At a recent talk about my book Broken Pieces and the God Who Mends Them, someone asked me what I did when I lost hope. I was surprised. “I don’t think I ever lost hope!” I said.
My thoughts went immediately to one of the first weeks after my son was diagnosed with schizophrenia. I attended a National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) meeting, and the facilitator talked about different stages experienced by those who care for people with mental illness. One stage was “hope against hope.” She placed it in the beginning, right after the initial shock, as a passing phase. I remember my reaction, “I will always hope against hope!”
I understand why NAMI perceived it as a problem. Hanging on to unreasonable hopes can prevent us from accepting reality, but at that point, NAMI and I were speaking different languages. They talked about the hope of medical recovery, while I was talking about biblical hope.
The Common Meaning of Hope
The Oxford Dictionary defines hope as “a feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen,” and that can include just about anything. Human hopes can inspire and comfort, but they are temporary and can be frustrated. Blinded by Hopea recent book written by a mother of a young man with bipolar disorder and drug addiction, shows how human hopes can even cause a destructive vicious cycle.
That’s not to say earthly hopes should be shunned. They just have to be evaluated and subjected to frequent reality checks. In that context, NAMI’s caution is warranted because mental illness may bring a reassessment of hopes and expectations. In any case, no one ever wants to give up hope. Hope is what keeps everyone going. Conversely, losing hope is hell. In his description of his travels through the hereafter, the medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri reported a writing on hell’s door: “Forsake all hope, you who enter here.”
If hopelessness is hell, hope is a natural desire for Heaven, something for which we have been hardwired from the beginning. God created Adam and Eve with hope in entering into the glorified state that was symbolized by the Tree of Life. When Adam sinned, we sinned in him and therefore “come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
The New Testament authors remind us that true hope looks forward to the same glorified life (Romans 5:2; Titus 2:13; 3:7; 1 Peter 1:13). While it’s natural to nurture earthly hopes, Christians can hold onto a hope that never dies and is never frustrated. This thought helps us to reassess our hopes in view of a greater reality than what our eyes can see, and it’s not a pie in the sky. The late theologian Edmund P. Clowney explained Christian hope as “a hope that holds the future in the present because it is anchored in the past.” By standing firmly on what God has already accomplished in Christ, our hope confirms God’s promises and allows them to inform our present.
Can Christians Lose Hope?
Hope’s solid ground doesn’t prevent it from being occasionally shaken. There are times when our present circumstances overwhelm us, clouding our view of God’s promises and confirmations. Forceful emotions compete for our attention. This tension and struggle are present in many of the Psalms. It was a present reality with Paul, who wrote from Asia Minor, “We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death” (2 Cor. 1:8–9).
It was also the experience of 16th-century writer Olympia Morata, who, after escaping her burning city with barely enough clothes on her back, was thrown, feverish and exhausted, into a cold jail. “We were captives,” she wrote, “trapped between hope and fear.” It’s a feeling with which many can easily identify. But if our hope is shaken, it cannot be eradicated or destroyed. It is, like faith, a work of our God, who is “the God of hope.” That’s why Paul could confidently ask the same “God of hope” to fill the Christians in Rome “with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit [they] may abound in hope” (Romans 5:13).
We all have challenges in this pilgrim life, some greater than others, but the Bible tells us who our God is, and gives us ample proof that He can and wants to bring us safely to the aim of our hope, carrying us through any difficulty we encounter. Paul recognized this when, in the same letter from Asia Minor, he acknowledged that he was “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair” (2 Corinthians 4:8). Even in the face of death, Christians don’t “grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
How to Hope Against Hope
For Abraham, hoping against hope was not a phase to overcome, for “In hope he believed against hope” (Romans 4:18), because he checked it against the greatest reality that ever exists: “the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17).
He had very little earthly reason to think that God’s promise was going to come true, but he knew who his God was and could say with Paul, “I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me” (2 Timothy 1:12). Knowing who God is and who we are in Christ makes all the difference and allows us to continue to hope against the frailty of all earthly hopes in the ultimate and glorious fulfillment of God’s loving plans.
Because we are body-soul unities, physical and spiritual issues intersect in ways that can't be easily pulled apart.