Behind the veneer of much of our discipleship (and honestly, my own weathered and jaded heart), there is something in the depths of my heart that regularly flusters and flummoxes. It is something we all crave but even on our best days, we feel very little of. In our pursuit of it, we have replaced it with falsified versions that aren’t up to spiritual snuff. And thought it’s right under our noses, it’s possible that the reason we may not have much of it is because we are looking in the wrong nooks and crannies for it. Oh hope, where art thou?
More Like the Mona Lisa
One of the reasons that we overlook hope is because we are wrongheaded in our definition of it. Hope is typically expressed as doubt rather than a deep certitude that what seems impossible is assured. I’ve said it before. “I hope everybody shows up tonight for missional community” or “I hope they remember to show up for this counseling meeting” or “I sure do hope they like this sermon.” But that is not biblical hope. Hope is not just an aspiration for something good but an expectation that it will happen—an assurance that it will happen. An inevitability that the good we anticipate and long for will transpire. In other words, biblical hope is not finger-crossing. It is a thumbs up kind of hope—a hope that it is embedded, not in skepticism, but in the stalwart faithfulness of God.
My children loves to color our carport sidewalk with chalk. It’s one of their favorite activities. Pinks and greens and blues and yellows all scribbled on gray concrete. I love to watch them as they make the grandest creations with no thought about their lack of permanence. Inevitably, a rain shower eventually rolls in and washes away their artwork. Gone. In a moment. Hope in a faithful God is never like this. It doesn’t wash away with a little rain. There is firmness in it that can’t ever be dissolved because God’s purposes are more like the Mona Lisa—enduring and unfading. Hoping in God and hoping in anything else is the difference between chalk and paint. One fades, the other abides.
Seeing the Unseen
The writer of Hebrews adds a vital component to the idea of hope: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). Wherever there is full guarantee of hope, there is faith. Or said another way, faith is the jam-packed, self-confidence of hope. I admit that I regularly lack that kind of confidence but that is what real hope brings. It brings spiritual assuredness. I need that kind of inspiration for my flimsy faith. But the writer of Hebrews also says that yes, faith includes hope but it is more than hope. Charles Spurgeon says it this way, “Though the ‘things’ are only ’hoped for’ and ‘not seen’ at present, the eye of faith can see them, and the hand of faith can grasp them.” See, faith-shaped hope does the unthinkable and the counterintuitive. It sees what is unseen and clasps on what is intangible. It has vision for what is undetectable. It clutches onto what is indiscernible. That’s good news to me because frankly, my faith tends to be miniature sized. What was Jesus' proposal to his disciples for their little faith? He told them to grow it to the size of a tiny mustard seed (Mk 4:31). I love that. Jesus, as only he can, gives me hope that I can have a faith that believes and sees what can’t be seen if it’s as big as something that is very small because my faith is small most of the time.
The Bible describes the patriarch Abraham as a man of deep faith who had this kind of hope. He was filled with hope that God was able to do everything that he had promised even though reality raged against God’s promise. "In hope he believed against hope” (Rom. 4:18). Interesting verbiage. Webster’s Dictionary has a separate entry for the phrase "hope against hope." It is defined as "to hope without any basis for expecting fulfillment.” Does this sound like Abraham’s faith? Not even close. Abraham’s hope had a different tone and focus.
Abraham's "against hope" meant that from a conventional human perspective, there was not an ounce of likelihood that a miracle could happen. Remember, Abraham was old and his wife was barren. Abraham knew that hope is never anchored to what is achievable by man's effort. Biblical hope gazes to the promise of a miraculous God. Abraham had a Hebrews-like hope. We must point our hearts and the hearts of others to this kind of hope in our discipleship.
Hope as Cork
In 2 Thessalonians 2:16 the apostle Paul rounds out the idea of biblical hope. He says that a hope that is good is a grace-filled hope—one that points to the ultimate hope we have in the gospel of Jesus. This might be the most important things I preach to my heart. My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness. As a church planter, I remember many of those early days when only a handful of people showed up for our Sunday morning worship gathering. Because much of my identity was wrapped up in numbers, I would despair. Over time, I had to develop a rhythm of reminding myself of the hope I have, not in the varying quantity of people sitting in chairs, but in the boundless quantity of God’s love for me in Jesus.
Pastor J.C. Philpot says,
“A good hope through grace is . . . how the Lord begins and carries on his own secret operations upon the soul, when he calls it out of darkness into his marvelous light. It is not, then, all darkness and gloom with the child of grace; and even if his sky be for the most part clouded, yet rays and beams of heavenly light break in upon his heart; and as these come from the same Sun of righteousness which shines forth in all his unclouded beauty when he gives everlasting consolation, they kindle within a good hope through grace.”
Philpot is right. It is through God’s grace and mercy, our hope can now be unclouded. Redemption ignites “good hope.” Because of God's gracious act towards us, we now have an expectant confidence found in the gift of his Son, Jesus. Our deepest hopelessness—namely, our sin—has been eradicated his work on a cruel cross. And from this gracious gift emanates all of other hoping and confidence. Why? Because when you’re forgiven, you’re free to believe. You’re released to have confidence in an unswerving Father because your sin—your greatest hopestealer—has been buried in the tomb of Jesus. We must remind those we disciple of this relentlessly or they will ground their hope in something less than Jesus’ righteousness.
In The Soul's Conflict with Itself, Richard Sibbes says, “As he is a God of hope, so by this grace. . . he stayeth that though as a ship at anchor it may and moved yet not removed from its station. This hope as cork will keep the soul though heaviness from sinking.” When the center of our hope is steeped in a faithful God, the chains of doubt and fear that we carry around can be plowed into a heavy anchor to moor us to something fast and true. And like a cork that bobs up and down in water, our hearts and the hearts of those we disciple can be buoyed from that undertow of life because grace can now become our lifejacket of hope.
Brad Andrews serves as pastor for preaching, vision, and missional leadership at Mercyview in Tulsa, OK and as a religion columnist for the former Urban Tulsa Weekly. He also was one of the ten framers of The Missional Manifesto, alongside Tim Keller, Ed Stetzer, Alan Hirsch, Eric Mason, J.D. Greear, Dan Kimball, Linda Berquist, Craig Ott, and Philip Nation. He blogs often at mercyview.com/blog.