Thursday, October 25, 2018

Wishful Thinking vs Biblical Hope

Hope. What a glorious, liberating, and comforting gift of God for the storms of life are certainly ominous and frightening. Sickness, grief, loneliness, injustice, disability, marginalization, disappointment, the rage of the evil one and his accomplices who persecute believers, and so on.  But those whose trust is in the atoning work of Christ have hope as a sure anchor as they rely on the saving and sustaining power of the sovereign Savior.

Let’s take a more careful look at the matter, though, by comparing the normal use of the word “hope” with its use in the Scriptures. The basic dictionary definitions are these. 1) Hope is the feeling that what is wanted can be had or that events will turn out for the best. And/or 2) To feel that something desired may happen. In other words, hope is mere desire.  It is a wish, a want, a bet on possibilities.

It is in this sense that we hear a lot of fluffy quotations about hope. It is always nice-sounding stuff but it’s mostly ethereal, often even irrational. It is the kind of hope we see in greeting cards and motivational posters (often accompanied by flowers or balloons or sunrises). But more honest minds dismiss this kind of hope as wishful thinking, something to mock. For instance, Benjamin Franklin said, “He that lives upon hope will die fasting.” Mark Twain agreed. Twain wrote, “A hope tree is a tree that has lost the faculty of putting out blossoms.” And then there’s the old English proverb, “You can hope for the best, but you had better prepare for the worst.”

These cynics warn us that hope is actually a pretty bad risk, a gamble that’s based more on whims than facts, more on wishes than realistic expectations, patience, and hard work. What kind of power is in hope of this type?  No more than when you cross your fingers or rub a rabbit’s foot.

That is why many people have problems understanding hope when they get to the Bible and see the word all over the place. If hope refers to the same kind of pie-in-the sky thinking, it’s nothing but “fake news” or sappy sentimentality. However, I’m very glad to announce that hope, as it is taught in the Bible, is something radically different – different from the happy hold-a-kind-thought concepts and different too from the cynical conclusions of Franklin, Twain, and company. So, let’s check it out.

One could argue that the central theme of the whole Old Testament is tied to the word “hope.”  But hope in the Old Testament is not just wishing and wanting. Hope is centered upon God Himself.  Throughout the Law and Prophets, the servant of Jehovah is taught that God’s wise and triumphant goal is to provide Israel (and through Israel, the whole world) deliverance from sin and empowerment for righteousness. These blessings culminate, of course, in the advent of the Messiah. And to those ends, the faithful looked with humble but honest expectation. Hope, therefore, is shown to be a confident reliance in the promises of God…confident because of the divine character and power which would see those promises completely realized.

This kind of hope didn’t focus on a person’s desires or feelings. Rather, it focused on the promises of the all-powerful, all-wise, and all-holy Sovereign. After all, God doesn’t lie. What He says He will perform, He will perform. Hope, in the Old Testament then, wasn’t about lucky possibilities. Hope was a reasonable, joyful trust in the sure promises of almighty God.

That same concept is then taught in the New Testament as well. Hope is not a mere yearning for a thing. It is a studied, careful trust in promises that are very sure for they are centered on God Himself in Whom there is no shadow of turning.  Note that the primary Greek word for “hope” in the New Testament is often translated “trust.” So you see, New Testament hope also centers upon objective truth, upon the guarantees given by God Himself.  Hope can be considered “a done deal already.”

To illustrate (and emphasize) this, let me give you a few New Testament scriptures that point not merely to an objective fact…but to a Person. I Timothy 1:1 explains that the believer’s hope is Jesus Himself. Colossians 1:27 describes how the ancient mystery had been revealed. And that mystery, the apostle Paul says to the Colossian believers, “is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Who needs a shamrock when you have the Rock of Ages?

In Ephesians 2:12, Paul reminds the Christians of how sad was their state before they knew Jesus as Savior. They had, Paul explained, a) no hope, b) they were without God, and c) they were stuck in the world. But now, because they had been born again, they had a hope which was guaranteed by God Himself.  They had a personal, loving relationship with Him through His Son.  And though, for a time, they still lived in the physical world, they had been saved from the slavery of the world’s carnal systems.

How does this change things for you and me right now? I Peter 1:3 tells us that we have been born again to a living hope through the resurrection.  That means your daily life should be impacted by that glorious truth.  Hope doesn’t point only to history nor does it point only to future fulfillments. It is also wonderfully existential. It is a living hope  – immediately relevant, eminently practical. Among its present tense blessings are confidence, power, joy, and as the apostle John emphasizes this in I John 3:3, purity. “And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.”

Want another couple of terrific effects of hope for your present life?  I Thessalonians 5:8 describes the Christian’s hope of salvation as a helmet. A helmet, of course, protects us from our enemies. It is part of our battle gear for the spiritual warfare we wage every day. We won’t need a helmet in heaven but we sure do now. Don’t leave home without it!

But hope doesn’t just protect our heads; it also stills our soul.  Hebrews 6:18 and 19 instructs Christians to lay hold of the hope set before us, a hope that is the anchor of our souls. Wishing and worrying and wanting won’t calm the storms of life we face.  But genuine hope will for it centers upon the  holy presence and matchless grace of God.

So, go ahead and smile at those greeting card verses. But understand that Hallmark’s idea of hope isn’t usually the biblical reality. We can, therefore, throw away the rabbit’s foot and cancel the appointment at the wishing well and instead, get a confident grip on true hope, a humble but anticipatory faith in the God Who delivers.