Hopelessness compels us toward Hope

Hopelessness is a mighty force. We reject the promise of God for peace, hope and salvation and exhaust ourselves trying to relieve our hopelessness. We devise our own plans for getting hope. I will find hope in a relationship. I will find it in a job. I will find it in possessions. I will find it in power. I will find it in pleasure. I will scour the earth. I will use every resource in my power to rid myself of hopelessness. I know this road, it’s a dead end. From what we have seen, this posture is the root of our problem not the solution. We know the ache for hope, but as we stiff-arm the God of Hope it remains evasive.

In despair, we reject the promise of God for joy, purpose and an eternal future. Such promises are too good to be true. Such promises are simply not true. Despair retreats from God and lives without grasping for hope. “Despair, too, presupposes hope. ‘What we do not long for, can be the object neither of our hope nor of our despair’ (Augustine). The pain of despair surely lies in the fact that a hope is there, but no way opens up towards its fulfillment.”[6]

God’s Word cuts through the noise. He speaks clearly and authoritatively about our hopelessness. He defines it for us. Does God’s four-fold description of hopelessness speak to you? Are you without Jesus? Do you know his people? Are his promises yours? Do you have God in this world? Do you recognize hopelessness in your active rebellion or in your passive despair?

Hopelessness should drive us to hope. But we must know where to find it. Empty promises of hope abound. God’s Word gives us the path. It points us the right way. It directs us to the Triune God. Amid despair, there is hope; a certain, fixed, unfailing hope that will anchor your soul. This is good news. I need an anchor. If such stabilizing news existed, would you not long to hear it?

Hopelessness creates an appetite for hope. It makes us ache for relief. Embracing our brokenness, owning our sin and facing the fact that life is desperately messy is foundational to receiving the gift of hope. We must start here, but we cannot stay here. Hope awaits. We have spent ample time outside of Eden. We must press forward to Bethlehem and onto Jerusalem.

[6] Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 7.

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The Contours of Hopelessness

Theology must find feet, it must bleed. We must always ask the ever-relevant question, so what? Why does any of this matter? How does this help us at all? How does an accurate biblical understanding of hopelessness change things for us. Jurgen Moltmann is correct, “as long as hope does not embrace and transform the thought and action of men, it remains topsy-turvy and ineffective.” [1] Consider a few things regarding the pertinence of a theology of hopelessness.

God is a surgeon and his Word is a scalpel.[2] With great precision and skill, He diagnoses our ailments and provides saving care. Hopelessness is the diagnosis. It puts words to the unrest in our souls. It pinpoints the aftermath of our sin. It captures the wreckage within us. It speaks to the pain around us.

We put our finger on a core problem when we speak about hopelessness. It is a deeper issue than we thought. It is more pervasive than we imagined. It is multi-faceted and shows up in ways we didn’t anticipate. Jurgen Moltmann makes this astute observation about hopelessness.

“Hopelessness can assume two forms: it can be presumption, and it can be despair. Both are forms of the sin against hope. Presumption is a premature, self-willed anticipation of the fulfillment of what we hope for from God. Despair is the premature, arbitrary anticipation of the non-fulfillment of what we hope for from God. Both forms of hopelessness, by anticipating the fulfillment or by giving up hope, cancel the wayfaring character of hope. They rebel against the patience in which hope trusts in the God of the promise.”[3]

In other words, hopelessness has multiple faces. It shows up in active rebellion as it strives to rip prerogative from the hands of God and fulfill his promises with human strength. We see this in the Abraham-Sarah story. The promise of a miracle baby to a century old spouse was more than a stretch, it was impossible. Instead of resting in the promise, Abraham took matters into his own hands. The root of his action was hopelessness, he lost hope in the promise of God. But this hopelessness took the form of active, prideful rebellion.[4]

Hopelessness also shows up in despair, this is its inactive face. It curls up into a ball, crawls into a hole, throws its hands up and simply quits. Like active hopelessness it gives up on the promise of God. The only difference, it lays down instead of rising up. We see this in the story of Elijah. God does mighty things through the prophet showing his power through fire and rain. Moments later, his life is threatened and Elijah despairs of the promises of God. He flees, hides, lays down and pleads with God to die.[5]

[1] Moltmann, Hope    Moltmann draws this observation from Joseph Pieper’s treatise Über die Hoffnung (1949)

[2] God is described as Physician a number of times (Exodus 15:26, Psalm 147:3, Hosea 6:1, Matthew 9:12, Mark 2:17, Luke 5:31). Hebrews 4:12 states that the Word of God is sharper than a two-edged sword and capable of “piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

[3] Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 7. Moltmann states that this idea is drawn from Joseph Pieper’s treatise Über die Hoffnung (1949).

