.
Let me give you an example. Some years ago I was asked to serve on a committee to help our local school system define a list of character traits to be taught our children under the umbrella of “Good Citizenship.” A score of us spent hours and hours discussing traits for inclusion on the list. Though we came to it on our own, we finally adopted the same list proposed by our State Legislature in The Student Citizen Act of 1996. The eight traits were all good and desirable:
- Good Judgment
As we finalized the list, I suggested that we add one more: Hope. Most of the people in the room knew I was a pastor. I suppose that made them suspicious. Maybe they thought that hope was too “religious.” My suggestion was voted down. However, I had the pleasure of noting that when we stood for the vote, every minority parent and teacher in the room voted with me. They voiced their approval, too. One woman said:
“If our children don’t have some hope of success in school, and some hope for a better life when they have finished school, then nothing else will matter to them.”
She went on to say that many of the youth in our city were well aware that the people who sold hamburgers at the burger joint did not make nearly so much money as the people who sold crack and cocaine in the parking lot behind the burger joint. She said it was a lack of hope that drove our children to drugs and promiscuous sex, and to being drug dealers and gang members. She said it was a lack of hope that led to lives of crime and violence.
And we should not believe for a minute that this epidemic of hopelessness will not enter our houses and touch our children. It will. When a society is sick, it affects everyone.
In his book, The World Is Flat, Hot and Crowded, Thomas Friedman said the same thing on a much larger scale. He said that the Muslims that become Jihadists are those who live in countries where there was no hope for a better life. They choose martyrdom and the hope of Paradise over a life of poverty and hopelessness. He says to defeat the Jihadists; we must give them some hope.
Wow, that is a whole new strategy for the war on terror.
And what about those who are ill? If people believe that their illness is unto death, they either give-up the fight and become despondent, or they reconcile themselves to the inevitable, and make the best of the time they have left. However, if they have a hope of beating the disease, then they fight back, and their attitude helps their doctors help them. I like the new billboard that Baptist Hospital has placed on Business 40 near Stratford Road: A man looks out at the traffic, smiles, and says: “I have cancer, but cancer does not have me.” That is hopeful!
So, I hope you will agree with me that hope is a good thing.
Hope is a good thing, yet false hope and unreasonable expectation cause a lot of necessary pain and anguish.
Last week we were talking about depression. We saw that a major cause of situational induced depression is the gap between what we expect (or hope) to gain from our situation in life and what we actually gain from it.
- A woman hopes a 20% raise and gets 4%. She can’t help but be a little disappointed and discouraged.
- A man hopes to court a woman he has secretly admired for years. Then, one day, she shows up at work with a diamond on her hand, given by a man she has known for a month. Oops! He waited too long! As the bard said, “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads to greater things; omitted, all the voyage of life is bound in shallows and misery.”
- A lot of people pin a lot of hope on the acquisition of things as the source of happiness. Led Zeppelin sings a song about a woman building “a Stairway to Heaven” out of the things that she buys, absolutely sure that all that glitters really is gold. Led Zeppelin was right—you can’t buy a stairway to heaven. We can buy happiness, but the kind of happiness we buy does not last very long. We buy something new, and we bring it home, and the chocolate wears off, and immediately, we need to buy something else.
Let me say it again, much depression is caused by the gap between what we expect and what we get.
I have a friend, an astute businessman and manager, who once said to me, “Worth, there are three kinds of people in the world: 1) Those who are about as good as they think they are. 2) Those who are better than they think they are. 3) Those who are not as good as they think they are.
It is this third type of person who is constantly disappointed and depressed—because they have given themselves over to unrealistic expectations and false hopes.
Christians can avoid being this third type by searching out themselves before God. In Romans 12:3 St. Paul says:
“Don’t think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think, but think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned to him (or her).”
Speaking of false hope. I would be less than honest if I did not point out that some people think that religious hope is the source of all ills.
In his book, The True Believer, Eric Toffler makes a distinction between “hope that is just around the corner,” which he regards as good, and right, and true, because it often “spurs people to action,” and “hope that lives in the far distant future,” and acts like an opiate in that it robs people of their desire and the ability to act.
Thus a slave tolerates his chains, because he believes that judgment day is coming, and God is going to free him, and enslave his master.
In this, and in other ways Toffler warns against the false hope of “a heavenly reward,” or what many have called, “Pie-in-the-Sky-Bye-and-Bye.”
Let’s explore this idea of a distant hope, and a heavenly reward.
Perhaps some of you have seen the 2009 movie starring Ricky Gervais entitled, “The Invention Of Lying.” The movie is set in an alternative reality were everybody speaks the absolute truth. Then Ricky’s character, Mark, comes along.
