7 min. to read.
Are you feeling the need for hope? I sure am.
The pandemic, protests, and generational pain from ignored racial injustice have given rise to anger and uncertainty. The incessant machinery of news & social media amplifies this into outrage and anxiety. After four months of COVID-19 with no end in sight, we’re starting to realize our “normal” may never look the same again. We need hope.
Hope is such a positive word, but it’s also squishy. The Oxford Dictionary definition offers us only vague positivity: “A desire for certain things to happen or be the case.” What? We all want things to happen all the time. Just wanting something good isn’t enough.
In widespread use, hope seems almost a secular analog for faith. Imagine something positive to believe. No negativity. Just have hope! That’ll get you through. There is, of course, something to the idea of positive thinking. With practice, we can learn to manage our thoughts.
And yet, simply telling folks to avoid negative thoughts doesn’t offer hope, especially when there are hard or painful things that must be named before healing is possible. Ignoring might work for a while, but it’s not a path to hope. How then can we find hope in the middle of so much suffering?
Paul’s prescription for hope.
In Romans 5:3-5, the Apostle Paul links hope to suffering in a strange way. “…we also rejoice in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance, character, and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”
Paul suggests three things about hope. First, hope is built. Second, hope is rooted in our experiences. Third, hope is connected to what God has already done for us. For Paul, hope is a kind of trust in God’s presence and care in the future, based on what God has done in the past.
1. Hope is Built.
We don’t generate hope by wishing for it. Hope is built. How so? Paul lays out a sequence that goes like this: Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope. Enduring through difficult circumstances builds hope.
When we suffer, we have a choice. Do we turn back? Go into denial? Or do we press on? Pressing on is hard. It means feeling suffering. But that’s precisely how endurance grows. By pressing on, we become more capable of endurance. Growing in this way builds our character. If we endure because we trust something good will happen on the other side of this suffering, we are practicing hope. So suffering creates an opportunity to build endurance, and practicing endurance grows our capacity for hope.
This kind of hope is hard-won. It is built in the forge of endurance. We only find it as we press through the difficult experiences of our lives.
2. Hope is rooted in our experiences.
Real hope is never an abstraction. It is built through our personal experiences of endurance. Here’s an example of what I mean.
Several years ago, for a long season, I was the most hopeless I’ve ever been. I thought I was going to lose my wife, my kids, and my ministry. In that dark place, I began contemplating suicide. I couldn’t see any other way to end the pain or ease the burden I was placing on my family. I’m not in that dark place anymore. How did I find hope? Well, it sure wasn’t because someone encouraged me to start thinking positively! I literally didn’t have the capacity to think positively.
Hope sparked for me because two friends made their way past my wall of isolation and anxiety. They saw me and told me I wasn’t alone. I still didn’t believe things could change, but that tiny spark of hope was enough for me to get help.
Then hope grew because others supported me. My wife encouraged me to get help. Friends helped us afford therapy. My church didn’t fire me because I was broken. The burden of walking the painful path of healing was mine to carry, but others made it clear they would walk beside me.
The fire of hope burned brighter as I sat with a therapist. She saw me and helped me see myself truthfully. I was still in deep darkness, but she helped me imagine a different future. Even though the road of healing was long and painful, she helped me practice endurance. Each step through those painful things was shaping my character.
Each successive step added oxygen to the fire of hope. I didn’t believe because someone told me to; I began to believe because I saw myself walk through hard things and come out the other side. I saw that I was truly not alone. I learned that I could be the kind of person who could live through hard things.
Hope began to burn brightly, and it was durable. When I felt the press of hopelessness, I could return in my mind to tangible events I had experienced. I could see myself sitting in a coffee shop with a friend who saw and loved me. I could see myself in my therapist’s office being shown the possibility of light. I could recall real, historical, grounded experiences that became resources for me to draw on.
My experience of suffering gave me the opportunity to practice endurance. Practicing endurance strengthened my character. One way that I grew was to become more capable of sustained hope.
3. Hope is connected to what God has already done.
The Apostle Paul roots this hope-building sequence in the Christian story of what God did for humanity in Jesus. This is another experience we can draw on as a resource to bolster our hope.
“While we were still helpless…” What God did for us, God did while we were unable to change things ourselves. We were hopeless. “Christ died for the ungodly…” What God did for us wasn’t done for people who had pre-qualified or could prove they wouldn’t waste God’s effort. What God did in Christ was done before we could contribute in any way.
The incarnation is a tangible witness that God is love, and God is with us. God’s love isn’t some abstract philosophical ideal. It is flesh and blood on wood and earth, rooted in history. God came among us so that we could see what we had been unable to see before. God died among us, in solidarity with us. God in Christ entered into our hell so that we would not be alone, so that we could be set free, and finally, so we could participate in God’s own life. This shared human experience is the foundation of our hope.
Today we are walking through suffering. For some of us, our suffering is particularly intense. We need an infusion of hope. How do we find that hope?
We walk, step by step, through the difficulty ahead—no shrinking back, no denial. As we endure, we grow, and our capacity for hope grows with us. In dark and hopeless moments, we can look back at our personal experiences to remind us of what hope feels like. As believers, we also can look back at what God has done for us in Jesus.
God in Christ has shown us we do not walk alone, and our suffering is shared. God has demonstrated that even in those places that feel like hell, God walks with us. Keep walking, friend—one step at a time. Don’t ignore the suffering around you. Name it. See it for what it is.
Together, as the Body of Christ, our steps of suffering can lead to endurance, which leads to growth of character where our capacity for hope increases. Together we build hope — and this hope does not disappoint. Why? Because it’s built on the real lived experience of walking through suffering and upheld by remembering that we never walk alone.