Heirs of Hopelessness: Our Human Predicament (2)

Scripture puts words to our experiences. It explains the story where we find ourselves. Why does hopelessness feel so common to us? Why does it seem so familiar? It has long been our companion. It has never been a stranger. Hopelessness is our inheritance. We are born into it. It is the norm, not the exception. It is our story.

The first sun rise lit up a world that knew only hope. Eden was the place that literally defined paradise. Abundance surrounded humanity’s parents. A perfect place to live. A unique partner to enjoy. A meaningful job to do. And above all, a gracious God to worship and enjoy. [14]

As this study will show, to know the Triune God is to know hope. Adam and Eve knew hope. They walked with Him. They also lived with the reality that their perfect situation could remain forever. We live on the other side of that reality.

Hope was among the tragic losses of the fall. One forbidden act ruptured the world and dislodged our connection to the Triune God. It ripped us from paradise and left us homeless. Our parents were driven into the land of despair, the only place you and I have ever known.

Theologians have argued that hopelessness was not only the result of the fall, but its cause. “Despondency and despair are sin — indeed they are the origin of all sins. ‘It is not so much sin that plunges us into disaster, as rather despair’, said Chrysostom.’”

Hopelessness is the birth right of sinners. It is the land to which we belong. It is the air we breathe. It is the status of our souls. It is the condition of our futures. Rebellion has plunged the world into a dark night. The Bible paints a bleak picture of life without hope.[15]

“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.”[16]

This is a clear biblical description of hopelessness.[17] Paul reminds the Gentile Christians at Ephesus of their origins. He is calling them to remember where they come from. As he does, he confirms our suspicions of the fall narrative.[18] Hopelessness is indeed our lot, unless Hope himself intervenes.

Paul defines hopelessness as the absence of four critical things: God’s Son, God’s people, God’s promises, and God himself.

[14] Genesis 2:1-25

[15] Jurgen Moltmann, Theology of hope: On the ground and implications of a Christian Eschatology. (SCM Press: London, 1967), 7.

[16] Ephesians 2:11-12

[17] Paul uses the phrase “having no hope” (ἐλπίδα μὴ ἔχοντες) in the passage. The closest parallel in the New Testament is 1 Thessalonians 4:13, which speaks of those who grieve “with no hope” (οἱ λοιποὶ οἱ μὴ ἔχοντες ἐλπίδα). These are rare occurrences in the New Testament. Both of these texts point to the centrality of the person and work of Jesus for hope.

[18] The context is focused on the Gentile’s helpless estate in contrast to the covenant people of God. The grace of God given to the Israelites highlights Gentile hopelessness. Paul is very clear that the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile has been demolished and that all the benefits of the covenant people of God belong to the Gentiles in Christ (Ephesians 2:13-22). I am looking at this text from a broader perspective. Hope was not a given for Israel. They were just as hopeless as the Gentiles. God broke into the world with hope and he chose to work that hope in the people of Israel and through them to the nations. Hopelessness was the inheritance of both Jew and Gentile after the fall. This fact is what pushes me to argue for a definition of hopelessness from this text, although it is directly speaking to Gentiles. Prior to Abraham the Israelites were in the exact same situation as the Gentiles. They were separated from Christ and without God. They were not God’s people and did not know the benefits of his covenant.

 

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Heirs of Hopelessness: Our Human Predicament (1)

Hopelessness is all around us. We see it in our families. We see it in our friends. We see it in ourselves. Researchers have explored the far-reaching impact of hopelessness on human well-being. Hopelessness is a force, a devastating power to be respected.

Drill down into many of our problems and you will find hopelessness. Many studies have done the drilling and have established hopelessness as the driving force in depression,[1] suicidal ideation and suicide,[2] distorted thinking,[3] poor physical health and illness,[4] poor self-confidence,[5] anxiety and dysphoria,[6] poor mental health,[7] gender stress and social class level,[8] low income and lack of success,[9] a poor problem solving skills and lack of productivity,[10] criminality,[11] negative social behavior,[12] and substance abuse.[13]

A brief sampling of the literature on hopelessness speaks to the power of this intangible reality. Many symptoms can be traced back to this root. It is the engine that drives painful experiences and destructive behaviors. The reach of hopelessness is breath taking when you consider its ability to touch every area of our lives.

This unwelcome guest and bitter companion is no stranger to us. Hopelessness is a force to be reckoned with. The research is right. We begin here because the research is pulling on a significant biblical thread. A thread in the storyline of this world. The story of you and me. Hopelessness is deeply imbedded into our experience, into our story.