Mark invents the lie. At first he uses it to cheat his bank, and to sleep with gullible women, and to make himself rich. Then something really big happens. His mother has a heart attack. When he hears of it, Mark rushes to the hospital. The doctor tells him that his mother is going to die. She is terrified of death. Mark loves his mother so he uses his new talent. Through his tears he tells her that death is the gateway to a joyful afterlife. He describes heaven for her. According to the movie, it is all a lie; but Mark’s mother dies happy, and the doctors and nurses appear awed by this. The word gets out. Soon Mark is a worldwide celebrity. People seek him out in droves. They want to know how he knows about “heaven.” Under pressure from the woman he loves, he tells people that he talks to a “Man in the Sky.” He says that this Man controls everything, and that the Man in the Sky has given him a list of Ten Rules—which he has written down on a pizza box. He says that these Ten Rules promise great rewards in the good place after people die, as long as people do no more than their limit of bad things.
This is the film’s version of religion. It is not a new idea. Nietzsche said that hope (especially religious hope) is the worst of evils, because it prolongs man’s torments. Marx called religion “an opiate for the Masses.” John Lennon asked my generation to imagine a world with “no heaven,” and “no religion, too.” He asked us to “live for today.”
Living for today does not seem like a bad plan for those who have a long future. But what about those who do not? What about those whose eyes have grown dim, and whose “keepers of the house” have started to tremble? What who are nearing that last cloudy day after which the sun will not return? What about those who have moved their tent within easy reach of death and the grave? Are they happy without faith and hope?
In the letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle calls this attitude the state of being “…without God and having no hope.”
From time to time people ask me if the hope that we Christians hope is built upon a lie.
I do not think it is. If ever I did think our faith was built upon a lie, I would come to you and say to you, “Let us quit pretending there is a God.” “Let us leave the church.” “Let us eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” One happy agnostic said that this last statement from Ecclesiastes was a Biblical attitude he could embrace!
Several years ago, when I was on Sabbatical I made it a point to “read the enemy.” I read Bertrand Russell, and Eric Toffler, and Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins, and several others who say that “God is Not Good,” but just a “Delusion,” a figment of our human imagination, an imaginary friend, a lie, that keeps us from realizing our true human potential.
And I read Schweitzer, whom I admire, though he concluded that Jesus was just a deluded apocalyptic who cast himself on the wheel of human history only to be crushed by it. And I read the literature of the Jesus Seminar especially the work of those members who say that Jesus said only about 10% of what the gospels say he said, and do not believe he is the Son of God who died for our sins and rose again. (This is not true of all the members of the Jesus Seminar.)
Then I studied the scriptures of the Old and New Testament. As always, I sought the truth and followed it where it led. I did not try to iron out the difficulties, or cover up the inconsistencies. I studied the idea of death and the grave. I peered into Sheol and Hades. And then I traced the idea of resurrection and eternal life as it gradually emerged in Job, and the Psalms, and in the Great Prophets. And, of course, I looked carefully at those passages that speak of the death and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
I came out of that study absolutely convinced that every line in the New Testament was written in the conviction that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, dead, and buried, and that on the third day, he rose again from the dead. I came to see once more the same grand truth that he is “the first born from the dead that in everything he might have preeminence,” (Colossians 1:18) and that he is “the first fruits of them that have fallen asleep,” and that a great harvest will follow. (1st Corinthians 15) For me, the Resurrection of Jesus is the Great and Unmistakable Sign that God uses to point to our own. “In my Father’s house are many mansions, if it were not so I would have told you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself.” (John 14)
When we gather on the steps of this church on an Easter Morning and proclaim, “The Lord Is Risen”; “The Lord Is Risen Indeed!” it is no lie.
It is no lie. If it were we would not find it on the lips of Paul. He was once known as Saul, a Pharisee, who regarded his righteousness under the Law of God as “blameless,” yet gave it all up that he might know Christ, and the righteousness from God that depends on faith in him, and know the power of his resurrection, becoming like him in his death, that if possible, he might attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3) In 1st Corinthians 15 Paul was so scrupulously honest that he could say:
- If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain….
- (If Christ has not been raised,) then we are even found to be misrepresenting God…
- If Christ has not been raised then all who have fallen asleep in him have perished….
- If for this life only we have a hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
I don’t know about you. But I have made my decision. I have bet my life on the Risen Christ. “I rejoice in my hope of sharing the glory of God.” (Romans 5)
Our distant hope is well founded. And what about a hope for something just around the corner? What about hope for our present difficulty? We will talk about that another week, for now let us be sure that we have been “born anew to a living hope.”
If you are young—remember your creator in the days of your youth. (Ecclesiastes 12:1)
If you are old, and have lived a life apart from God—do not despair, remember the dying thief who was on a cross next to Jesus? Jesus promised him that he would join him in Paradise that very day. (Luke 23:43)
If you are full of doubt—remember how the father of the epileptic boy appealed to Jesus saying, “I believe, help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24) If I read the New Testament aright, then God made good use of doubters and late bloomers, people like Paul, and Thomas, and those disciples in Matthew 28:17 who looked into the face of the risen Christ—and “doubted,” or “hesitated,” perhaps because it was impossible to imagine that the Glorious being before their eyes was their Master who had been crucified.
The best thing we can do with our doubts is to lay them at the feet of the Lord of hope.
He will not disappoint us.
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.