In the preface
to his last book, George Burns wrote that he no
longer expected to live an active public life.
"I'm still an optimist. But I'm not stupid.
That nurse isn't watching me all day to see if my
toupee is on straight."*
Burns had decided to accept the
fact that his life was declining rather than
fight it. A mature step in choosing to live with
reality, we might say.
Yet Burns was 100 years old when
he wrote these words. For years he had been an
icon of optimism, challenging elderly people not
to limit themselves, and speaking often of his
burning determination to reach 100. His positive
spirit clearly worked for him. He continued to
perform stand-up comedy to adoring crowds into
his late 90s.
Burns' example brings us to the
heart of one of the most challenging questions we
face in life. When should we continue to
fight--to hold on to the best of life as we know
it, and to improve situations in our life--and
when is it presumptuous to do so? When is hope
our best response to challenges, and when is
acceptance the wiser course?
Life often makes this question
difficult for us. After my father was
hospitalized at 77 with a heart problem so severe
it rendered him unable to walk, his cardiologist
asked to speak with me. He explained in dismal
detail that my dad's condition was dire. When he
finally paused, I started to ask him,
"Doctor, in the best-case scenario, what are
my dad's prospects?" But before I could
finish the question, he cut me off, exclaiming,
"Mr. Smith, there is no best case
scenario. Your father will never walk again
nor leave the hospital."
This pronouncement, coming from
one of the most respected heart specialists in
our region, seemed like a divine oracle. I nearly
let go of hope for my dad's recovery at that
That specialist's opinion,
fortunately, wasn't shared by my father, who one
month later walked out of the hospital, and went
on to live another seven years. He walked and
continued to drive his car during most of that
My father's experience
illustrates a major reason why the
hope-vs.-acceptance question is sometimes so
difficult. Even when we're justified in
continuing to hope and fight, others whom we
respect may fail to see the light at the end of
our tunnel. They may insist that our situation is
beyond hope, and urge us simply to accept
reality. Even those who are most qualified to
advise us may counsel us in this way.
challenge can be especially great for an elderly
person facing a medical crisis. Dr. Eleanor S.
Stewart, a specialist in geriatric medicine,
notes in a recent Washington Post article
that medical professionals often give up too
easily when treating older patients.* Their health problems
are usually more difficult to diagnose than those
of younger patients, and many specialists don't
invest the time needed to do it precisely. Many
are too quick also to assume a patient is too old
to respond to treatment effectively.
Stewart cites the case of a
98-year-old man whom she recommended for minor
cancer surgery. Following the operation, he was
no longer able to walk. His HMO claimed he was
too old to benefit from rehabilitation and should
move to a nursing home. Stewart insisted,
however, that because he had walked into the
hospital, he ought to be able to walk out. In the
end, Stewart prevailed, and her patient responded
well to physical therapy. Her crowning moment of
vindication came when she danced with him at his
100th birthday celebration.
The moral of these examples is
that we should be extremely slow to give up the
fight in matters of life and health. We can be
too bullheaded about it, to be sure. The point
comes when we do need to accept that a condition
is irreversible. Dr. Stewart is just as quick to
castigate medical professionals who take heroic
measures to preserve the lives of patients who
have no reasonable hope of benefitting. Yet we
should require abundant evidence before we
conclude that a medical problem we or someone
else experience is incurable. Until that point,
we should keep the emphasis strongly upon hope.
Hope and Our Personal
The same point applies with our
major life dreams. We shouldn't be quick to let
go of dreams that are founded on a good
understanding of who we are.
The more I study Scripture, the
more I'm impressed with how greatly it encourages
us to be optimistic about realizing our personal
potential. Scripture pictures God as infinitely
compassionate and infinitely powerful--intent on
bringing about his best for our life, and fully
capable of doing it. It teaches, too, that he has
fashioned our personality and influences our
desires. We have, in short, a reassuring basis
for taking our personal dreams seriously. If we
are intent on doing God's will, and are taking
care to seek his guidance, we may trust that our
dreams are being inspired by him to an important
extent. It only makes sense, then, to stay
hopeful about achieving them.
This point came home to me
forcefully, in a surprising way, a couple of
years ago. I was searching for a biblical verse
to use as a caption for our Web site, and decided
to examine those that speak of hope. I typed
"hope" into my computer concordance.