[1] Richard T. Liu, Evan M. Kleiman, Bridget A. Nestor, Shayna M. Cheek, “The Hopelessness Theory of Depression: A Quarter Century in Review.”  Clinical Psychology in Science and Practice (Vol 22:4, December 2015).

[2] Lyn Y. Abrahamson, Lauren B. Alloy, Michael E. Hogan, etc, “The Hopelessness Theory of Suicidality.” Suicide Science: Expanding Boundaries (Kluwer Academic Publishing, Boston 2000). E. David Klonsky & Alexis M. May, “The Three Step Theory (3ST): A New Theory Rooted in the ‘Ideation-to-Action’ Framework.” International Journal of Cognitive Therapy (Vol 8:2, 2015). Regina Miranda, Aliona Tsypes, Michelle Gallagher, etc, “Rumination and Hopelessness as Mediators of the Relation Between Perceived Emotion Dysregulation and Suicidal Ideation.” Cogn Ther Res (New York, 2013).

[3] Firdevs Savi Cakar, “The Effect of Automatic Thoughts on Hopelessness: Role of Self-Esteem as Mediator.” Educational Sciences: Theory and Practice (Educational Consultancy and Research Center, 2014), 11.

[4] Cakar, “The Effect of Automatic Thoughts on Hopelessness,” 11.

[5] Katherine Kandaris, “The Moderating Effect of Hope on the Relationship Between Emotional Approach Coping and Flourishing in College Students.” College of Education (DePaul University, 2013), 23.

[6] Cakar, “The Effect of Automatic Thoughts on Hopelessness,” 11.

[7] Peter Halama & Maria Dedova, “Meaning in Life and Hope as Predictors of Positive Mental Health: Do they explain residual variance not predicted by personality traits?” Studia Psychologica (Vol 49:3, 2007), 193.

[8] Cakar, “The Effect of Automatic Thoughts on Hopelessness,” 12.

[9] C.R. Snyder, Hal S. Shorey, Jennifer Cheavens, etc, _Hope and Academic Success in College.” Journal of Educational Psychology (Vol 94:4, 2002). Cakar, “The Effect of Automatic Thoughts on Hopelessness,” 11.

[10] Cakar, “The Effect of Automatic Thoughts on Hopelessness,” 11.

[11] Michelle A. Tomishima, “Hopelessness as a predictor of juvenile delinquency in at-risk youth.” Master’s Theses SJSU ScholarWorks (San Jose State University, 1995).

[12] Tomishima, “Hopelessness as a predictor of juvenile delinquency in at-risk youth,” 5.

[13] Tomishima, “Hopelessness as a predictor of juvenile delinquency in at-risk youth,” 3.

Building a Theology of Hope

Hope is a mighty force. To affirm this, you need only know its absence. Scripture puts it on par with faith and submits it only to love.[1] The importance of faith is uncontested. Scripture is plain. It is absolutely necessary in the Christian journey.  It is the mechanism that connects us to God and his saving action.[2] It is a gift.[3] It is Christian muscle.[4] Without it, pleasing God is impossible.[5]

Could the same be said of hope? Do we place it on the same plane as faith? Does it have a central place in our theology and practice? When considering the triad of faith, hope and love, which is the most underdeveloped and applied in your life?

This is no academic exercise. I recently preached a Sunday sermon on hope, forgot it by Wednesday and was hopeless by Friday. I know the absence of hope and I know it well. I am well versed in the despair that marks life without Jesus Christ. I also know the hopelessness that assaults the Christian. I am confident of one thing, I need hope. I need it desperately. The following posts flows out of need, mine and yours.

What better way to foster hope than to explore what God says about it. I desire to be well acquainted with hope through reading, studying and writing on the theme. To you my reader, it is my prayer that in reading and meditating on the gift of hope you will know its power and joy in your life.

Hope must be set against its appropriate backdrop: hopelessness. In the following post we will explore hope’s opposite. As we explore this theme together, I pray that God would bring this hope-filled benediction to life: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”[6]

[1] 1 Corinthians 13:13

[2] Romans 3:8, 4:3-5, 5:1, Galatians 2:16

[3] Ephesians 2:8-9

[4] James 2:14-25, 2 Thessalonians 1:11

[5] Hebrews 11:6, Romans 10:15-17

[6] Romans 15:13

Should We Ask God To Get Us Out Of Tough Spots?

