Painfully Hopeful

When I started this blog nine years ago I pondered the name I wanted to give it. I recalled the John Cleese movie, clockwise, which my pastor told me about while I was in college. In it Cleese protrayed a school administrator who was a time management expert, and was invited to teach others his method at a big event. And then, on the way to the conference, his life goes kablooey. Of course he fails to reach his speaking engagement on time and, toward the end of the film someone tells him, “There’s always hope.” Cleese responded, “You don’t understand, it’s the hope that’s killing me!”

And that story has always reminded me, hope is Painful (vs. 22-25). And this led me to my blog’s title, “Painfully Hopeful.” I’ve always known the idea of hope being painful is a theologically sound understanding. But until I read Romans 8:22-27 again this week, as I pondered my sermon, I handn’t realized just how deeply connected my blog title is to those very verses.

Paul depicts Creation itself as groaning out for God’s redemption. And he believes Jesus’ disciples take notice of that pain and join in it 1. We look around at the world and we realize things are not as they could be, or as they should be.

In Paul’s time believers saw the power of Rome, and the elevation of the Emperor to the level of godhood, and they said, “This is not the way things are supposed to be. Caesar is not god.” The early believers declared the lordship and forgiveness of Christ, and were often met with ridicule and sometimes with outright contempt and hostility. And those early believers said, “This is not the way things are supposed to be. Jesus is Lord.” Our first brothers and sisters in Christ followed the spirit to break down the walls of separation between Jew and Gentile, male and female, black and white, slave and free — and they were accused of breaking down the natural social order. They said, “This is not the way things are supposed to be, Jesus has broken down the walls of separation 2.”

Our world is no different.

Nowadays we see the world slipping into a new tribalism and believers are saying, “This is not they way things should be, Christ has broken the walls of separation.” We declare the Lord’s grace, love, and forgiveness, and are often met with contempt and ridicule, and we say, “This is not the way things are supposed to be, Jesus is Lord.” We feel the expansion of nationalism as it pulls the world closer and closer to war. We watch as populations, both around the world and here at home, raise national identity up as an idol to be worshipped and we say, “This is not the way things should be, no nation is God 3.”

The pain this dissonance creates doesn’t cause us to look down and sulk. Rather, it leads us to look out to the horizon and think, “There is the world made new.”

And that is what hope is, it’s the communication of longing. And the knowledge we are on a journey toward a destination we know we must reach, while understanding we can never arrive there under our own power. Hope recognizes our destination is always just outside our vantage point, hidden in plain site. It causes us to strain our eyes to exhaustion as we try to capture a glimpse of it. And yet, even though we never fully see it in the here and now, hope is the confident statement, “All things will be made new.”

But hope doesn’t ignore reality. Rather, Hope causes us to reach out and alleviate the suffering we encounter in this world. But as we do so we’re always pointing toward that horizon saying, “Come journey with us, to the new world just over the horizon.”

I find Hope to be a beautiful pain, but here’s the thing. As much as I’ve endeavored to describe Hope, and it’s impact on how we live, in reality, hope is beyond our ability to communicate.

Sure, I use words like, “horizon,” and biblical descriptions like “world made new,” but the truth is we have no idea what the end toward which hope drives looks like. We live and move and breathe in a world in which upheaval, suffering, hunger, and fear is sowed right next to wonder and joy and love. So entwined is the suffering of this world with the joys of God’s Creation we simply have no framework to visualize what realized hope will look like!

So we know it’s out there, and we do our best to describe what it is we for which we are longing, but even our best depictions are little more than us groping around in the dark — what Paul refers to in his letters as, “Seeing through a glass darkly.” And this leads to a conundrum. How do we pray for something which we don’t really understand? This is where God’s grace steps in.

We might be waiting for the final fulfillment of our adoption into the new world which Jesus ushered in, but we aren’t left alone. In the midsts of the anguish which hope inevitably generates the Spirit helps us groan.

We groan out in pain and longing for fulfillment, much like a crowd at a baseball game might cheer when a ball leaves the bat — soaring into the air in a way which might win the game — only to groan in frustration as it’s snatched back by an outfielder. But that groan, isn’t despondency. It’s a release of emotion so when the next batter arrives in the box we’ll be able to stand up and cheer once again 4.

This is what the Spirit does for us. We are given an outlet for our emotions of grief and sorrow and frustration, and with that release comes a renewed energy so we might glance out at the horizon with confidence even as we once again experience hope’s pain. And we say, not fully understanding what it means, “One day, things will be as they should. For Christ is coming, and all things will be made new.”

May we never lose the pain of hope, or the longing for the redemption of all Creation. For a world without hope, which ceases to believe in the “just over the horizon,” is a dark one indeed.

  1. Which makes the Evangelical rejection of climate change science all the more perplexing. 
  2. Sadly, at some point people who claimed the name of Christ began to agree with the idea of a “natural social order” and put the walls back up. 
  3. Though, on all these points, there are a good many “Christians” who embrace tribalistic nationalism, and who preach destruction with glee. I wish the world were more simple than it is. 
  4. Phillies fans are all to intimate with that pain.