How an optimist turns his back on hope (part 1)

I’m one of those hopeful dreamer types. I like to see the good in people and situations and feel that dwelling on the negative requires far more energy than the alternative, and can also be destructive. However, as I’ve become more perceptive of my optimism and how others live out their optimism, I have recognized how optimism left unchecked can stain one’s view of reality and the ways in which one engages the very real suffering and injustice present in our world. Over the past few years I have begun to grow into a space where I am gaining the ability to lean into the dark realities of life without white-washing them. This is a difficult process and I attribute a lot of it to the privilege of not ever experiencing suffering or great crisis. My comfortable life has not led me down the roads that far too many walk daily. May comfort never lead me into complacency or apathy.

I used to feel compelled to view every event of human history through a hopeful lens that sought to reconcile all pain, grief, suffering, and injustice as somehow being used for God’s glory. I was convinced that all things happened by way of God’s will. Though I may or may not have ever seen how an event may be used by God for a greater good, I trusted that all the pains of life would somehow be redeemed and flipped on their heads. All of this was because I believed that God was good, and that God was intimately involved in the inner workings of the world within history. I still believe God is good, but I no longer believe that God works in the same ways that I once did. I have since come to reject those understandings of God, history, and suffering.

I share this because I strongly agree with Douglas John Hall’s critique of North American Christianity as a faith that embraces an official optimism. It is not hard to see where Christianity gets this optimism from. The Bible is an incredibly optimistic text. Hope is woven throughout the Hebrew Bible by the threads of covenant, promise, and faith. Even in the midst of exile a strand of hope hung over the edge of despair as God’s people told stories of deliverance from Egypt, of divine intervention, of being chosen by God to reveal love and goodness to others. Even though they attributed their sufferings to YHWH, it was also YHWH who restored them and showed them mercy. Read Lamentations 3, for crying out loud.

That strand of hope continues through the Second Testament as well. A concordance search for the word “hope” churns out dozens of results. Hope is a good thing, and I wouldn’t be who I am today had I not been shaped by hope. But there is a problem with hope that has been becoming increasingly clear to me. Hope can immobilize. When hope holds out for payment in the near or distant future, one is more likely to go bankrupt, so to speak, in the present. There is a tension between hope on one side, and fear and worry on the other side. My predilection toward hope tends to push out worry and fear or anxiety from my realities and this has caused me to fail to take appropriate and timely actions to various situations. I think it is essential that we hold these two paradigms–hope and worry/anxiety–in tension, and approach with caution and suspicion when we are confronted with too great a hope or too great a fear.

This hermeneutical approach finds friction when we get to Matthew 6 within Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

When I read these words, I cannot help but fumble over how Jesus can speak these words of hope to a marginalized and oppressed community. Beyond that, how can we read and speak these words today in the face of suffering, pain and injustice all around us? How do we read this text from the First World? Does this trouble you at all? I have my own thoughts about this, which I will share, but I’m curious if anyone else has wrestled with this and come to any conclusions about the practicality of hope and Jesus’ words here. If so, please share your thoughts and stories.

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