How might a “theology of hopefulness” begin to make a difference in our lives? In at least three ways.
- Rejoice in others’ good.
First, we would start being bothered less by others’ sins than by our own. The principle is simple: to the degree we fixate on the foibles of others, we become proud and cynical. But to the degree we examine our own failings — in light of Christ’s exorbitant mercy — we become humble and glad. The words of the Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs are worth reading slowly,
Rejoice in the good of others, though it eclipses your light, though it makes your parts, your abilities, and your excellencies dimmer in the eyes of others. . . . Rejoice [and] bless God for his gifts and graces in others, that his name may be glorified more by others than I can glorify it myself. To be able to truly say, “Though I can do little, yet blessed be God there are some who can do more for God than I, and in this I do and will rejoice” — this shows a great eminence of spirit.
If you are going to peer at others, become an expert in the evidences of grace you spot in their lives. If you are going to study anything, study the One who loves them and has taken up residence in their souls.
This is especially challenging in a tribal age, though, in which the temperature on every debate can seem set to blazing hot. Without realizing it, we can slowly begin to calibrate responses based on our distaste for certain groups, those whom Alan Jacobs calls the Repugnant Cultural Other. And these battle lines don’t stop at the church door. When somebody on our Christian “team” says or does something cringeworthy, for example, the temptation is to simply ignore it — or, if that proves impossible, to excuse it. “That’s not who he is, and not what he stands for.” Bottom line: “You still have much to learn from him (i.e., me).” And yet, the moment somebody on the wrong “team” acts foolish, we pounce. We capitalize. “See? That’s exactly who he is, and what he stands for!” Bottom line: “I have little to learn from him.”
- Create cultures of trust.
Second, a theology of hopefulness will help us guard against a default skeptical posture toward church leaders. Mark Dever puts it plainly: “It is a serious spiritual deficiency in a church either to have leaders who are untrustworthy or members who are incapable of trusting.” Let that sink in. As a church member, you either need to trust your leaders or replace them. But don’t claim to acknowledge them and then refuse to follow their lead. “Rather than distrusting church leaders,” Dever counsels, “let me encourage you to talk behind your elders’ backs: meet in secret and plot to encourage your leaders. Strategize to make the church leaders’ work not burdensome, but a joy.”
So, what do you whisper about your pastors? What about your fellow members? When petty or unfounded criticism enters your ears, does it find a landing pad on your heart? Moreover, when you do disagree with a choice your leaders have made, are you a delight to disagree with? Imagine a world — imagine a church — filled with people who were delightful to disagree with over tertiary matters, because they didn’t take themselves too seriously and they cared more about mutual joy than individual ego.
- Recover the local.
Third, a theology of hopefulness will redirect our best energy and attention to spheres wherein we can actually make a difference. I confess that when I began thinking about this article, my mind first went to “cynicism online.” If I were a better Christian, though, I would have first thought about my local church.
Many of us are so dialed in to national conversations that we can overlook local needs. It is far easier, after all, to love a “city” or “neighborhood” or “church” than it is to love actual people within them. If you wish to grow in cynicism, be sure to follow the twists and turns of every Twitter controversy du jour. But if you wish to be encouraged, invite a couple of church members over for dinner. Ask to hear their testimonies. Laugh together. Pray together. This is where the real action is. The most important kingdom happenings take place over tables, not timelines.
First Corinthians 13:7 may be a classic Pauline flourish, but it’s far more than pretty poetry. The words crackle with tenacity. Love believes all things; and if that doesn’t work, it hopes all things; and if that doesn’t work, it endures all things. In short, it “never ends” (v. 8).
This is why self-donating love — without which we are nothing (vv. 1–3) — hopes for the best outcomes in others’ lives. Even if a person has wronged us, and we’re tempted to nurse resentment or exact revenge, love refuses to crave the worst possible scenario for them. It remembers that Jesus Christ has suffered long with us, treating us infinitely better than we deserve. Love simply wants to see God bring about undeserved good in their life, too — and faith trusts that he can.
In an age that beckons us to inhale cynicism and exhale contempt, we have a prime opportunity within our churches to show a more excellent way. Our secret is not chipperness or naivete. It is sober-minded, truth-informed hope. And by resisting the downward pull of skepticism and despair, we the people of Jesus Christ can shine as lights in a world that has lost all reason to hope. For in him, the best is always yet to come.