Need Hope? Avoid These 3 Sources of Empty Hope.

5 min. to read.

So, you’re feeling in desperate need of hope?  You just finished reading my last post about how important hope is (not having it might kill you!) and you’re ready to find some.

This is an important search.  Having hope is necessary for getting up in the morning and moving your life forward.

When we’re in need of hope, it’s awfully easy to settle for an empty hope.  An empty hope is something that looks like a source of hope, but when tested it has no substance.

Empty hope leaves you in a worse position because you thought you had something to rely on, but in the moment of stress it turns out you don’t.

In your search for hope, avoid these three attractive substitutes.  They look like a great place to find the motivation and security you need, but they won’t provide what you need.

My Strength

You’re Not As Strong As You Think You Are.

1) Finding Hope In Our Own Strength.

Many of us try to find hope in ourselves. Our own strength, our willpower, our great ideas. If we can work hard enough or perform well enough, we can be accepted. If we can be strong enough, we will win over our enemies.

The Bible calls this “trusting in chariots and horses.” (See Psalms 20:7) Think back to the story of the Exodus. The people of Israel finally get to leave Egypt, but as they head out of town Pharaoh changes his mind and pursues them with his army.  The outcome was assured–a crowd of unarmed families couldn’t stand against war horses and chariots.  Except that Pharaoh wasn’t counting on God. In the end, Israel crossed the sea and escaped without using a single weapon. And all the strength of Egypt’s best horses and chariots ended up floating in bits in the water.

The problem with trusting your strength is that there’s always someone out there bigger than you. Someone else can perform better. Even circumstances will come up that you are simply not strong enough to handle on your own. If your hope is based on how strong you are, then your life is going to end up floating in little pieces on the waves of circumstance. Maybe you’ve experienced that. I have.

My Money

You Can’t Trust The Banks!

2) Finding Hope in Financial Security.

A full bank account and access to credit seem like security. With all our financial needs, it’s easy to think that what you need most to have hope in this world is more money. If only you had enough you’d be secure, you’d be safe, you’d be free.

The Bible cautions us, though, about money as a source of hope. (See 1 Timothy 6:17 ).  The problem with setting our hope on money is that money can come and go. That was hard to imagine in the ‘90s when property values did nothing but go up and credit was cheap and freely available.

But the truth is economies fail. Banks collapse. Jobs are lost. No matter how rich you are, things can happen that you can’t buy your way out of. Instead of finding freedom, we find ourselves serving a demanding master who will never let us stop working.

My Religion

Doing All The Right Things Won’t Save You.

3) Finding Hope in Religion.

We hate uncertainty. We hate submitting ourselves to things out of our control. Religion tells us that if we believe the right thing, if we practice the right religious rituals, if we please God the right way, we will be secure. Religion tells us that there’s more than just this material life. There’s a “better place” out there. There’s divine justice. And all of that feels like it can give us hope.  But there’s a problem with this (even though I believe some of those claims are true!)

Trusting in religion isn’t the same thing as trusting in God.

Does our religion point us to God?  Every religious community faces this challenge.  Religion talks about God. That can be good. But religion isn’t God. Trying to find hope in religion is like trying to satisfy your thirst by becoming a water purification expert. Knowing a lot about water doesn’t satisfy your thirst. In order to do that, you have to drink the actual water. You need to get that water inside of you.

A God of Hope

So, if we can’t find hope in our personal strength, or in financial security, or even in religion, where do we find it?  In coming posts we’ll talk about how to find hope when we’re in dark places and how we can structure our lives to receive hope.  But for today, consider this promise:

Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you believe in Him so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Romans 15:14

You’re certainly heard that God is a God of love. We talk about that all the time. But did you know that God is a God of hope?  God wants to give you hope every bit as much as love and grace.  I pray that you will experience that gift today.

 Are there other sources of false hope you can think of?

4 thoughts on “Need Hope? Avoid These 3 Sources of Empty Hope.

  1. I realize that in a blog, there’s not room for in-depth exploration of each point, but I think #1 is not as simple as all that.

    It’s absolutely true that without strength outside of ourselves – friends, family, support group, therapists, etc. – we would sink and drown in many circumstances. We need a network of support, especially when things look bleak and we are not feeling very strong or hopeful on our own. And sometimes people give us hope and strength simply by being part of our lives – spouses, children, siblings. For people facing addiction or trying to break free from abusive situations, having other both corporeal and spiritual sources of strength can mean the difference between life and death.

    However, I also think that the American evangelical community does the body and the world a disservice by promoting the “you have no strength within yourself to count on” meme. Even in the extreme cases listed above – abuse and addiction – the ultimate pivotal point is reached when the person suffering the situation chooses, on their own, to initiate change. This is a powerfully freeing and liberating thing, and not to be downplayed or taken away from them.

    Three years ago, I lost my job and went through some extremely difficult personal life changes. At my lowest point, I was close to being suicidal. And while my circle of friends and family – and yes, therapy – made huge differences in my life, I also had to rely on my own strength and perseverance in just getting up every day, searching for work, and navigating my grief and its impact on daily activities. 18 months later, I was laid off – again. The difference in experience was marked, and the single biggest difference was having a much stronger belief in myself and my ability to find work. Because I had been forced to rely on myself, to spend months previously looking for work in what felt a futile effort, I was able to not become so down or hopeless.