I’ve heard it said before that we should never pray for God to deliver us from suffering or tough situations, but that we should pray he would give us the strength to make it through them. I’ve also heard it said that God is more interested in what he is producing through our pain than he is in getting us out of our pain.

There is some truth in both of these statements as well as untruth. God does work in suffering to bring about character transformation and perseverance. He is interested in helping us through it. He does not promise rescue from it. However, these truths must be balanced with a counter-truth: God is a Deliver. A Savior by nature rescues.

Deliverance language is prominent throughout Scripture. Take the Psalms for example. More than 65 times the Psalmist uses this language. Psalm 107 is the quintessential deliverance psalm. This refrain structures the entire Psalm occurring 5 times (Ps 107:6, 13, 19, 20, 28). “Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.”

Crying to the Lord for rescue is not only welcomed, it is prescribed. It is one avenue Scripture gives us for engaging our suffering. The Psalm is clear. God hears our cries and God acts upon them. Deliverance is connected to crying out.

In fact, it could be argued that the history of Israel pivots on the cries of God’s people. The Exodus is a clear example of this reality (Ex 2:23, 3:7-9). Israel cries. God delivers. We should never underestimate the ear of God. Cries move him.

This should encourage us to cry to him in our pain. It should push us to challenge the “overly spiritual” notion that God is not interested in removing us from our pain or taking our pain from us. He is a Deliverer. We must acknowledge the mystery in his sovereignty and the other biblical truths regarding pain. He does not always remove us from it or it from us.

Nevertheless, the biblical model we find in the Psalms is to cry with all our might for deliverance. We would do well to take the words of the Psalmist as our own. “Look on my affliction and deliver me” (Ps 119:153).

The Garbage and Glory of the Universe

Blaise Pascal, theologian from the 1600’s, captured in his writings the paradox of being an image-bearer and a sinner in a cursed world. Look at what he says.

What sort of freak then is man!  How novel, how monstruous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious!  Judge of all things, feeble earth-worm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, glory and refuse of the universe… Man’s greatness and wretchedness are so evident that the true religion must necessarily teach us that there is in man some great principle of greatness and some great principle of wretchedness! (Quoted in from Pascal’s Penseesin God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom[Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009], 53).

In other words, both realities exist side by side. The height from which we have fallen along with the damage of the fall point to the glory of a previous held position and the goodness of being a creature. Sin itself speaks of humanity’s glory.

Perversion has a way of pointing to what is pure—it points to what we were and what we can be again through Christ. The helpful truth of what Pascal is pointing to here is that we must always recognize this paradox in humanity. The paradox demands that all are treated with tremendous dignity and that all stand in need of tremendous grace.

Love Alone is Credible

The following are insights from Hans Von Balthasar, influential Catholic theologian and author.

“Above all we must not wish to cling to our suffering. Suffering surely deepens us and enhances our person, but we must not desire to become a deeper self than God wills. To suffer no longer can be a beautiful, perhaps the ultimate sacrifice.”
 

“No fighter is more divine than one who can achieve victory through defeat. In the instant when he receives the deadly wound, his opponent falls to the ground, himself struck a final blow. For he strikes love and is thus himself struck by love. And by letting itself be struck, love proves what had to be proven: that it is indeed love.”

“For all his gentleness and humility unto death on the Cross, God does not relinquish his attribute of being judge and consuming fire. Nothing is more majestic than his Passion; even his anxiety is sublime. And God never denies his attributes to those who are his light in the world. They shine like stars in the cosmos, and even their anxiety, if God allows it, bears the marks of their divine destiny.”

“Faith’s table is always laid, whether the invited guest sits down or stays away with a thousand excuses and pretexts.”

“Love alone is credible.”

Luther’s Ministry to His Mother

Luther is known as a bold reformer. What is often missed is his pastoral heart and compassionate approach to people. In this post, there are two letters that open a window into his love and care for his mother on her death bed.

“My dearly beloved Mother! I have received my brother James’s letter concerning your illness. Of course this grieves me deeply, especially because I cannot be with you in person, as I certainly would like to be. All your children and my Katie pray for you; some weep.”

“Dear Mother, you also know the true center and foundation of your salvation from whom you are to seek comfort in this and all troubles, namely, Jesus Christ, the cornerstone. He will not waver or fail us, nor allow us to sink or perish, for he is the Savior and is called the Savior of all poor sinners, and of all who are caught in tribulation and death, and rely on him, and call on his name. The Father and God of all consolation grant you, through his holy Word and Spirit, a steadfast, joyful, and grateful faith blessedly to overcome this and all other trouble.”