WHEN WE ARE contained in the world that is immediately in front of us, we will inescapably end in despair. The inventory of despair-producers is well known: The failure of public institutions; the collapse of moral consensus; the failure of political nerve; growing economic inequity; and the pervasiveness of top-down violence against the vulnerable.
The good news of the gospel is that we need not be contained within that immediate world, and “hopers” refuse to be so contained: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1).
That chapter in the Bible provides a roster of Jewish hopers who refused resignation to what was in front of them. What these hopers have in common is that they knew and trusted that God’s alternative world is crowding in on the dominant world of despair and will—soon or late—overcome it. The good world of God’s promise is marked by restorative justice, compassion, and mercy. Hopers who trust in this coming world refuse despair, trust the promises of God, and actively engage in the performance of that new world.
Against such resolve, despair has no chance in the long run! God’s peculiar hope is reliable ground for not allowing the fears of the present to define or overpower us.
1. Hope depends solely on God and on God’s faithful freedom.
As it is affirmed in the great hymn of John Calvin: “Our hope is in no other save in thee; our faith is built upon thy promise free.”
Only God! Not our ideologies, pet projects, or our deep biases. But then we must be clear on who God is. The God of the Bible is not a First Cause or an Unmoved Mover or even the Ground of Being. Rather the God witnessed there is a real character who plays an active role in the life of the world. This God, moreover, is a lively agent who has purposes and resolves, who will and does enact those purposes with active, effective verbs.
This God, moreover, is characterized by faithfulness. This is a God who does not quit but who persists in said purposes through thick and thin. But this divine faithfulness is not automatic. Rather God’s faithfulness is exercised in freedom, not limited to the reality of the world, not boxed in by ideology, not confined by our “laws” of reality.
2. In free faithfulness God makes promises about a future world arrangement congruent with God’s own person.
We know about God’s own person because God has, in the Bible, disclosed God’s own self. This is a God marked by relational qualities of constancy for which the preferred biblical terms are “justice, righteousness, faithfulness, steadfast love, and mercy” (see Exodus 34:6-7, Hosea 2:19-20, Lamentations 3:22-23). This is who God is. For that reason this is what God wants and to which God is committed for the future.
As a result, the Bible witnesses to this God making promises about a future that will be decisively marked by well-being in terms of the relational marks of “justice, righteousness, faithfulness, steadfast love, and mercy.” It is not thinkable that God would be at work creating a world that is marked by injustice, brutality, alienation, or violence. Where such social circumstances emerge, we may be sure that they contradict God’s intention for the world. Thus in Ezekiel 34 God is said to chastise the powerful for being exploitative and self-serving. In response to that sorry circumstance, God resolves to act alternatively in the world (see Ezekiel 34:15-16). God undertakes the work of restoration, the very work of restoration we see in the ministry of Jesus.
3. God’s promises well up powerfully in contexts of urgent need, defying despair and making a way out of no way.
We may easily identify three historical crises in the Bible, each of which is marked by despair into which God’s promises come as an alternative future. First, in Genesis, Abraham and Sarah are without an heir and so with no future (11:30). In that circumstance God declares, against all biological odds, that an heir will be given that will open a future for this chosen family (18:10-14).
Second, in the Babylonian exile the displacement seemed to be a dead end for the Jews. In that context of despair, there is an explosion of prophetic promises that assert a new future beyond Babylonian control (Isaiah 40-55, Jeremiah 30-33, Ezekiel 33-37). Third, in Luke 1:46-56, Mary sings a song of defiance against the predatory economy and anticipates that Jesus will enact a new social life that restores economic viability to the left-behind. No explanation is offered for any of these promises; there is only anticipation. God’s promises do not depend on optimistic circumstance but only upon the resolve of God. Hope is trust in the promises against the evidence of circumstance.
4. God’s promises characteristically concern social, bodily, this-worldly well-being, the emergence of a viable neighborhood.
There is nothing like “generic religion” to distort our understanding of biblical hope. In generic religion (“thoughts and prayers”!) it is supposed that “faith” concerns the well-being of our “souls” and that we are at best headed for “heaven” as a land of eternity. None of that, however, is central to biblical hope. Indeed, biblical hope contradicts all of that popular assumption. Instead the promises of God speak of the “kingdom of God,” which means the world arranged according to the purposes of God. That is why we pray that God’s kingdom will come “on earth as it is in heaven.”
That promised coming arrangement of the world is:
- Social: it concerns the common good of the community and all creatures.
- Bodily: it concerns the material security and viability of all creatures, notably the vulnerable, left-behind, lame, blind, and poor.
- This-worldly: that is, the daily life of folk here and now, not a never-never land of “souls.”
A social community organized by God’s hope is indeed a neighborhood in which all of the neighbors are bound in common well-being.
5. God fulfills God’s promises in two modes, both directly and indirectly.
Indirectly God fulfills promises by summoning, empowering, and dispatching human agents to act out God’s futures for neighborliness. Thus, in the prophetic tradition (that for Christians culminates in Jesus), God is known to call human persons to do the work of neighborly justice. Alternatively, in the apocalyptic tradition (also arriving at Jesus), the issues are too large and demanding to be enacted by human agents. In such circumstances God is seen to act directly and dramatically to end what is old and failed, and to initiate new creaturely possibility.
