“Hope” is a common word. We hear about the hopes and dreams of young high-school graduates, leaving home and facing the world, or college, for the first time. The person, in front of us in line at the gas station, scratching off one lottery ticket after the next while we wait patiently to pay for our cup of burnt coffee and five gallons of petrol desperately “hopes” she will win the lottery. Every scratch on each ticket is infused with hope. Personally, I hope every year that the Chiefs will win the Superbowl. It’s something I’ve hoped for my entire life—but I wonder, if they ever do, will it make much difference in my life? At the same time, however, I hope I do all the right things I can as a father… because I hope that my three boys grow up to be virtuous, wise, and successful men. And still, when I go to bed at night, I hope I wake up the next day. So far, that hope has not disappointed me. But some day, I know it will. And finally, when I have moments of doubt, as we all do, I hear what the Bible says about my eternity, about all Jesus did for me… and I say, “I really hope this is all true.” If it isn’t… all would be hopeless.
In each of the above scenarios, hope functions in a variety of ways. Sometimes, it reflects desperation. At other times, it reflects uncertainty but optimism about the future. And still, at other times, hope emerges from doubt—it’s all that’s left when I can’t control what’s going to happen next in my life. Sometimes hope is trivial (not that the Chiefs winning the Superbowl would be trivial at all!), and sometimes hope touches upon some of the must fundamental, human, questions like life, death, and where we’ll go after we die. Someone battling cancer has hope that she will live—and that’s true if the hope rests on a likelihood (Doctor says, the “good news is this kind of cancer is very treatable and we’ve caught it early) and it’s also true when all seems lost (such as when one receives the news that the cancer has metastasized, and one has only weeks or months left to live). Even in desperation, when all seems to be hopeless, hope lingers. We hope for miracles, in the face of impossibilities. At the same time, we hope that all things go “according to plan” when everything seems to be going right.
As you’re reading this, some of these situations above might evoke some of your own experiences with hope. It is quite likely that a few moments of hope, from your own life, popped in your mind. Hope is so integral to the human experience that we often don’t think about the meaning of the word, “hope,” at all. Yet we hope so often, in so many different ways, we might also wonder if the word has any meaning at all.
Rather than look at our own lives and experiences, however, lets turn to the Bible. Once we’ve heard what the Bible says about “hope” we can return to our experiences, we can look at them with new “hopeful” eyes—in the sense that the Bible conveys the term—and “hopefully” we’ll gain a new perspective as a result. My hope, in fact, is that this little experiment will help you see your life and your circumstances from God’s perspective. After all, He’s the only who is truly in control of all our hopes and dreams.
Hope is a faithful reaction to brokenness in the world. We would not need hope, presumably, if mankind had not fallen into sin in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3). Indeed, even in that moment, when the curse of sin is revealed, God makes sure that the first man and woman will not leave the garden without hope. He declares that there will be one born of the woman who will defeat the serpent, who will be struck himself, but will nonetheless secure for all a victory over sin’s curse (Genesis 3:15).
Later, when God’s people are exiled in Babylon due to their unbelief and disobedience, God declares through the prophet Jeremiah that He still has a plan, plans for good rather than evil, and that in spite of how perilous thing seem God’s people will have a future and a hope (Jeremiah 29:11). In the New Testament, recognizing that Christians were bund to face great temptations, tribulations, and persecutions, Paul exhorts the church in Rome to rejoice in “hope,” while pronouncing blessing rather than curses upon their persecutors (Romans 12:12-14).
If we hang our hopes on something unreliable, our hopes will be inevitably desperate. When we place our hope in something certain, however, hope is not desperation—it is anticipation.
In the Bible, godly hope always has an object. We don’t “hope” generally that things will happen to work out for our benefit. The Psalmist, for instance, places his hopes on the word of the Lord (Psalm 119:81), and on God’s steadfast love (Psalm 147:11). In the face of persecution, Paul tells the Corinthians that they should not despair even while Paul and his fellow missionaries suffer for the Gospel. These afflictions happened so that they would learn not to rely upon themselves, but would instead place their hopes in God who raises the dead, has delivered His people in the past, and will do so again (2 Corinthians 1:9-10). Paul also tells the Romans that we have hope in Scirpture (Romans 15:4), and the author of Hebrews describes Christian hope as the “anchor” of our souls (Hebrews 6:19) and a hope that gives us full assurance (Hebrews 6:11) because of what Jesus has already accomplished, interceding for us before God, acting as our high-priest (Hebrews 6:19-20).
