The only reason why we ever continue to do anything in life is because we have hope. We plant gardens because we have hope that they will grow. We apply for jobs because we have hope that we will receive an offer. We press on through shitty situations and resist the temptation to give up because we have hope that the shit will pass.
Hope is a very good thing.
It keeps us going. It propels us forward and pushes us to go further than we’ve been before. And it can be powerful. As Felicity Jone’s character Jyn says in Rogue One, “Rebellions are built on hope.”
But what happens when hope is met with disappointment? What about those people who hoped that getting into Cambridge would automatically solve all their life problems, and then realised it actually created a bunch of new ones? Or those who hoped that becoming a social media influencer with millions of followers would make them feel loved and complete, but instead they feel hollow and alone? What happens when the dream job or the dream romantic partner or the dream whatever doesn’t quite do what you thought it would do for you? What do you do when you reach your goals and achieve all that you wanted and then have a breakdown because you don’t understand why you’re still so unhappy?
Jim Carrey famously said, “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”
It’s a cliché to say that money/the dream job/marriage/fame won’t make you happy. And yet most of us still believe that they will. We are wired to have hope in something. It’s built into our system and is part of our design.
The problem is that we put too much hope in the wrong things, and not enough hope in the right thing. This is where I believe God comes in.
One thing I’ve noticed is that if you have hope that a dream job is going to make you feel accomplished and fulfilled, most people will agree that this is a sensible thing and will encourage you on that path. Even if they themselves were disappointed by that path. But if you have hope in God, people immediately treat you like you’re a stupid child wishing for a fairy godmother to show up.
Why is that?
Our culture is largely influenced by thinkers like Feuerbach and Marx, who claimed that the “God concept” was invented by humans as a kind of collective wish-fulfilment. Life is hard, so we believe in a higher power that will make us feel better. Now, if you worship a God who always agrees with you, never surprises you and never convicts or challenges you, then this is probably true. You may well be worshipping an extended version of yourself rather than the God who created the universe. If God can fit inside your brain, then he’s not God; it’s just you in there.
But I do believe that there is a God who is bigger than us, and I don’t think he’s necessarily a fantasy. In fact I actually believe we’re wired to long for him. The reason why we’re often filled with existential dread (or existential procrastination if we fill our lives with distraction instead) is that God intentionally made us with a capacity for Hope so that we would search for him. Those who do search for him often find him to be surprising when they find him.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Continuing with the job analogy, there is an important difference between the hope (small h) that I have in my ability to get a job and the Hope (capital H) that I have in God as my Ultimate Fulfilment. Both are good forms of hope. It’s reasonable for me to have hope in my abilities because I have a decent CV, a good degree and a hard work-ethic. But it’s also reasonable for me to have Ultimate Hope in God, because all resource on the earth belongs to him, and he has made me for relationship with himself. Neither of those things are a contradiction. If I don’t get the job I want, that’s fine because I still have a decent CV (hope) and I still worship a God who has promised to never leave me (Hope).
But when I do get the perfect job (or book deal, or spouse or lots of money, etc) and find that the attainment of that goal is not what I expected, that’s ok too. This time, however, it’s because I’ve had to discern what kind of hope it is that I have in that thing to make me feel something. If I have Hope in that job to make me feel like I have a purpose, then I’ve misplaced my Hope.
I can hope that the job will be a good thing for me, but Ultimate Hope of spiritual fulfilment should be reserved for the one who made me. Only the guy who literally made the cells in my body and the stars in the sky deserves my Ultimate Hope.
My point is that we are supposed to have hope, and we are supposed to have Hope. But if Hope is given to something that is less than worthy (i.e. literally anything that is not God), then the inevitable disappointment will have an existential sting when it comes. As Proverbs 3:12 says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.”
Importantly, Hope in God is not escapism. It is not a denial of the reality of a fallen world. Sometimes, things get bad. And sometimes they get really really really ridiculously bad.
About four months ago I received a letter from the ‘National Health Service Suspected Cancer Service’ (yes, the wording is terrible) telling me I’d been referred to them by my GP due to my “worrying symptoms.” My GP had told me I was being referred to a specialist, but he never mentioned they were cancer specialists. When I read the letter I actually nearly pooed my pants. I then received another letter from them telling me that I won’t be able to have any scope or scan for three months because the government had shut those facilities down due to the Covid crisis.
I was already very sick at this point since I had delayed going to the GP for about seven weeks, largely because I was hoping that my symptoms would just go away on their own. This was not real hope. In this instance I was wishing away a problem by simply ignoring it. That’s escapism.
Real hope says “I can see that this is crap, but I’m going to address the issue because I believe it might get better.” Moreover, real Hope takes it a step further and says, “I can see that this is crap, but I believe that God loves me and will remain close to me no matter what comes.”
I believe that Real Godly Hope is the only thing that allows you to soberly look at your problems while still believing in an Ultimate Good. And you can only reach that point when you come to the end of yourself, realise you were not made for autonomy, and choose to depend on someone who has known you and has loved you for a very long time. Christians have to choose this dependence every morning, and we can feel the difference when we don’t!
Thankfully, I do not have cancer. I was eventually allowed a colonoscopy, and along with some other tests and biopsies the doctors were able to decipher that I have Ulcerative Colitis, which basically means I have an overactive immune system that thinks my colon is a foreign threat and tries to attack it. There’s no cure, but they do have drugs that can ease the pain and hopefully put me into remission in the near future.
I’m learning that it is possible to have both hope and Hope when one is in chronic pain. I’m now learning how to say that I have both hope in modern medicine and Hope in a God who loves me. They don’t contradict each other, they just need to be put in their rightful place.
This does not deny the reality of my literal and figurative shit-fest. I will have to take drugs for the rest of my life, I have to go for regular (sometimes invasive) tests, and sometimes I have to get out of bed in the morning even when everything feels excruciating.
But my Ultimate Hope is real, and the one I have Hope in will be with me until the end.
I wish more people had that.
On Death by Tim Keller (it’s not as morbid as it sounds)
This talk by the artist Charlie Mackesy about searching for God in a messy world.
For something more philosophically highbrow, I recommend this talk by James KA Smith as he presents his book On the Road with St Augustine: A Real World Spirituality for Restless Hearts. I’m kind of obsessed with it.