In my last post I explained that Christian hope is focused in God and God’s future. It is not believing that everything in our lives will turn out as we’d like it to be. As a pastor I often meet with people before they have major surgery. I listen to their fears and try to encourage them with God’s unfailing love. Sometimes I hear their friends make an effort to be hopeful, saying something like: “Oh, I just know it isn’t cancer. I’m sure everything will turn out just fine.” The intention behind this sort of hope is noble, but it isn’t Christian hope. Wonderful, faithful, God-fearing people get cancer. Sometimes they die unexpectedly in surgery. Although God is present in medical procedures and often heals in marvelous ways, sometimes, for reasons beyond our wisdom, tragedies occur.
For example, some years ago my heart was heavy as a young woman from my congregation was giving birth to her baby, a baby who died several days earlier in her womb. I ached for this dear woman and her husband. Their suffering was real. Yet so was God’s presence with them in their pain. They could have unfailing hope that God would be with them as they “walked through the valley of the shadow of death” (Ps 23:4, KJV). Furthermore, they could be certain that, when someday they stand in the presence of Christ, their pain will have passed and their rejoicing will be complete. They can embrace the sure hope of the future, even as they suffer through the sure suffering of the present.
Hope is elusive in our world today. Oh, to be sure, if the economy is strong people can be hopeful, in a way. Technological advances seem to offer a better life, sort of. Political candidates promise prosperity and peace. But despair always seems to be lurking right around the corner. Dismal financial news sends the stock market plunging. Technology presents us with the ease of e-mail and the scourge of on-line pornography. Hopeful candidates become elected officials who fail to fulfill their promises while claiming glorious success. Terrorism threatens to rip apart the very fabric of civilized, free society. Then you add all of the personal struggles: families falling apart, marriages on their last legs, job insecurities, terminal illnesses, etc. etc. Why have hope? What sense does it make to be hopeful in a world so broken and hurting? How can we have hope in a post 9/11 world?
From a merely human perspective, it makes no sense at all. If there is no God in heaven who cares about us, if Christ has not died for our sins and risen as a sign of what is to come, then hope should be banished as happy-faced poppycock. Postmodern people have peered behind the veil of modernist hope in human achievement and discovered that there’s nothing there. Cynicism is our last defense in a hopeless world.
But Christians are set apart from this world by being people of hope. We know what God has done and we are confident in what God will do. Jesus says, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Jesus has conquered the fallen world and is in the process of finishing up what His death and resurrection began. Not even death, however painful it might be, can steal away our hope. As Paul writes to the Corinthians:
When our perishable earthly bodies have been transformed into heavenly bodies that will never die — then at last the Scriptures will come true:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. How we thank God, who gives us victory over sin and death through Jesus Christ our Lord! So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and steady, always enthusiastic about the Lord’s work, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless (1 Cor 15:54-58).
Even as we look forward to God’s final victory, we begin now to rejoice in hope. Our hope gives us strength to continue in the Lord’s work, knowing our labors have everlasting value. For us, the world is not only a hostile environment in which we suffer – it is not only a hurting place that will someday be transformed by God’s reign – but it is also the realm in which we serve the Lord.