[4] In the Abraham-Hagar narrative (Genesis 16:1-15) we learn that Sarah and Abraham jointly despaired in God’s promises. Sarah explicitly says, “The Lord has kept me from having children” (16:2). In other words, God is the own barrier to his promises! He has kept me from the very thing He has promised. She then states, “Go sleep with my slave, perhaps I can build my family through her’” (16:2). The despair is potent. God is in the way. He won’t build the family he has promised, so I will. The remainder of the narrative points to an unsurprising tension between Sarah, Hagar and Abraham. The fruit of active hopelessness is always painful.

[5] 1 Kings 18-19. This side of hopelessness may also exist in the Abraham-Sarah story. In Genesis 18:1-15, the promise of a child is reaffirmed in spite of the successful attempt to defy God’s word and have a child through Hagar. Both Abraham and Sarah laugh in response to the promise. It is clear that Sarah’s laughter at this time is not one of joy-filled faith (18:12-15). The laughter of unbelief may be very close to the passivity of hopelessness—it is despair cloaked in a smile.

 

No God = No Hope

“Therefore, remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called ‘the circumcision,’ which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:11-12).

Hope has a triune shape. We saw what separation from the God-man means. Here, Paul targets life without God the Father. In short, hopelessness is the absence of the Trinity. Despair, hope’s counterpart is also triune in form. It is to live without the Three. It is to be without the One.[1]

God the Father is the God of all hope.[2] He is hope’s true source, the giver of all true hope, the very hope of hope. Hope is eternally elusive without God.[3] It does not exist. Helmut Thielicke articulates a painful angle on being apart from God.

“Behind the heroic, set face of man lies the whole tragedy of a child who has lost his father…Doesn’t the world seem a dreadfully ‘unfatherly’ place? Ever since men have walked on earth; have they not always been terrified by the fatherness of the world? The history of the world, taken as a whole, is a story of war, deeply marked with the hoof-prints of the apocalyptic horseman. It is the story of humanity without a Father-so it seems.”[4]

The garden expulsion left us fatherless. It left us homeless. It left us hopeless. This is the fray into which the Triune God enters. We have to grasp the backdrop of despair before we can understand the hope of the gospel.

Hopelessness sets the stage for hope. Scripture is clear, the situation is dire. To be without hope is to be without God’s Son, the one Lord, the one Savior whose name is Jesus Christ.

Hopelessness is to be without God’s people, to be separated from the community of faith that is connected to the one who is Hope.

Hopelessness is to be without God’s promises, to know the absence of his covenant-keeping faithfulness.

Hopelessness is to be fatherless. It is to be without God in this world, to be separated from the very source and fountain of all hope.

[1] The Triune shape of hope is incomplete without the Holy Spirit. In the broader context, we see that He grants us access to the Father through the Son (Ephesians 2:18). The following pages will show that He is Hope. From a theological perspective, equality of divine essence demands exact equivalence among Father, Son and Spirit regarding any ontological assertions about God and hope. God is Hope. This is true of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

[2] Romans 15:13

[3] Lincoln, Word Biblical Commentary: Ephesians, 136. “The term ἄθεοs, ‘without God,’ occurs nowhere else in the NT or LXX. Where it is used in Greek writings, it can denote either a person who does not believe in a deity, an impious person, or a person forsaken by God or the gods.” Lincoln argues that the third nuance is most likely in this text. “They lived in a world without true hope and without the true God.” Forsakenness is the status of everyone born east of Eden. The Bible paints the canvas with dark shades of despair. It must. It is the backdrop of the dazzling spectrum of grace and hope.

[4] Helmut Thielicke, Our Heavenly Father: Sermons on the Lord’s Prayer (Baker House: Grand Rapids, 1960), 18-21.

 

Hopeless Without God’s Promise

“Therefore, remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called ‘the circumcision,’ which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:11-12).

The “covenants of promise” are the words of a God who cannot lie.[1] They are his gracious commitments to his people. They are the good He swears to do for them. They are blood-drenched promises, ultimately costing him everything. O. Palmer Robertson provides an insightful definition of a covenant.