Stunned by the sheer number of verses that
suddenly flashed across my computer screen--about
185 in all--I felt like a divine scroll was
unraveling in front of me. Time and again
Scripture implores us to "hope in the
Lord." It is one of the prominent themes of
This biblical emphasis on hoping
in God has several thrilling implications for
realizing our potential.
not only have permission to dream big about our
future, but a mandate. Hoping in God
means, first and foremost, reverencing him
intensely and devoting ourselves earnestly to
him. Yet it also involves trusting with childlike
confidence that he'll take care of all the
particulars of our life. We shouldn't minimize
what an extraordinary gift it is to us that we're
encouraged to exercise this trust. The fact that
he has infinite control over all human affairs
means that we are, by definition, being urged to
think and dream big about our future.
The author of Psalm 146 writes:
"Happy is he whose help
is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God, who made heaven
and earth, the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith for ever; who executes
justice for the oppressed; who gives food to
the hungry. The LORD
sets the prisoners free; the LORD
opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are
bowed down; the LORD
loves the righteous. The LORD
watches over the sojourners, he upholds the
widow and the fatherless. . . ." (Ps
The psalmist urges us to hope in
the Lord, noting that he is infinitely powerful,
having "made heaven and earth, the sea, and
all that is in them." He then stresses that
God actively works to remedy the most difficult
problems a person faces, including political
oppression, hunger, imprisonment, blindness,
homelessness, and the loss of critical
relationships. Hoping in God, then, is not a
vague or ethereal exercise. It means nothing less
than desiring his help at our greatest points of
The fact that it's God's nature
to help us with the most difficult challenges we
face is an invitation to think big as we plan our
life. We honor him by coming to understand
the gifts and interests he has given us, then
establishing significant dreams based upon them.
And, apart from compelling evidence that he wants
us to abandon any of them, we honor him by
continuing to hope eagerly he'll bring them to
This point is important to
stress, for many Christians assume that hoping in
God requires us to relinquish all personal
ambition and cling to God alone. The biblical
concept of hope, however, is almost 180 degrees
from this. Hoping in God does mean letting go of
aspirations that are contrary to his will. And it
means trusting that the greatest blessings in
store for us lie not in this life but eternity.
Yet it also involves holding
strongly to dreams that relate to realizing our
potential in this life. Hoping in this manner is
part of exercising good stewardship over the life
God has entrusted to us. Far from an option for
the Christian, it's a requirement.
is achievable. Another greatly
encouraging aspect of hope is that it's an
outlook we each have the full potential to
Scripture describes another
attitude of confidence in God, which it terms faith,
and both Jesus and Paul spoke of a quality of
faith that can "move mountains" (Mt
17:20, 21:21-22; Mk 11:22-24; I Cor 13:2). Jesus
explained that this special level of faith
requires us to believe with unbending conviction
that he'll carry out what we ask him to do.
Hope, by contrast, doesn't
require absolute certainty about an outcome, but
merely a strong desire for it, coupled with a
conviction that God can and may bring it to pass.
I'm convinced, both from
experience and my study of Scripture, that very
few Christians ever experience mountain-moving
faith. Such unshakable conviction about how God
will act is a spiritual gift, which he imparts to
only a small number of believers. However, each
of us has the capacity not only to hope, but to
hope substantially. And the quality of our
hope can actually grow, and its intensity
increase, over time.
works. The fact that we have such great
potential for experiencing hope is especially
thrilling because it benefits us in such
remarkable ways. Its effect on our well-being is
considerable. As our hope increases, we're more
consistently happy, and our health is likely to
improve. We think more clearly, plan and work
more effectively toward our future. Others are
more naturally drawn to us as well, and more
inclined to help us reach our goals.
Even more important are hope's
spiritual benefits. By hoping in God, we relate
to him in a way that Scripture extols. We are
better able to understand his guidance in this
state of mind. And we allow him greater freedom
to influence both our thinking and our
circumstances in ways that move us toward his
There is, in short, efficacy in
hope. This is why the Psalmist counsels, "Be
strong and take heart, all you who hope in the LORD" (Ps. 31:24).
