Freedom to Hope
Author: Bill Barley
This past summer I had to face the fact that I had a "hope deficit." I had lost the ability to dream. That is to look forward to the future with excitement and expectation, with a sense of purpose and calling that promoted a degree of risk-taking. In the process, I felt confronted with my lack of appreciation of what biblical hope is all about.
I'm not sure why I never paid much attention to hope. According to 1 Corinthians 13:13, it certainly appears to be one of the "Big 3" characteristics, along with faith and love, that a follower of Jesus should be focused on developing. In fact, it appears from the Bible as a whole, that hope comes very highly recommended by God. And once you consider it's effects, that's not surprising.
Hope is an essential nutrient for the soul. It's most often the difference between a Christian that thrives and one who merely survives. It appears to determine how you fare emotionally, relationally, and vocationally. Likely, my lack of appreciation had to do with some shallow thinking which is, unfortunately, quite pervasive.
While hope is one of our biggest needs, it's also highly misunderstood. Most often it's viewed as simple optimism, wishful thinking, or an upbeat attitude. But from a biblical perspective, it's much more. Hope is described as an anchor for our soul (Hebrews 6:18-19). In Hebrews 11:1, it says that faith is connected to hope, with faith described as "the assurance of things hoped for." Pulling together all the Bible has to say about hope, it's easy to see that it's actually "an expectation of something good based upon the character, purposes, and promises of God." It's what Romans 4 says Abraham had. Hope based on a promise from God.
Abraham's story really gives good perspective on how hope works. In essence, the promise God gave Abraham was a target for his faith. And that's exactly how we need to begin to see hope. Hope is always about something in the future, based on the promises, purposes and character of God. Our faith is what we do in the present to move toward the future hope we have in God's promises. Unless our faith is connected with a valid target of hope, it's likely to be nothing more than wishful thinking. But if faith is properly attached to hope, it enables us on a practical level to connect what we do today with what we desire for tomorrow. In other words, it gives us a highly elevated sense of purpose in what we're doing today. Without it we're back in the category of merely surviving rather than thriving. Lose hope and we lose the ability to dream for the future. It's a dreary, boring way to live. It's why I quit my job as an attorney and moved into full-time ministry. (A story for another day.)
However, with hope impossible situations start to look possible. Defeats start to look like they can turn into victories. Courage replaces fear. We can dream again! Hope, in the form of God planted dreams, gives life purpose and passion. We develop holy ambitions and are ready to take risks.
I see this with William Carey, the father of modern missions. He famously told Christians who were reluctant to step into the unknown territory of taking the Gospel to unreached people:
"Expect great things of God, and then attempt great things for God."
The sequence of his phrases is of utmost importance. The first phrase is about hope and the second about faith. And together they propel us into taking God ordained dreams.
The good news for those who, like me, suffer from a hope deficit, is that hope is a choice. It can be learned. Among other things, it is simply learning where to focus our attention. You cannot fix your gaze intently on two things at once. You choose what to focus on, which then comes into sharp focus. Other things don't cease to exist, but they become rather blurred. For example, hold a pencil 18 inches from your face, with a clock 20 feet beyond the pencil. Focus intently on the pencil and you cannot see what the clock shows. But choose instead to fix your gaze intently upon the clock and you see it clearly, with the pencil becoming fuzzy. The clock is like our hope target and the pencil the circumstances of life that can cause our gaze to shift.
Abraham seems to have understood this. He had many things that stood between him and his hope target. What did he do? He chose where to focus his attention. He chose to fix his gaze on the hope target and not the adverse circumstances. He didn't ignore the facts, he just chose to fix his attention beyond them. And that is what's required to have hope. Develop the ability to face facts while keeping our focus on God and His promises.