“A covenant is a bond in blood sovereignly administered. When God enters into a covenantal relationship with men, he sovereignly institutes a life-and-death bond. A covenant is a bond in blood, or a bond of life and death, sovereignly administered.” [2]

God makes promises. I will forgive you.[3] I will rescue you from judgment.[4] I will hear your prayer.[5] I will give you eternal life.[6] I will provide you daily bread.[7] I will not punish you.[8] I will be gracious to you.[9] I will be your God.[10] You will be my people.[11] I will be with you.[12] I will never leave you.[13] I will not forsake you.[14]

He swears to his own harm that these promises are sure and will never be abnegated. He takes a cross and vacates a tomb to ensure the efficacy of every word. Without God’s promise of salvation, there is no salvation. Without God’s promise of forgiveness there is no forgiveness. To be without God’s covenant is to be without a relationship with him and without all his promises. This is hopelessness.

When God speaks, it is true. When God promises, it is certain. Hope is directly tied to our relationship with His word. If his promises are not for us, despair is inevitable. If his promises are for us, hope is guaranteed.[15]

[1] Andrew T. Lincoln, Word Biblical Commentary: Ephesians (Word Books: Dallas, 1990), 137. “The only other place in the NT where the plural form of ‘the covenants’ is found is Romans 9:4 where Paul states, ‘to them belong…the covenants…and the promises.’ The writer probably has in mind a series of covenants with Abraham (Genesis 15:7-21, 17:1-21), with Isaac (Genesis 26:2-5), with Jacob (Genesis 28:13-15), with Israel (Exodus 24:1-8), and with David (2 Samuel 7).” I would add the new covenant promise of Jeremiah 31:31-34. Walter Kaiser argues that repeated Old Testament formulas “epitomize the content of the promise…the gospel itself is the heart of the promise: ‘in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.’ Another is the tripartite formula, ‘I will be your God, you shall be my special possession and I will dwell in the midst of you.’” Walter Kaiser Jr, “The Old Promise and the New Covenant: Jeremiah 31:31-34,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 15 (1972), 12. In other words, all the covenants serve to emphasize the certainty God’s presence with us, possession of us and faithfulness to us. They all drive us toward the gospel and the hope which is found in that good news.

[2] O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (P&R: Phillipsburg, 1987), 4.

[3] Psalm 51:7-9, 103:12, Isaiah 1:18,1 John 1:9, 2 Corinthians 5:18-19, Ephesians 4:32

[4] John 3:18, Romans 8:1-2, 31-34, Ephesians 2:1-10, 1 Thessalonians 5:9, 1 John 4:18

[5] Psalm 91:14-16, 2 Chronicles 7:14, Matthew 7:7-11, 21:22, John 14:13-14, 1 John 5:14

[6] Psalm 16:11, 21:4-6, Daniel 12:3, Matthew 25:46, John 3:16, 6:51, 8:51, 11:25-26, 17:3

[7] Job 38: 39-41, Psalm 34:10, 50:10, 81:10, Matthew 6:11, Philippians 4:19, Hebrews 13:5

[8] Psalm 32:1-2, 103:6-14, Lamentations 3:22-24, Romans 8:1-2, 31-34, Ephesians 2:1-10

[9] Exodus 34:6-7, Romans 5:1-2, 12-21, 2 Corinthians 12:8-9, Ephesians 2:4-9, Hebrews 4:16

[10] Genesis 17:8, Exodus 29:45, Leviticus 26:45, Ezekiel 14:11, Zechariah 8:8, Hebrews 8:10

[11] Exodus 6:7, Leviticus 26:12, Ezekiel 37:23, 27, Jeremiah 7:23, 31:1, 33, Revelation 21:3

[12] Deuteronomy 31:8, Joshua 1:9, Matthew 28:20, 2 Corinthians 13:11, Philippians 4:9

[13] Deuteronomy 31:6, 8, Joshua 1:5, Isaiah 41:10, John 14:6, Hebrews 13:5, Revelation 21:3

[14] 1 Kings 8:57, 1 Chronicles 28:20, Psalm 37:28, 94:14, Isaiah 41:17, 42:16, Hebrews 13:5

[15] Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 62. Moltmann provides the following definition of promise and the unique dynamic a promise creates.  “A promise is a declaration which announces the coming of a reality that does not yet exist. Thus, promise sets man’s heart on a future history in which the fulfilling of the promise is to be expected. If it is a case of a divine promise, then that indicates that the expected future does not have to develop within the framework of the possibilities inherent in the present, but arises from that which is possible to the God of the promise.”

