Change is possible. Hope is power. At least, that’s what an ad for one of the UK’s leading newspapers says. I’m not sure everyone would agree.
Take my friend Nadia for instance. She’s bright and kind and creative and fun. But her hopes regularly come to nothing. Stuck in a tedious minimum-wage job with anti-social hours, she is desperate to branch out and do something far more interesting. So, she writes applications, sends them off, and waits. Sometimes she’ll land an interview, and she’ll start dreaming of her new life and planning her commute. She hopes and waits but nothing happens.
It’s been like this for a couple of years. Interviewers leave her hanging, so after a few weeks she has to assume they don’t want her. Then it’s on to the next application: more hoping, more waiting. A vision of a brilliant future has kept her going, but now she’s starting to wonder if it is all worth it, whether it is worth hoping for something more at all. She’s getting bitter and disillusioned. As the writer of Proverbs puts it, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Prov. 13:12).
It’s not as if Nadia wants a lot. She’s a Christian. She prays and trusts that God is in charge, but continual rejection takes the wind out of her sails. You might be praying for a good thing as well. The conversion of a family member or self-control in your online habits. For healing of a long-term health condition or an end to your anxiety. You pray and hope, but your heart gets sick in the wait.
And, in that sickness, while words about God’s love and Bible promises might be meaningful for others, they taste as dry as dust to you. Behind the sickness, resentment gnaws away—resentment at the people who don’t change and at situations that never end and at the God who doesn’t seem to act. How can you keep on hoping when even little glimmers of light keep being snuffed out?
Hope sometimes doesn’t feel like power, it feels like foolishness. High hopes can lead to horrible hopelessness.
The Bible has something to say about that feeling, but it isn’t a simple “cheer up!” or “be less optimistic!” or even a “wait for heaven!” No, the Bible’s advice is far bolder—the apostle Paul would say, “Boast in your hope!” These words feel shocking! The next three chapters will help us to see how we can stand with such extraordinary confidence about the future.
Those Who Hope in the Lord
One of Nadia’s problems is that she’s always looking forward but not very far ahead. She’s looking in her email for an invitation to interview next week. Or she’s daydreaming about a year’s time when she’s all settled in that new job and how great she’ll feel then. Boasting in hope doesn’t mean that she should hype up her hopes further. It means she needs to reconsider her hopes completely. That starts by looking back.
When I (Sarah), like Nadia, get disappointed and frustrated in my hopes, it’s often because I’ve got my eyes on the wrong past. I think back to my college days and reckon that because they were good a great future lies ahead. Surely, it’s what should happen. Or, with a rather clouded nostalgia, I remember all the friends I had when I was younger and expect that ahead of me is a brilliant social life. It should happen soon, right? I’ll keep hoping because, really, I deserve some blessings soon. After all, as Miriam sang in The Prince of Egypt,
Who knows what miracles,
You can achieve,
When you believe . . .1
Sometimes memories are troublesome in a different way. There are dark, shadowy memories, maybe of mistakes and failures; the times I spoke hasty words or stayed away from someone in need.
The way I chose to do what I knew was wrong again and again. Or, perhaps worse, the way others failed and wounded me, the times when I was bullied or ignored or taken advantage of. Memories like these can choke hope, because they make us believe that God shows up for other people but not for us. In these instances, we might still talk optimistically about our dreams, but below the surface we think, “Good stuff shouldn’t happen to me; I don’t deserve it” or “He might promise big things, but those big things will bypass me. They usually do.” The problem with all this looking back, however, is that the past we often look to, whether dark or sunny, is not sure enough and not far back enough.
The apostle Paul would say, go back further. Look to what Jesus has already done for us. In Romans 4:25–5:2, just before he talks about boasting in our hope, he speaks to Christians about Jesus like this:
[He] was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. (Rom. 4:25)
You’ve maybe heard and said those words many, many times, but stop and reflect on them now. Two thousand years ago, Jesus accomplished two things for you if you’re trusting in him. Out of two definite, completed actions, one in darkness and the other in the light of a new morning, come two wonderful realities.
