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.

 

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