No Church, No Hope

“Therefore, remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called ‘the circumcision,’ which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:11-12).

Hope is remembered, worshipped and obeyed in community. Our connection to hope is sustained and deepened through the people of God. Further, the community of faith is entrusted with proclaiming the message of hope to the world. To be “alienated” from God’s people is to exist without hope.

Christ is the Master Builder of the people of God.[1] He forms the foundation and builds it brick by brick.[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer observes that our connection to Christ determines our connection to one another. Hope himself binds us.

“What determines our brotherhood is what that man is by reason of Christ. Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. This is true not merely at the beginning, as though in the course of time something else were to be added to our community; it remains so for all the future and to all eternity. I have community with others and I shall continue to have it only through Jesus Christ. The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us. We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, for eternity.”[3]

We are gathered together through Hope and for hope. Bonhoeffer argues that the community of faith should be engaged in three key disciplines: 1) preaching the good news of hope to each other; 2) preaching the good news of hope to the world; 3) preaching the good news of hope to ourselves.[4]

God works hope into our souls through the people of God. He sustains hope through others. He reminds us of the hope to which we belong through a fellow believer. The church is the light of the world, a city set on a hill, a fellowship of hope.

The church exists to wage war on hopelessness. It is through the proclamation of the church that we are pulled from despair and transferred to the kingdom of hope. It is our task to bring this hope-giving word to the world around us. The church is a bastion of hope, without it we are lost.

[1] Matthew 16:18

[2] 1 Peter 2:4-6

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community (Harper One: San Francisco, 2009), 21.

[4] Ibid, 32. “Christians are persons who no longer seek their salvation, their deliverance, their justification in themselves, but in Jesus Christ alone. They know that God’s Word in Jesus Christ pronounces them guilty, even when they feel nothing of their own guilt, and that God’s Word in Jesus Christ pronounces them free and righteous, even when they feel nothing of their own righteousness … [So] ‘they watch for this Word wherever they can. Because they daily hunger and thirst for righteousness, they long for the redeeming Word again and again … The Christ in their own hearts is weaker than the Christ in the word of other Christians. Their own hearts are uncertain; those of their brothers and sisters are sure. At the same time, this also clarifies that the goal of all Christian community is to encounter one another as bringers of the message of salvation’” (emphasis mine).

 

The Endurance of Imperfect Disciples

A good buddy of mine @ http://www.crossworksblog.wordpress.com wrote this great post. Check it out!

CrossWorks

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
If we endure, we will also reign with him;
If we deny him, he also will deny us;
If we are faithless, he remains faithful for he cannot deny himself
.

The apostle Paul in his second letter to Timothy, cites this saying (2 Tim 2:11-13), possibly confessed corporately with a new convert at his or her baptism, as one of the reasons for his endurance of present suffering (2 Tim 2:8).  In the immediate context and context of the letter as a whole, it serves as an encouragement to Timothy to also endure his own sufferings on account of the gospel and Christ Jesus (2 Tim 1:8; 2:3; 3:10-16).

I intend to reflect more on this confession in further posts.  Today, I want to share a previous meditation on imperfect discipleship as witnessed in the life of the…

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Without Christ = Without Hope

“Therefore, remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called ‘the circumcision,’ which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:11-12).

Hope is a person. His name is Jesus. If you have Him, you have hope. If you don’t have Him, you don’t have hope. It is devastatingly simple. Hope is not found in people. It is not found in ourselves. It cannot be attained through possessions, position or status. It does not come from self-effort. Hope will forever evade us if Christ does not break into our hopelessness.

Being “separated” from Jesus describes the rift of the fall. It is our condition before God. We have willfully disconnected from our life source. The chasm between us is of our making. I have sinned. I have rebelled. I have transgressed. I have disobeyed. I have been foolish. I am guilty and I am hopeless. This is me without Christ. This is you without Christ.

I have sinned. I have rebelled. I have transgressed. I have disobeyed. I have been foolish. I am guilty and I have hope! This is me with Christ. This can be you with Christ if it is not already. Hopelessness is our current state and without Christ will become our permanent state.

