October 1, 2008
The Triumph
of Hope

When Should We Continue
to Fight? When Should We
Accept Defeat?
    
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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 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 dad’s recovery at that point.

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 time.

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.

The 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 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 benefiting. Yet we should require abundant evidence before we conclude that a medical problem we or someone else suffers is incurable. Until that point, we should keep the emphasis strongly upon hope.

Hope and Our Personal Dreams

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. It was unspeakably inspiring to see how time and again Scripture implores us to “hope in the Lord.” It is one of the prominent themes of the Bible.

This biblical emphasis on hoping in God has several thrilling implications for realizing our potential. 

We 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 Scripture encourages us to exercise this trust. The fact that God 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 146:5-9 RSV) 

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 need.

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, and then embracing 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 that he’ll bring them to pass.

This point is important to stress, for many Christians assume that hoping in God requires us to relinquish all personal ambition, and to 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.

Hope is achievable. Another greatly encouraging aspect of hope is that it’s an outlook we each have the full potential to experience!

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.

Hope works. The fact that we have such great potential for experiencing hope is thrilling especially because hope 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, and plan and work more effectively toward our future. Others are more naturally drawn to us as well, and are 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 best intentions for our life.

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 we’ve anticipated.

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.

Cherishing 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 are now.

Our 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 for us.

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 that 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.

Hope 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 ways.

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 outcome inspire us to pray earnestly.

Hope 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 that step of faith. It’s time for us to take initiative.

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 responsibility:

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 their 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 that we accept a door being 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 should we even bother 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 to put our life in motion. We exercise greater faith by taking initiative, than by merely “accepting reality” and sitting still.

Beyond the What Ifs

A few years ago, our son Nate had an experience we’ll not soon forget. He and a friend were driving to her senior 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 by the highway where they were stranded. They began walking around that community looking for the familiar house, Nate in a black tux and his date in a stunning evening dress.

A woman who was 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 either of them before. These two young people were in a bind, and she was determined to help.

Nate and his friend 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 is so often 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 certain steps in which, for all the world, we do feel like we’re throwing caution to the winds. Yet it’s only in such an adventuresome spirit that we’re able to make good judgments about whether doors are truly open or closed.

Hope, more than any other emotion, inspires this sense of adventure. It makes, in short, great sense to do everything possible to nurture the hope that’s within us--then to take the sometimes scary steps that this hope requires.
  

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