This is why the Gospel is deemed a “better hope” than the Old Testament law—it draws us closer to God (Hebrews 7:19). We all know people who simply aren’t reliable. If we ask them to do something, we might “hope” they follow through, but we might very well doubt it. God is trustworthy. He always follows through, even if not in the way we asked him to or expected. Therefore, our hope is certain.
You don’t have to “hope” for something if you have full control over circumstance and life. If you’re in control, you don’t hope—you just do. The fact is, however, that we live in a world that turns, and a universe that expands, beyond our control. Circumstances befall us that we could not prevent. We cannot dictate most of what will happen to us in any given day, much less in the course of a year or years. We can make schedules, we can organize our lives to the best of our ability, but still… unpredictable things happen. Other people don’t behave the way we think they should. Random things just happen and derail our plans. If we could control all these things—all the people and events in our lives—we wouldn’t need hope. In fact, many people experience anxiety in life precisely because they cannot control everything. The need to be in control, however, is close to the serpent’s original temptation, to be “like God” (Genesis 3:5). There is only One who is greater than the world and the universe, therefore there is only One who has control over all things. The one who made all things, is in control of all things (Job 38:4-41).
That is why Biblical hope is closely related to faith. Faith, in its simplest terms, is trust. We trust that God is in control, and that he wishes what’s best for us. We knew this kind of faith when were infants. We had no choice but to trust and depend upon our parents or guardians to provide for us, care for us, protect us, and guide us.
In our lives, we might be inclined to say that someone who has a cancer diagnosis, with a good prognosis (i.e. very treatable, etc.) has more hope than someone who has been told that he has only weeks to live. We are prone to “quantify” our hope based on how likely it is our desired outcome will come about. I have a “little” hope that I’ll win the lottery (especially since I never buy a ticket), and I have a “lot” of hope that the Chiefs will win the Superbowl next year (we have the MVP of the league as quarterback!). In the Bible, however, godly hope is rarely contingent upon the likelihood of the outcome. Hope is not something you have “more” or “less” of, it simply is.
One of the most powerful expressions of hope in all the Bible emerges from a context where we’d think the individual has “little” hope left. Job was a godly man who endured more loss and suffering than most could survive. If you’ve ever been in a situation where you cried out, “why God?!?!,” then you may relate to Job. It didn’t make sense why a faithful man would endure so much hardship—his spouse and children all perished, he lost great wealth and suffered plagues and disease. In the midst of it all he receives a lot of bad advice from some of his friends. None of them offers a great answer. Some suggest he must be guilty of some kind of great sin to be forsaken by God this way. Others chastise him for his bereavement. Yet in the midst of it all he cries out, “though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Job 13:15). The Hebrew word for “trust” here, in the construction it occurs, implies waiting. It’s a form of trust that anticipates a future result. It is hope! In other words, rather than asking why God would allow such sufferings to befall him, he simply says that even if God made these things happen, he will persist in hope. He recognizes that God’s plan is infinite, his perspective is beyond that of human comprehension. He cannot blame God. Instead, he hopes—not just in spite of his circumstances, but through his experience, while his faith is tested, his hope grows. Of course, if you look up the verse you will see that while Job persists in hope, it doesn’t mean he stops having questions. He insists, “I will maintain mine own ways before him” (Job 13:15).
The Bible is full of examples of people of faith who, nonetheless, make a case to God for why they hope things will turn out in a certain way. There are even cases when people of faith argue with God or get angry. Hoping in God does not mean that we become stoics or will fail to feel the stress of the moment. Rather, it means that even while we struggle and honestly raise our complaints and arguments before God, that we do so alongside the petition Jesus gave us: “…thy will be done” (Matthew 6:10). In fact, when Jesus bids us to pray “thy will be done” he does so immediately after telling us to pray “thy kingdom come.” Both of these petitions in the Lord’s prayer recognize that God is in charge (see the point above!), and that the way things happen will occur in the way of His kingdom—not our own, personal, fiefdoms or domains. We do not rule our worlds, and we cannot dictate to God how he will respond. Nonetheless, knowing God’s character, his infinite and steadfast love, we can pray in all circumstances with a certain hope.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the Biblical notion of hope and the way the word is tossed around in common discourse is the fact that our hopes will never disappoint. Paul writes to the wrongs that our hope “maketh not ashamed” because God has both demonstrated his love to us in Jesus, and because he abides in our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). That does not mean that we will always get what we hope for. It does mean, however, that through faith we can trust that God will bring about whatever is best for us in the end. What we hope for may not happen on our timetable, according to our agendas or plans. With God, in Christ, our hopes will be manifest at the proper time, in the proper way, and according to what our Lord deems is best for us.