The Dynamics of Hope
As Christians, then, we have a
sound basis for thinking big as we plan our life,
and for staying determined to reach goals that
are based on a good understanding of how God has
gifted and motivated us. We should keep the
accent strongly upon hope, even when our journey
toward a dream takes considerably longer than
Several further dynamics of the
biblical attitude of hope are helpful to keep in
mind as we strive to constructively anticipate
our future. These also help to explain how we can
keep hope and acceptance in healthy balance.
strong hope for the future is not incompatible
with staying highly content in the present.
One of the most refreshing aspects of the outlook
we're talking about is that it blends hope and
acceptance remarkably. We're encouraged to dream
heartily about our future and to stay intent on
reaching our goals. Yet never does Scripture
suggest that our worth as a person depends upon
achieving them. Our well-being doesn't have to
hinge on our success; what we accomplish doesn't
justify our existence.
And because of the supreme trust
we're urged to place in God's uncanny timing, we
have permission to enjoy the present fully, and
never to feel we're acquiescing or
"settling" by doing so. The sheer joy
that comes from relating to God personally brings
immense pleasure into our present as well, even
as we live with unfulfilled dreams.
We are able, in short, to have
the best of both worlds: high hope for the
future, and joyful acceptance of things as they
hope for the future should be broad-based, not
narrowly focused. One of the secrets of
nurturing hope that honors God and respects the
potential he has given us, is learning to hold
strongly to important dreams without fixating on specific
ways that they must be accomplished.
If we have a strong desire to be
married, for instance, we are justified in
holding firm to this dream for as long as it
takes to find a good opportunity. Nothing in
Scripture requires us to let go of this hope
simply because we've reached a certain age, or
suffered a certain number of disappointments. Not
long ago I witnessed a friend in her late sixties
enjoying an excellent courtship opportunity. It
was her first dating relationship ever.
But where many of us push the
envelope too greatly is in clinging to the hope
of marrying a specific person beyond a
realistic point. If a relationship opens with
someone we would like to marry, we should stay
optimistic about marrying this person for as long
as our hope is reasonable. But if we find that he
or she isn't willing to marry us, or isn't
suitable for us, we should determine to let this
particular dream go. Yet this doesn't mean we
should abandon our hope for marriage itself.
It's here that we have an
exceptional opportunity for growing in faith. We
may trust that God, who has made us each
exceedingly resilient, is fully capable of
redirecting our affection to someone else, who
will probably prove to be an even better match
We should follow this same
pattern when choosing to hope or accept in other
areas of life. If there's a career we want to
pursue which fits our potential well, we should
hold fast to the dream of succeeding in it, for
as long as it takes. But we need to be flexible
about where we work. If a specific job
opportunity doesn't open to us, or a certain
geographical region is closed, we should accept
that these doors are shut and move on.
But we shouldn't let such limited
setbacks take on more importance than they
deserve. They shouldn't deter us from our
long-term goal of succeeding in this profession.
The key is to keep our career dream as
broad-based as possible.
inspires prayer. While it's vital that we
dream big about our future, it's just as
important that we not simply be
"dreamers." Hope, even for
accomplishing legitimate goals, can take on an
unhealthy dimension. Some people take too much
refuge in a fantasy world built around hope,
which deters them from being responsible. The
hope which Christ inspires moves us to take
significant responsibility, and in two important
One is through prayer. Scripture
encourages us constantly to express our needs to
God in prayer, and to continue praying until he
answers. While plenty of mystery surrounds
prayer, Scripture couldn't be clearer that prayer
does influence God. He limits much of what he
does to what we choose to ask him to accomplish.
He focuses his work in this manner both give us a
sense of partnership with him in his mission on
earth, and to deepen our dependence upon him.
Hope is what inspires in us the
ability to pray effectively. Whenever we find the
courage to pray boldly, or the tenacity to
persist in prayer, it's only because we have
strong hope that God will grant our request.
Without hope, meaningful prayer is impossible.
But when we deeply desire to achieve a goal, and
believe it's within the realm of God's
possibilities for us, then we're in a state of
mind to pray in a way that makes a difference.
