The Problem With Hope

Photo credit: Sharon Tate Soberon

We just finished up the Christmas season and are diving headfirst into yet another year. With that new year come the countless resolutions that people will make to try and improve their lives – lose weight, save money, let go of bad habits, rock the world.

We who follow Jesus as a teacher often look to Christmas as a time of hope; we see it as an annual event to remind us that a savior was born who came to confront the systems of the world and show us what God is really like. We reflect on the birth of Jesus in that quiet hidden place, the manger surrounded by calm, adoring animals, and we try to extrapolate our imaginations of that event on to our lives and our futures.  Jesus came, and all will be well.  We just have to keep holding on to our hope that things will be made right one day.  We just have to make it through whatever is going on right now.

I’m a big fan of hope – the idea that there are forces working alongside me and within me for my good – it’s certainly gotten me through some difficult times in the past.  However, I’m beginning to think that many of our current understandings of hope can get us into alot of trouble and maybe cause us unnecessary suffering in life.

Consider the following Bible passages that, at least in English translations, include the word hope:

  • Isaiah 40:31 but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
  • Jeremiah 29:11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
  • Hebrews 11:1 Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.
  • Romans 8:25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

These are just a few verses containing hope; there are many more.  Having grown up in the church, I am very familiar with the way these verses tend to get interpreted for our lives. Usually, it is along the lines of “Life may suck right now, but just hang on and God will bring better days.”  Or, “The world is going to hell in a handbasket but if we just hang on until we get to heaven all will be OK.”  Or, “Just hold it together through this period of [insert whatever life circumstance you don’t currently like – singleness, marriage, a bad job, potty training of toddlers, whatever], and God will bring something better, circumstances that you are happier with.

While we all want our futures to be brighter and “happier”, I really believe we get ourselves into trouble when we take on these kinds of attitudes of just trying to get through right now in order proceed to where we really want to be, or fervently believing that somewhere down the road all of our problems will suddenly be fixed, or believing that one day we will get our crap together and live in a state of static perfection.

Here are a couple of problems I see with this way of interpreting hope, where we perceive a God completely external of ourselves who we believe/think/hope will swoop in and save the day or change our situations:

  1. We are denying our humanity – Life is right here, right now. The past doesn’t exist, and neither does the future.  They are illusions, dream-spaces. We have no control over what happened in the past, and the future is just conjectures of what could possibly happen, created by our minds. The only thing that is real is this very moment that we are in.  When we are constantly thinking about what we want to happen tomorrow, or in a month, or in a year, we are not living our lives.  It’s like we step into a virtual reality game in our minds to avoid being fully present now.  If we spend all of our time constantly mulling over what has already happened or what we want to happen, we could very easily reach the end of this material life and discover that we never really lived it fully at all.
  2. There is no hard and fast guarantee that our life circumstances will improve- Some people seem to do everything right, and shit still happens to them. I’ve known several people in my life who I thought were really dealt a horrible hand – no matter what they did, it seems like they’ve been assaulted from all sides time and time and time again with really hard life circumstances.  It appeared so completely unfair that they could be struggling so much while other people I knew (who had questionable ethics) could be sailing along smoothly. But going back to the master teacher, Jesus – being a stellar human doesn’t guarantee an easy life. Just being good to others, and healing people, and living simply and unselfishly doesn’t ensure that you won’t be crucified at some point.
  3. When we sniff or moan at our current circumstances and focus only on escaping them, we are ultimately declaring that Life (God) is bad and we know better.  This is one of those difficult arguments to make because someone will invariably come back and be like, “Well, are you saying that slavery is good, or injustice to the poor is good, or abuse of children is good? Shouldn’t we strive to end them?” There are people who can definitely explain this argument far better than I, and may I humbly suggest reading works by Pema Chodron, Byron Katie, Ram Dass, and Thich Hhat Nahn on this idea.  But I’ll try here to explain how I see it:  in my mind, God is the Ultimate Reality, or Life, or simply, What Is.  I don’t believe that Life at its best is all about rainbows and unicorns and fairy dust.  Life is not about being ecstatic and comfortable every single moment.  However, I do believe that Life (God) is good, and that only by accepting everything that happens can we be in a solid place of understanding to institute change for the problems mentioned above. [Now, do I in practice accept everything that happens to me without complaining  – absolutely not, but I’m practicing a little more each day.)
  4. If you’re not happy with your circumstances right now, you won’t be happy with your circumstances when they change.  Buddhist teachings remind us that everything is temporal and relational. Nothing is static and everything will eventually change in form and expression.  And as Richard Rohr likes to say, “Its heaven all the way to heaven, and it’s hell all the way to hell.” The point he is making is that if you can’t find happiness where you are right now, you won’t find happiness when you get the life situations you think you want.  You can find contentment and peace in any situation, or you can find hell and misery in any situation.  Which ultimately means that happiness is in your mind, not your external environment.  I don’t need to prove this to you – think of all the people you know who finally got that expensive car, or fancy house, or promotion, and are still just as miserable as before?  Or think of the people you may know who are dying slow horrendous deaths from disease and are still positive and joyful? It is not our situations that make us happy or sad, or bring heaven or hell – it is what we think and believe about them.

So, now that I’ve attempted to philosophize a bit, I will offer a tentative description of how I view hope: hope is not horizontal, but rather, vertical.

We tend to understand hope in a horizontal, linear, time-bound fashion.  But this, as I’ve described above, is not helping us out because it bases our happiness on what is going on outside of us or the changes we think we need to be happy. I think that hope should be understood vertically – maybe like a deep well within each of us.

Hope is our ability to look deep within ourselves, to our core, where we connect with the Divine, or Life, or God within us and know that all is well and all will be well.  It is the conviction that we are OK as we are now, and we will be OK when our external circumstances change.  It is the trust that what Reality brings us each moment is good and trustworthy. It is the belief that what we see with our eyes or perceive with our five senses is not the end of the story and is not the ultimate truth.

So, now, when I look at the Christmas season and remember the birth of Jesus, I don’t long to be gathered from this earth and carried to heaven. I have a different kind of hope – where I see how Jesus lived – not bound by the circumstances of his life – and recognize that the same can be true of my own life. His example shows that I can live well without feeling the need to manipulate and control everything around me. I can trust that what comes my way, no matter how difficult it is, will be for my good. This understanding, then, completely reframes how I read verses like Jeremiah 29:11, mentioned above. Plans to prosper me no longer means a guarantee that I’ll be financially successful, or have a brilliant marriage, or that everyone will love and respect me. Instead, it means that I can trust that everything that I encounter in my life is good for me and comes from the hand of God – that includes the hard stuff as well as the exciting and fun stuff.

Christmas, for me, is the reminder to stop wishing circumstances would change for me…to claim peace…and to relax into Life. 

“All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” – Julian of Norwich

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