by Kees van der Knijff
If you move to a different country, like I did a little over a year ago, you may start to see many things in a different light. Things you thought were self-evident appear not to be so. Things you consider rare can appear to be standard. Words get new or deeper meanings. One of the recurring themes for me over the past year, amid all that has been going on in Lebanon, has been the theme of hope. Living in Lebanon has made me more aware of the superficial kinds of hope we are prone to revert to. I am convinced we need a deeper hope, a hope that does not look away from pain and evil but gives strength to live through pain and to expose evil.
At times, for example this spring when parliamentary elections were nearing, a small wave of hope seemed to roll through the country. People desperately clung to the idea that things might change for the better.
If you look carefully around you, you cannot miss the despair in Lebanon. You might have to look beyond the shiny cars that still drive around and see past the smiles that greet you everywhere. You might have to listen to what is being said between the lines. In most cases simply looking at people’s eyes is enough. Despair is everywhere. I guess the same applies to many places around the world, even to places that to outsiders look stable and prosperous.
As Christians, we confess to be people of hope. But what does it mean to be hopeful in times of despair? I fear that as evangelical Christians we sometimes embrace superficial views of hope. Superficial hope comes in a variety of shapes.
There is the “ought-to” kind of hope: As Christians, we are not allowed to despair. We must be hopeful, and whoever is not lacks faith. With this hope, we end up throwing around beautiful words about God’s power, control and plan to silence our inner doubts about all that is disorienting.
I have also seen the “could be worse” hope: As long as you frequently remind yourself of people who are in an even more dire spot, you will find the strength to go on. In a world full of atrocious evil, this mixture of stoicism and Christian spirituality will always apply, but it will not help anyone to deal with actual suffering in a deep and transformative way.
Or there is the “shoe closet” hope: when we enter church, we put our burdens and sorrows in their designated space and enter an hour-long oasis, a totally different spiritual world. We hope the worship service will give us enough strength to shoulder our burdens until the next week.
Then there is “escapist” hope: putting a lot of emphasis on the end times and on heaven, trusting that this hopeful perspective will bring us enough endurance to keep on going until Jesus’s triumphant return.
There are elements of truth to all these types of hope, yet I fear they are flawed for two basic reasons. Firstly, they all focus on hope as an inner feeling, a source of inner peace. As Evangelicals, we are often wary of forms of the prosperity gospel. But might we have our own, ‘romanticized’ versions of it? We tend to equate a healthy faith not with economic prosperity but rather with positive feelings. As long as we feel inner peace, inner love, and inner hope we believe our faith is healthy and our relationship with God is blessed.
Secondly, all four forms of superficial hope encourage one to look away from suffering and pain. They invite us to focus so strongly on something better that we forget about the burdens and sorrows of real life.
But, you might be inclined to ask, what is the problem with positive inner feelings that help one to cope with despair? Why is this superficial? (It can have a tremendous therapeutic power in the middle of challenging times!) Basically, it is superficial because what we need in troubled times is something (or someone) that gives us strength without looking away from suffering and pain, something real. Something real enough not only to give us warm feelings but to empower us to stand up against the sources of pain and suffering. Hope is not just a feeling, it is a muscle. It is meant to get things moving. In a world where evil is rampant, hope is an act of subversion, even resistance. Hope does not disappoint!
There is a beautiful quote often ascribed to Augustine: “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.” Clearly, for the author of this quote, hope does not result in warm inner feelings, nor does it look away from evil. The beautiful daughters of hope are disturbing daughters, daughters that take the inner peace away instead of bringing it. Daughters that bring raging fire instead of cozy warmth.
What does it mean to live hopefully in a despairing world? What does it mean for the church to be a messenger of hope in troubled times? Can it be that being hopeful means pointing out injustices, opposing them, expressing our anger? Can it be that being hopeful means mustering our feeble courage to try and change things for the good?
More and more I tend to think that my own faith, and evangelical spirituality more generally, needs to welcome those disturbing daughters of hope. More and more I become convinced that we should expose the comfort-seeking tendencies inherent in our evangelical spirituality. Those tendencies that give us a license to look away. We confess a King who defeated the powers when he died on the cross and rose from the grave. We pray for His Kingdom to come and end all evil, pain, and suffering. And meanwhile we are content with hope as a comfortable inner feeling?
One of the blessings of studying the history of the church and of theology is encountering people and perspectives that challenge our contemporary short-sightedness. Again and again, you happen to find words that stop you in your tracks and make you pause to think and meditate. It seems Francis of Assisi, a monk who chose a radical life of poverty, also knew that sometimes we need a healthy dose of inner turmoil to live faithfully in a despairing world. He left us a ‘prayer for blessing’ that would raise a lot of eyebrows in contemporary evangelical churches all around the world. But this might be the kind of blessing we need these days. It is not without reason that these disturbing daughters of hope were called ‘beautiful daughters’ by Augustine.
May God bless you with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.
May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may tirelessly work for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.
May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.
May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really can make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.
Kees is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at ABTS and continually tries to strengthen his spiritual muscles.