Having hope doesn't guarantee
we'll give the attention to prayer that we
should. This will only happen if we're convinced
prayer is necessary. The important thing for each
of us is to remind ourselves often that prayer
isn't just a cathartic exercise, but an essential
step toward realizing our potential. We should
then dwell on what we desire God to do, and let
our hope for that inspire us to pray earnestly.
inspires action. When God's Spirit
inspires hope within us, it also stimulates us to
take important steps toward realizing our dreams.
It's here that the hope Scripture encourages
differs most clearly from mere wishful thinking.
Of course, trusting in Christ sometimes requires
we do nothing but hope. Our responsibility
is to wait patiently in faith for him to act.
Yet when there is a clear course
of action we can take toward reaching a goal,
it's usually best to assume that God wants us to
take a step of faith. It's time for us to take
In Jeremiah 29:11, God declares,
"For I know the plans I have for you . . .
plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans
to give you a hope and a future." Here God
assures the Israelites that he will provide
plentifully for them, and urges them to stay
hopeful about their future. Yet he precedes this
cherished promise with an exhortation to take
"Build houses and settle
down; plant gardens and eat what they
produce. Marry and have sons and daughters;
find wives for your sons and give your
daughters in marriage. . . . Also, seek the
peace and prosperity of the city to which I
have carried you in exile. Pray to the LORD
for it, because if it prospers, you too will
prosper." (Jer 29:5-8)
Because of the hope they
have in him, God tells the Israelites, they
should take initiative to improve their lives and
to remedy their most pressing needs.
Most interesting is that the Jews
were in Babylon at this time. They were
highly depressed over being deported there, and
saw no good in the present situation whatever.
They had every reason to believe that they
couldn't be successful pursuing their personal
dreams there--that the doors were bolted shut
against them. Yet God tells them to throw caution
to the winds, and to take courageous steps to
rebuild their lives. By prompting them to take
this initiative, he implies that he'll give them
many successes as they move forward.
Which brings us back to our
question of hope vs. acceptance. While there are
times when it's essential we accept that a door
is closed, we can give up too easily. Like the
Israelites, we look at our circumstances and
conclude that they rule out our possibly
achieving our dreams--so why bother even to try?
Yet we don't know the mind of
God, nor how he might provide for us if we
venture forward. If there is at least a small
step we can take to begin moving toward a goal,
we usually do best to err on the side of hope,
and put our life in motion. We exercise greater
faith by taking initiative, than by merely
"accepting reality" and sitting still.
Beyond the What Ifs
On a recent Friday evening, our
son Nate and his girlfriend set out to drive to
her high school prom, at a hotel in Bethesda,
Maryland, about forty-five minutes from our home.
About halfway there, the alternator in Nate's car
gave out, and his engine died. He remembered that
an old family friend lived in the neighborhood
next to the highway where they were stranded.
They began walking around that community looking
for the familiar house, Nate in a black tux and
Allison in a stunning evening dress.
A woman driving home from work
stopped and offered to help. She drove them down
street after street, but they were unable to
locate our friend's home. Finally, she offered to
let them take her car to the prom. Never mind
that she had never met Allison or Nate before.
These two young people were in a bind, and she
was determined to help.
Nate and Allison arrived at the
prom--a bit late, but with a story to tell that
became the talk of that event. Their experience
of being (forgive me) touched by an angel made it
an unforgettable evening for them.
Their odyssey that night is
similar to what our experience so often is as we
begin moving toward a personal dream. Problems we
fear sometimes do occur. Even worst-case
scenarios. What we can't predict is how God will
protect us and provide for us at such times. And
the uncanny ways that he bails us out of the
worst predicaments only add to the richness of
our journey toward a desired goal.
Which is to say that we shouldn't
be deterred from pursuing a dream by the
"what ifs." If a goal fits our
potential well, we should go for it, trusting
that God will help us with the most difficult
challenges that arise. Finding God's best for our
life almost always requires that we take some
steps where it does feel for all the world like
we're throwing caution to the winds. It's only in
this adventuresome spirit that we're able to make
good judgments about doors being open or closed.
Or in the words of Reinhold
Neibuhr's immortal prayer (and slightly
paraphrased): to have the wisdom to know what we
can change and what we can't, the courage to
pursue the one, and the serenity to accept the