Extended hopelessness is hell.[1] Push our status without Christ past death and into eternity and you have hell. Hell is a certain, fixed reality for all who reject Jesus Christ. It is to be eternally “separated” from Him. Hell is an existence with no hope, ever.[2] Tomorrow never gets better there. [3] Darkness never lifts there. Things don’t ever improve there.

There is no plot, no story, no character development, no joy, no purpose. The slightest ray of hope will never shine on that dark, lonely place. It is pure, unmixed, unchanging despair. Even the hope of hope is banished from that cursed place.

To be without Christ is deadly. There is a reason that Jesus speaks so often about this terrifying reality.[4] Hope has come and is calling us out of hopelessness. He is wrenching us away from eternal despair.[5] Hope is on a rescue mission.

[1] Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 7. “It can be said that living without hope is like no longer living. Hell is hopelessness, and it is not for nothing that at the entrance to Dante’s hell there stand the words: ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here’” (emphasis mine).

[2] Suffering in hell is described in the New Testament as “everlasting punishment” (Matthew 25:46), “everlasting fire” (Matthew18:8), “the fire that shall never be quenched” (Mark 9:45), “the worm that never dies” (Mark 9:46), “flaming fire” (2 Thessalonians 1:8), “everlasting chains” (Jude 6), “eternal fire” (Jude 7), “the blackness of darkness forever” (Jude 13), “the smoke of torment ascending up forever and ever” (Revelation 14:11, 19:3), “the lake of fire and brimstone” in which the devil, the beast, and the false prophet “shall be tormented day and night, forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10).

[3] This stands in stark contrast with the reality of heaven. Heaven is characterized by fresh joy-filled tomorrows. Sam Storms, “Joys Eternal Increase: Edwards on the Beauty of Heaven,” Desiring God 2003 National Conference (www.desiringgod.org). “Heaven is not simply about the reality or experience of joy, but its eternal increase. The blessedness of the beauty of heaven is progressive, incremental, and incessantly expansive.” He grounds his discussion in Ephesians 2:7, “God made us alive together with Christ and raised us up with him so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” The progression of eternity will be the continual unveiling of God’s great kindness toward us found in Jesus Christ. We will forever unpack his saving mercy to us. He further explains. “We will constantly be more amazed with God, more in love with God, and thus ever more relishing his presence and our relationship with him. Our experience of God will never reach it consummation. We will never finally arrive, as if upon reaching a peak we discover there is nothing beyond. Our experience of God will never become stale. It will deepen and develop, intensify and amplify, unfold and increase, broaden and balloon. Our relishing and rejoicing in God will sharpen and spread and extend and progress and mature and flower and blossom and widen and stretch and swell and snowball and inflate and lengthen and augment and advance and proliferate and accumulate and accelerate and multiply and heighten and reach a crescendo that will even then be only the beginning of an eternity of new and fresh insights into the majesty of who God is!” Hell is heaven’s opposite. If heaven is the eternal incline into greater joy and happiness, hell is the eternal decline into greater despair and darkness. The utter absence of hope and its possibility is a dreadful dimension of eternal punishment. Three times Jesus uses the language of “outer darkness” to describe hell (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30). He is capturing the pure unmixed despair of a place void of light and hope. Peter uses the language of “pits of darkness” and “black darkness” to convey this reality (2 Peter 2:4, 17, see also 1 Samuel 2:9 and Isaiah 8:22).

[4] W.G.T. Shedd, The Doctrine of Endless Punishment (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1986), 12. “The strongest support of the doctrine of endless punishment is the teaching of Christ, the Redeemer of man.” D.A. Carson, The Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World: An Exposition of Matthew 5-10 (Baker Books, 1991). “Jesus himself speaks twice as often of hell as of heaven.” Leon Morris, “The Dreadful Harvest.” Christianity Today (May 27, 1991). “Jesus spoke more often about hell than he did about heaven. We cannot get around this fact.”

[5] It is his work of gathering a lost people to himself that the gates of hell cannot withstand (Matthew 16:18). Hell will not prevail against God’s saving activity. Once rescued from gates of hell, we are called to join his mission. Charles Spurgeon captured this well. “If sinners be damned, at least let them leap to Hell over our dead bodies. And if they perish, let them perish with our arms wrapped about their knees, imploring them to stay. If Hell must be filled, let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go unwarned and un-prayed for.”