I’m going to let you in on a secret that I’m only getting to grips with myself, it’s simple, but oddly revolutionary: hope is an action. We learn it.
Hope is not an emotion, as though we summon it up and have a bright day looking at the future. We can certainly feel hopeful, but that is not the hope the Bible is talking about. Let me show you what I mean:
We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ1 Thessalonians 1.2-3
Do you notice something there? Faith is a work. Love is a labour. Hope is a steadfastness—the NIV has ‘endurance,’ the word means ‘perseverance.’
Work. Labour. Endurance. These are actions.
The three cardinal virtues are faith, hope, and love. All of them need to be done. All of them are verbs (I know that faith isn’t, let it go). Each of them is an action, which means they need to be learned.
Hope is an action, and we have to work at it. Most of us don’t know how to do it, and we desperately need to learn it.
I know so many young people struggling post-pandemic. Honestly, I don’t know a whole lot of people who aren’t struggling after two years of on-again-off-again lockdown of varying degrees—if it’s even reasonable to talk about now as ‘post-pandemic.’
This doesn’t apply to every young person I know who is struggling, but for some at least there’s a sense that this is the first really bad thing that has happened to them. Which is no bad lesson, life will fling all sorts of mud at us as we try to live it. We have to learn how to keep going, though, for which we need hope.
I’ve spent years trying to work up hope, trying to feel it deeply enough to build my life upon. This doesn’t actually work. It was only after my life fell to absolute tatters around me that I started to learn the disciplines of hope—too late in some respects—and much more recently that someone pointed out to me that hope is an action.
And like all actions, we’re bad at it when we start. Mastery comes through practice, repetition, and habit. It’s like muscle: hope grows from use.
What is hope?
Hope is when we look forwards to a future that will be different from now. It’s a longing turned into a stance where your head will not be moved from its orientation, a decision of iron and blood to look at the resurrection. We look back to the event that turned the Universe on its head, when the Son of Adam walked out the back of death, and forward to its completion in the coming resurrection of the dead. We learn hope by refusing to look away from our future: heaven meeting earth, every tear wiped away by the rough fingers of the maker, a marriage and a feast, and death being trampled to death.
It starts there, in the seemingly distant future after death’s knell rings for the final time. To start sooner would be to swamp our perspectives with ash.
Then over time our perspective on hope may slip nearer to us in time. We may find we’re able to hope for a few years time, or a few months time, or even tomorrow. But if it didn’t start at the resurrection and move towards you, that’s not hope, it’s wishful thinking.
This is sometimes what we’re offered. I’ve heard people who are learning hope first-hand told off by well-meaning church friends because they cannot hope that God will be good to them tomorrow. That’s to hope what so called ‘cheap grace’ is to the gift of God in Christ.
So far, I’ve made hope sound like an intellectual thing, it isn’t. Not really. But it does have to be learned, one step at a time.
Hope is learned in battle. Hope is learned through scars. If you want to learn to hope, find a battered saint who is still following Jesus. Watch their limp. They will tell you that they have nothing to teach you. In one sense they won’t. But ask them about Jesus. Ask them about hope. Catch them on a better day and let the aroma of Christ fill your nose as they speak from bitter experience. Look at the runnels tears have cut on their cheeks. Look at swollen knuckles from their refusal to give up clinging to Christ even though it meant they bled. Look at where they look. You will be seeing hope in action.
Find someone who has faced the very worst of it and is still following Jesus. Sometimes these people are obvious. Sometimes they are not. You develop a sense for it over time. Though it rarely persists with triumphalism, in older saints who’ve learned the habits of hope there’s a merry sort of good-humour that takes the world as it is in all its awfulness, weeps heavy tears at great loss, and still even after the worst of it says that there is a day coming where every tear will be wiped away.
Find suffering saints and watch them. Then you will start to see what hope is.
Our fancy words aren’t enough. With the best will in world, there’s only so far someone can teach us to hope if they themselves have not been tested deeply. There is no Christian without some knowledge of what the Bible calls ‘the Test’ (Hebrews 4), so anyone can teach you something of the action of hope. But it only goes so far until you find the person who has truly eaten of the ash of the world and still looks at Christ, still believes that the best is yet to come even if it is on the far side of death.
That’s hope. And it’s learned.
So how do we learn it?
I’m not very far down this road, but here are a few lessons from wiser saints. These are the sorts of practices that grow hope—drop me a line on social media and let me know what else should be in this list:
It’s easier to believe that the big truth is true when we spot the tiny things we have to be thankful to God for. Hard to do, mind you, when you want to howl in your grief and curse God’s name.
I’m trying to learn to pray the Psalms rather than just read them. The intensity of the pain and struggle echoed there is very real, and very raw. It turns out that it is supposed to feel like this, and we’re not mad. From there springs hope.
Tell the Truth
Speak the truth to your friends. Don’t hide under the veneer of respectability that Christianity appears to require us to. This is not the faith. Hope cannot grow in a garden of lies—we have to name the pain.
Being with the people of God, even when it is impossibly hard, is an act of hope.
Which can seem like a nonsense thing to say to the hurting, who so often experience Church as a wounding place and a factory for false hope. They are often not wrong to feel so. And yet. And yet. She is the bride, dear friends. As we sing and pray and hear and eat we will find that the resolve that is needed to start to hope is slowly restored.
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