By Luther E. Smith, Jr.
Hope is a force of God that enlivens us to life. We can easily miss the radical significance of this definition to our lives. Hope is often described as the expectation that desires will be fulfilled, or as a feeling of assurance about current and future circumstances. When someone thinks positively or believes deeply about desired outcomes, so this line of reasoning goes, then hope happens.
However, hope is more than a positive attitude or elevated feeling of assurance. Like faith and love in 1 Corinthians 13, hope is a force. Yes, it functions within individuals to transform their lives. But hope also resides and functions outside an individual's attitudes and feelings. The very character of hope as energy that comes to us from God means we encounter hope as a transforming force that we do not control.
The tendency to describe hope as the anticipated fulfillment of desires is understandable—especially when persons desire healing, peace, and other caring outcomes. Often there is agreement between personal desires and hope's mission to enliven all to life. Often, but not always.
Desiring is frequently captive to self-interest. My desires are strongest for my dreams, my family, my friends. This concern for our own is natural and positive. It reflects the heart's commitment to vocation and intimate relationships—a commitment that can be creative and nurturing. However, I must be careful in assuming that what I want, as noble and laudable as my desires may seem, is what God wants. God's heart embraces much that I fear, hate, ignore, and reject. This challenges my heart to reflect what God desires for the work of hope within me and among all people.
Hope's mission is to save us from a false sense of aliveness. Rather than fulfill whatever fantasies claim our hearts, hope rescues us from a diminished life. Its mission to us is congruent with its mission to the world: to enliven all to life and to save the world from a false sense of aliveness.
The need for hope is most often expressed in times of crisis. Everyone experiences days, if not years, when life is overwhelming. Myriad sources of despair assault us. Violence, health crises, too much work or no employment, broken relationships, death, a sense of meaninglessness, and an unspecified but sustained anxiety are a few the realities that keep coming. Though we marshal our energies to resist them, they persist.
Yet even when the forces of despair are succeeding, hope abides. As the apostle Paul wrote: "We are afflicted, in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed" (2 Corinthians 4:8-9, NRSV).
Despite our pain, anxieties, and failures, hope abides because hope is not just the creation of our feelings. Hope is a force at work to enliven us even when we feel overwhelmed. The emphasis upon crisis does not mean that hope occurs only in situations of distress.
Crisis amplifies our need for hope, but hope is essential to living the ordinary days. Like a drowning man gasping for breath, the air so desperately needed was just as crucial when he lived his days in routine. His lungs deprived of air intensify his desperation. But his need to breathe was no less acute when times were tranquil. Likewise, hope sustains us even when we are unaware of our dependence on it. Hope is essential regardless of circumstances.
Our challenge is to be always enlivened to life—on the days of trauma and the days of great ease. Living as persons of hope in ordinary times can be foundational to the spiritual formation that enables us to be persons of hope in crisis.
Hope is a constant force working to enliven us, and its energy is immediate. Although we are neither its creator nor master, hope comes to us and dwells in our bodies. Our bodies are sacred Creations of God that are a home for hope. We embody hope.
One interpretation of humankind created in God's image (Genesis 1:26-27) is that imagination is the image of God. The body is wondrous only because of its complex functioning, but also because of its capacity and purpose to contribute to the creative process through imagination. It is a creative force in creation. Human bodies come forth as God-blessed (Genesis 1:28) and are pronounced by God as "very good" (Genesis 1:31). Each one of us is a body born as a sacred gift of life, and each of us lives under God's will to be a sacred gift to life.
Perhaps we are so close to our own bodies that their holiness eludes us. What difference would it make if you embraced your body more as a holy creation with a holy purpose? How might conceiving of your body as a holy gift alter the way you care for your body through habits of eating, exercise, sleep, reading, and meditation? How might seeing every person as a holy gift of God (as embodied hope) affect your casual and intimate relationships? How might honoring the holy reality of the body save you from a false sense of aliveness?
Jesus taught that our salvation (being in right relationship with God) depends on loving. Care for the body exemplifies his focus on love. He spoke of the hungry body being fed, the thirsty body being given drink, the strange body being welcomed, the naked body being clothed, the sick body receiving care, and the imprisoned body being visited (Matthew 25:31-46). Body conditions are holy matters. To deny loving care to persons and their body conditions is to deny love to God. The body, as a recipient and giver of loving care, is of holy and ultimate significance to the work of hope.
The opportunities to experience hope are as close to us as we are to our neighbors and our bodies. God has given us the capacity to pay attention, imagine, and enter into the wonder of life together. This capacity is also our God-given assignment. God created us to be a home for hope, to discern its work, and to be a people of hope.
In faith matters, each of us has the response-ability (free will) to say “yes" or "no" to God's call upon our lives. God does not coerce us. We can welcome, embrace, and give ourselves to God's enlivening work of hope; or we can resist it. The amazing possibility to become a people of hope is as close as the next moment of decision. I pray that we decide wisely.
Excerpted from “The Work of Hope” by Luther E. Smith Jr., Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life. Feb/Mar/Apr 2012 (Vol. XXVII, No. 2). Copyright © 2012 by The Upper Room.
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