The author and campaigner Rebecca Solnit writes this:
“Hope is not the vague belief that everything was, is or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and destruction. The hope I am interested in is one that invites, even demands, that we act… Hope is the belief that it matters what we do.”
In many ways, I think she’s right.
Christian hope does something to us. It energises us, refreshes us and spurs us on into a renewed activity in the world. It is not passive, but profoundly active and dynamic. Hope is what happens when the certainty of the future reaches back into the present, breaking into the now and energising us here. To summarise, gospel hope does not say: “God is still King, things will be alright”, but rather: “God is still King. What would he have me do?”.
Please don’t hear me wrong. Simple trust – relying on, resting in, focusing on God – is going to be the thing that gets us through this crisis. Psalm 46 declares that “God is our strength and refuge, an ever present help in times of trouble – therefore we will not fear, though the mountains give way and fall into the heart of the sea”. We must never downplay the power of simply trusting God – it is the starting point of all Christian hope. But the reality of God’s sovereign rule goes much, much further than quieting our hearts and giving us an inner peace: it is a revolutionary kindling that can spark in us a fire.
Christian hope invites us to break off our dubious peace with the present and enter into an agreement with the future. It gives us a vision of what’s possible so that we can live fundamentally different lives in the midst of this world.
Take 1 Peter. The letter starts with a phenomenal, explosive declaration that we have inherited “a living hope” – one that is energised, dynamic and doing something. Peter first points us backwards to the grace of God on the cross, and then forwards to the certain future hope we have because of that cross (1:3-5). But then he changes tack – he throws in a ‘therefore’ that is all about the now.
“Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given to you when Jesus Christ is revealed. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires that you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do. For as it is written, “Be holy, because I am holy”’ (1 Pet 1:13-16)
Peter’s expectation is that hope will make us holy. What does holiness mean? Well, any number of things, but certainly among them is a radical concern and action on injustice, violence and oppression in our broken, bleeding world. Holiness is about reflecting God’s character, and a massive part of that is his passion for the poor.
In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, we have the chance to stop, and to come more fully to terms with the radical injustice of our global system – one where literally millions of people have already had their economic livelihoods devastated by global shutdown, predominantly in the poorest parts of the world, where Majority World health systems already face near-collapse, even before a pandemic breaks out. And once we’ve come more to terms with that grim reality of global injustice, and allowed ourselves to grieve it, something truly revolutionary happens: the status quo loses its power on us. Suddenly, we are free to embrace what God is doing in the world, the future that he is making. We suddenly realise we’ve lost our interest in the current set-up and the things it tries to promise us.
Clearly this is not a simple process, and it’s really the work of a lifetime. But it’s all about shifting our weight. We can, if we choose, disinvest ourselves from the mess of this current system. We can remove our feet from the unsteady “reality” on which we’ve come to build our lives – workaholic consumerism, mass debt and inequality, widespread environmental destruction – and choose to place our weight instead on the certain thing that Christ is building. “The wise man built his house upon the rock”, said Jesus. We are invited to throw ourselves fully, completely, head-over-heels into the Kingdom – the future which is “coming and which is already here” (Jn 4:23).
What does that mean? Well, it means we throw ourselves into the priorities, the values, the lifestyle and the culture of that Kingdom. It means we break off our ties with fast fashion and easy consumerism. We plunge ourselves into God’s economy – one that dignifies the poor with a decent wage and refuses to live by oppression. It means that we tear up our peace with the introspection of our age, the inward-looking nature of current global politics. We will not forget our global neighbour, the refugee at our border, the farmer affected by the failing rains in a climate-changed world, because in heaven they are not forgotten – they are the priority. It means that we snap off our agreement with easy answers, with “this is just the way things are” when we walk past a homeless person on the street. Sure, that might be how things are right now, but that cannot be the end of the conversation, because it isn’t in the Kingdom.
This is not an easy task – it is certainly a painful process, cutting our attachments to the status quo. There’s a tangible cost. But what we gain is so much more – the way and the rhythm of the Kingdom of God.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field” (Mt 13:44).
One final image. The hope I’m talking about is like a person with two outstretched arms, a bit like a cross-trainer I suppose.
One arm is clutching onto the present way of things, the other is gripping onto the future. The focus is never exclusively on one or the other, but always both. For hope spoken without a meaningful participation in the grief of the present is not really hope – at worst it’s more like escapism. At the same time, hope spoken without the energising power and newness of God is more like optimism – it is unlikely to shake us to our core, to really birth in us the kind of radical, fundamental shifts that God is seeking in our lives. It is as we strain to hold both together at once that the muscles of Christian hope are built in us.
Far from reducing the weight of this present existence, biblical hope charges it with a new energy and fire. It teaches us to live. It spills out in acts of service and love for a world so wronged and marred by sin and injustice. What is the Kingdom way that God is calling you to live in now?
Christian hope does something to us.
“Those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength –
they will soar on wings like eagles
they will run and not grow weary
they will walk and not be faint.”