Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. (Romans 5: 1-5; NIV)
The past year has given me many opportunities to think about what hope really means in the face of trials.
Like all of us, I’ve hoped for relief from the pandemic. I’ve hoped for medical treatments. A vaccine seemed almost like too much to hope for, but here we are. Now I hope that we will be able to vaccinate as many people as possible in as short a time as possible. I hope that the ability of the virus to mutate will not outstrip our ability to adapt to it.
What do I actually mean by “hope?”
We may use the word “hope” to express a desire or a wish. “I hope it won’t rain.” “I hope you will feel better.” “I hope my investment will do well.” We are talking about things that we would like to happen (or not), things we feel optimistic about, and even things we worry about.
Hope and optimism are often linked. We feel optimistic about getting a job, or this year’s potato crop, or finding a nice outfit to wear to an event. In other words, we connect a feeling that things are going our way with the idea of hope.
When I was a child in the 1950’s, the United States was experiencing optimism. A world war had ended. Our economy was growing. Europe was rebuilding. Technology developments from the war were benefitting industry. Yet this optimism was not the same as the hope described in the verses above. Optimism may not support us in engaging with things as they truly are.
The postwar optimism was at odds with the development of nuclear arsenals in the United States and the Soviet Union. Optimism was center stage, while nuclear war lurked in the wings. The two greatest military powers on the planet were trying to pursue opposing political agendas without blowing up the world in a nuclear exchange.
The world seemed safe to me when President Kennedy was elected in 1960. I wasn’t afraid at home, in my neighborhood, or at school. My family lived in peace and comfort.
The Cuban Missile Crisis occurred in 1962. Nuclear war almost happened. I vaguely recall the crisis. I sensed that my teacher was worried. In accordance with the optimism of the times, I wasn’t surprised when the situation was resolved, but I had glimpsed the shadow of war.
Khrushchev and Kennedy both had to back down. Despite their personal limitations and the opposing political philosophies they represented, they had to act on hope for humanity. Hope inspired them to find a way to end the confrontation without resorting to disastrous violence.
The passage in Romans tells us that hope is connected to our sufferings, our endurance in the face of them, and the character developed in this process. Hope comes to us through God’s love. Hope connects us to the Holy Spirit.
Hope, in the Christian sense, is far more than a feeling of optimism, or a wish for a particular outcome. It is more than a desire to witness positive developments in human affairs. It isn’t something we talk about merely to cheer people up.
Hope is born of a conscious effort to cooperate with the direction of God’s love and the movement of the Holy Spirit. It depends more on faith than events. Hope can be present in dire circumstances, and it can be absent in seemingly positive ones.
Some years ago, I heard an interview on NPR with Representative John Lewis. I can’t remember the discussion, except that the interviewer was asking Lewis about his concerns for the future. When the interview wrapped up, Lewis signed off, “Keep the faith; keep the faith.”
“Keep the faith.” That stayed with me. I could tell it was more than a casual goodbye. It had the weight of suffering and perseverance behind it.
Let us pray that we, too, can keep the faith and enter into hope.