It is likely that many people committed to social justice would opt for the indirect mode, because we understand ourselves to be part of that called company dispatched to enact God’s future. It is, however, not an either/or. In biblical faith it is a both/and, both indirect and direct, as evidenced in the prophetic and apocalyptic traditions. When we are affluent and intellectually sophisticated, we will likely see that God acts through human agents. When we are desperate, we are more likely to hope and pray for God to act directly. In both modes, it is affirmed that new possibilities are underway through God’s faithfulness.
6. Hope is the unblinking conviction that God’s promises are relentlessly underway toward fulfillment.
God’s promises contradict much of the way the world is, because much of the world is out of sync with God’s purposes. Hope is the conviction that this out-of-sync world will not last and cannot finally refuse God’s intent. Hebrews 11 offers a great articulation of hope; that inventory of hopers shows that the biblical tradition consists in those who have lived according to God’s promises. Their names are legion, consisting in “prophets and apostles, saints and martyrs.” For all of them, faith is “the conviction of things not seen” (11:1).
What we see in the world is quite otherwise. For Abraham saw barrenness; for Moses it was bondage. For Samuel it was the Philistines. For those addressed in Hebrews 11, it was the brutality of the Roman Empire. For us now it is variously the predatory economy that systemically excludes more and more people as “left-behind,” or it is a diminished environment that will not be sustained. The news is that this world will not finally stand as it is. We belong to the company of those who have not blinked!
7. Hope in God’s promises is not passive but demandingly active; it is a resolve to live in God’s future as though it were already here.
Hope is not optimism or a wish or a good idea. It is a way of living differently in the world. Jesus declared that “the kingdom of God has come near” (or “is at hand,” Mark 1:15). As anyone can see, it is not here yet. But it is about to be. It is always about to be, always “almost.”
Jesus summoned those who became his disciples to live differently, as though the new kingdom arrangement were already in effect, and so to live in contradiction to the way the world seems to be. We are not under any illusion. We can see how the world is. But hope is the refusal to let our lives be defined by that present world arrangement. Thus:
- We refuse the exclusionary practices and policies of the present world, and enact hospitality that is a mark of the new kingdom.
- We refuse the fearful parsimony of the present world, and enact generosity that is a mark of the coming world.
- We refuse the thirst for vengeance that is all around us, and enact forgiveness that is a mark of the coming kingdom of God.
Hope is spirit-led imagination that refuses what we can see for the sake of what is as sure as God’s faithfulness.
8. Hope is inescapably inconvenient and eventually dangerous.
Because hope contradicts the present world, it is inconvenient. Thus Abraham had to depart his home country to receive God’s promise. The first disciples of Jesus “left everything” to follow. The hopers of faith have understood that God’s newness disrupts a comfortable life. That newness summons us out of our comfort zone to be with folk we might not prefer, doing tasks and taking risks we might not easily choose.
Soon or late, hope brings us into conflict with the forceful powers that defend the status quo—that will go to great violent ends to protect that status quo. Thus Moses finally had to confront Pharaoh. Esther risked her life to confront the king. Jesus had to face the violent power of Rome. And we know about Bonhoeffer and King, Romero and the missionaries killed in El Salvador, and so many others. Most of us will not go so far as such danger. All of us, however, are invited to the inconvenience of God’s newness. And once we go there, who knows what risks may follow?
9. Hope is the emancipatory alternative to resignation, despair, or self-sufficiency.
A world out of sync is demanding and fatiguing. It requires a great deal to live in long-term alienation. When we are fully aware of our present world, we may indeed settle for resignation, believing that it will always be this way. When we inhale resignation long enough, we may end in despair, because the present world arrangement cannot and will not generate anything genuinely new. Or if we are able we may be propelled to self-sufficiency, believing that if we hustle and are smart enough, we can make ourselves okay in this costly world.
So imagine us—almost all of us—variously caught in resignation, despair, or self-sufficiency. These however, are all less than satisfying traps, for we are not, in our God-given creatureliness, intended to live this way. Hope is a refusal of resignation because we know about God’s newness. Hope is a rejection of despair, because God has made and keeps promises. Hope is a liberation from self-sufficiency, because we are able to live by God’s generosity. Hope is a transformative alternative to what is on offer by our weary world.
10. Hope is the ground for courage, freedom, and joy.
The present world arrangement is governed by fear and imagined fear. We know, moreover, that perfect fear casts out love. It also casts out courage, freedom, and joy. Perfect fear casts out all of the qualities and practices of our best humanness. We are led then to ask about an effective antidote to fear that so diminishes us.
Hope is reliable ground for not allowing the fears of the present to define or overpower us. Hope refuses fear because we know that God’s good future is surely coming that will displace all present threats. As we live into that sure future, present fears lose their authority over us.
As a consequence, those who hope find the courage—which fear has robbed us of—to act against the expectations of the present. Those who hope find freedom to enact agency for our lives and the lives of our neighbors, freedom that has cowered before fear. Those who hope find joy that is impossible when we are paralyzed by fear. We are in the company of the unafraid, full of courage, freedom,