    I prayed often and fervantly during these difficult times, and I found that the hope found there was inextricably bound up in my not being passive, but doing all I could, and hoping that the actions would make a difference (i.e., the casting of bread upon the waters).

    This may not sound coherent or persuasive enough, but I am pretty passionate about people believing in themselves, in pushing themselves to do more and do better (while also treating themselves gently and forgiving themselves and allowing for humanity), and for not using evangelical tropes and dogma to drain themselves of power.

    1. Hey Michael, Thanks for the thoughtful and gently-worded push back. Where I agree with you is that the theology that “there is nothing good in you” is wrong, and I’d argue, not even Biblical. I’d also agree that there is a fundamental point at which an individual has to make a choice within themselves. Without being able to envision a different future, you cannot decide to pursue it — that whole sequence happens in your own mind and heart. So, in that sense, you have the final responsibility. You do have the power to make this choice.

      But I’d like to make a distinction. I don’t think when that decision is made we are drawing hope from within ourselves. I think that we are choosing to accept or surrender to hope from outside ourselves and begin taking steps toward it. That may sounds vague and hand-wavy, but here’s what I mean.

      If there just simply are no jobs at all, no amount of believing in yourself will get you a job. We’re talking about a circumstance that is well outside of your control. No PMA will get that job solved. But you still have a choice. You can decide to accept the hope that there is an opportunity down a different path. That perhaps you can start your own business, or move somewhere else, or that you could make a living as a mushroom gatherer. You have to decide if you are willing to move in that direction. You have to decide if you will get up in the morning to pursue it. But the hope is still outside of you. The power to choose lies within; the motivating hope lies outside.

      This has been confirmed for me in over 17 years now of working with people closely in their own life change, but even more so in the recent science. Have you come across “Change Or Die,” by Alan Deutschman? I recommend this book to anyone who works with people, or to anyone interested in their own personal growth. It’s really mind-altering.

      This book is based on a number of studies about people in critical life-change situations, most notably men recently diagnosed with the beginning stages of heart disease. The question investigated was “Would they make the changes necessary to prolong their lives and if so, why?”

      In both this study and the others in the book, a common theme was discovered. People who need to make major life change simply don’t do it on their own.

      The percentage of people who made a major life change without any outside help was below the margin of error for the study! Think about that for a second. People who knew they were going to die if they didn’t make some small, very do-able changes in their lifestyle, simply did not do it.

      So what about the people who changed? They all had three things in common.

      (1) They all found someone they could relate to who had made the change themselves. This relatable relationship helped create the possibility belief of change.

      (2) They all began to try new practices, habits and skills with the guidance or mentoring of the person or group they found in #1. When they experienced a small success with one of these skills, it conformed for them the belief that change was possible. Before now they were accepting this possibility on faith through the belief of someone else. Basically they were appropriating someone else’s hope for themselves. After this success, they were able to hold the belief for themselves.

      (3) They began, with the help of the person or group from #1, to reframe their personal story. When they spoke of themselves they were now the kind of person who could change, or the kind of person who lives a healthy life, or whatever. The more they reframed their story, the more successful they were in sustaining their life change.

      This pattern showed up consistently all the studies the researchers found covering life change in areas like addiction, recidivism after incarceration, even much simpler areas like taking control of personal finances.

      This is also what I’ve seen in my years of working with people. I agree with you that the individual has to make a choice. But the vision for hope very rarely comes from inside themselves. They have to see somewhere that it is possible. And even when it comes from their own imagination, that internal vision is based on stories they have heard about what happened to other people.

      So, I guess I’d like to suggest that our own personal strength isn’t the source of hope we want it to be. I don’t mean by to say that we’re worthless, or that we’re hopelessly sinful. I think the perspective that often gets taught in church is wrong. But I also think that we are wired to get our sense of value and hope from the outside. We have to choose to be available to it. We have the power to make this choice. That’s an internal reality that belongs to us alone. But I think we were made as much more collaborative beings than we’re comfortable with.

    2. I’ve put the book on reserve at the library! Anxious to read it.

      Having not read the book, I can’t dispute its findings. And I don’t, as far as I can tell, deeply disagree with anything you’ve written. I’ve blessedly (so far) been spared the horrors of a potentially terminal illness, or life-altering health condition, etc. There are situations I can’t speak to, having not been in them. And I do think having a support network in place is crucial for breeding and nourishing hope (and change).

      I’m still not sure I agree that the motivating hope wholly (or even mostly) resides outside of us. Hope entails hoping for a goal or goals, hoping for better health or simply to be a better person…and all of these hopes are generated internally. Just as the that fear paralyzes us and shouts at us that we will never succeed and should never even attempt something is generated from within, from our own scars, our own brokenness, and our own blind spots, I think the seed or base of hope to combat is also generated from within. Maybe someone or a group acts as a catalyst. Maybe a song does, or particularly moving film. Maybe it’s just hearing a friend tell us they love us, and will not leave us. These are powerful, good things, but I don’t think they create the hope.

      But you know what? I think at this point I’m basically splitting hairs and just intellectually jumping around for its own sake. I don’t think we’re at odds here; and even if we are, it’s a very mild disagreement that I think would basically evaporate when given a real life situation in which to apply our understanding.

    3. I think you’re right. There is clearly an internal element to this conversation that belongs wholly to the chooser. There is also increasingly apparent an outward component that is found in community, relationship or some other bigger-than-me reality. How these things work together exactly isn’t clear. Which is the chicken and which is the egg? I’m not sure.

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