The other day I was listening to an NPR interview with the writer Hisham Matar, whose latest novel,Anatomy of a Disappearance, draws from his own experience. Matar’s father, a dissident under the regime of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, mysteriously disappeared while in exile in Egypt more than twenty years ago. It was later discovered that he had been kidnapped by the Libyan secret police and taken to Libya, where, the family later found out, he was imprisoned and tortured, without a trial. To this day they cannot be sure whether he is dead or alive.
Which makes Matar’s current state, as he describes it, one of hope. But for Matar, “living in hope is a really terrible thing.” “People speak about hope most of the time as a very positive thing,” he says. “[But] it’s a very dispossessing thing, it’s a very difficult thing to live with. When you’ve been living in hope for a long time as I have, suddenly you realize that certainty is far more desirable than hope.”
Matar goes on to describe how he found unlikely solidarity with certain members of a fishing village in Ireland whose fishermen loved ones had gone out to sea in their boats and never returned. Those left behind “had not given up hope that the men would someday return- however unlikely the odds.”
Now Matar’s words have me thinking about the nature of Christian hope. It has often been said that Christian faith, and, by implication, Christian hope, are a “crutch” to make it through life- not unlike Marx’ “opiate of the masses,” perhaps. But, that hope is also a “very dispossessing thing,” that it is unsettling, that it refuses to indulge us in final despair which is at least reassuring in its certainty, paints a fuller, more accurate picture.
To wait with blind expectation may in fact be an opiate. A form of escape from the dreariness and hardship that much of life can be. But to wait in those spaces where God once showed up but now seems absent, to long without obvious or immediate fulfillment for the time when God’s promises will finally become real, is, like unconsummated love, a hard, terrible thing.
“After waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised” (Hebrews 6:15). Living in hope is waiting patiently in our circumstances. It asks us to live fully in our reality, whatever it might be (the chronic illness, broken relationship, loss of a loved one) – not to run away from it. This is no “crutch.” This can in fact be quite a “terrible thing.” It requires time, discipline, and faith despite the odds.
Ten years after September 11, it is easy to recognize that those “odds” are pretty high. In a world where suicide bombers can dream about killing thousands of innocent people by the most absurd of stunts, and then actually succeed, hope faces seemingly insurmountable hurdles. In a world where parents have lost children, spouses lovers, and brothers sisters in the rubble of a once-great building, it can seem easier to trade in hope for the certainty that our world really is going to hell in a basket case. In a world where ten years after September 11, our political bickering has only worsened, our economy is now in shambles, and our nation is now embroiled in three wars, living in hope is the harder thing to do. It is the kind of thing that only the boundless grace of a loving God makes possible.