Jesus’s death was “for,” that is, a punishment for our sins. He was punished for our anger and resentment and the way we justify ourselves but blame other people. He gave himself for our desire to have things our way and for our habit of putting ourselves first. His death paid for our endless lies to ourselves and others. His suffering was for our self-absorption and our reluctance to think about him. All our sins were dealt with and are completely forgiven. Those mistakes and failures are now like dark stains washed clean away. While my version of my own past is often out of focus and self-centered. God’s is crystal clear; I deserved death, but on the cross he died for me.
Then, when all the punishment was done, Jesus rose from the dead. That’s the second completed action.
In the church I grew up in, Good Friday was a big thing. It was very quiet and still, the building was emptied of everything that was colorful, and we seemed to sing very slow, very old hymns. I can’t remember Easter Sunday services, though, and that’s a very great shame. The cross was center stage, and Jesus’s resurrection seemed to have been sidelined. But look how important Easter Sunday is in this verse. It tells us that Jesus was “raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). The Father raising the Son from the dead by the Holy Spirit is the greatest miracle. Death, which ends every human life, was overpowered. Paul connects this with God’s declaring us righteous. We’re not only washed clean of sin, but we are also dressed in Jesus’s perfect life. His obedience becomes ours. His victory over sin becomes ours.
This Past Never Fades
Paul doesn’t stop there; there are more benefits flowing from the first Easter:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand. (Rom. 5:1–2)
These past events are not just something to look back over and feel emotional about, like old, faded family photos. Instead, they make an ongoing difference to the present.
Believing that Jesus has died and been raised for you is a bit like moving house. He’s picked you up, given you faith by his Spirit, and put you in a brand-new home. You once lived in a war zone, a rebel fighting back against God’s love and lordship. Now you’re in a place of peace. The house you now live in runs on the rule of grace. Because Jesus died and rose again, you are safe here; God is for you. You “have been justified”; you “have obtained access” to his grace. It has been done: you are now and forever at peace.
We can all look to the cross and see our guilt acknowledged and cancelled.
This all means that our hope is based not on future projections—what might happen—but on the certain, definite past. That’s why we can boast in our hope.
What’s more, the coming of Christ and the victory of his cross is itself an example, perhaps the one greatest example, of long-held hopes which have been gloriously fulfilled.
Think about Isaiah looking ahead, wondering and waiting, yearning to see the shepherd king he’d preached about who would rescue Israel; or Micah, in such turbulent years for the nation, asking when this king would come out of Bethlehem. These men and so many others hoped and hoped. But they too were looking back, their hope was based on God’s work and words in the past.
Isaiah called Israel to,
Look to the rock from which you were cut. . .
look to Abraham, your father,
and to Sarah who gave you birth. (Isa. 51:1–2 NIV)
The prophets were remembering covenant promises God had made to Israel’s forefathers. They were remembering God’s work in the exodus, rescuing a people for himself from slavery. And because of this certain history they could look forward. God wonderfully fulfilled their hopes, so now we can look backward and see that, yes, God does do what he promises. He has already done what he promised.
So, if he’s done this, kept his promises in such an extraordinarily generous way, by lavishing his love on us in giving Jesus to die for us, then keeping the rest of his promises is a small thing for him. If he’s done this, as Paul reasons in Romans 8:32, then will he not continue to do you good, to “graciously give [you] all things”? Remember, you’re living in that new house, the house of grace. Clinging to this truth, above all else, is the way to survive and even thrive in the Christian life.
So how can Nadia not shrivel up because of defeated hopes? How can you learn resilience? The answer is to look to the incarnation of Christ and see there the loving Father’s overwhelming commitment to your good. We can all look to the cross and see our guilt acknowledged and cancelled. And we look to the resurrection and discover God’s victory over death by his Spirit. That is why the apostle Paul, the man who endured so much discouragement, danger, and suffering, could speak of the Savior as “Christ Jesus our hope” (1 Tim. 1:1). He truly is.
This is where all true hope really starts. It isn’t that hope itself is power, as the newspaper wants us to believe, but true, Christian hope is hope in power, in the power of the Father’s faithfulness, in Jesus’s righteous life and death, and in the Holy Spirit’s effectiveness now. Trust him.