A thoughtful Adventist academic who might prefer to remain anonymous, once gave me this sobering definition of “hope”: “Hope is what you do when you don’t have enough evidence to be optimistic.”
A person’s ability to remain hopeful and upbeat, even in daunting circumstances, has always been a puzzle for me. Some of my friends and associates have a hard time seeing the sun even on the brightest of days. Others remain buoyant in the face of the seemingly impossible.
Though optimism in the face of difficulty is usually admirable, special accomplishment can take advantage of the same gift and slip toward arrogance. When that has happened in my own experience, I have found 1 Corinthians 4:7 to be a sobering corrective, especially in the vivid words of the Contemporary English Version: “What is so special about you? What do you have that you were not given? And if it was given you, how can you brag?”
That verse struck home with peculiar vividness a number of years ago after a game of racquetball with a partner who knew me quite well. At the time, four of us were playing together quite regularly. Each of us had different skills. I (Colleague A) had the speed, Colleague B had the power, Colleague C had the reach, and Colleague D had the brains-according to Colleague D. We had great fun together. But one day after a game of singles with Colleague B (the one with the power), he offered the following assessment: “Speed on your feet is like perfect pitch in music,” he noted. “Either you have it or you don’t.”
Speaking from a raw male perspective, I must admit that there is no more deliciously wicked feeling than the rush that comes when you turn on the afterburners and leave those other guys in the dust. Even for spectators, the short sprints (that is, 100 and 200 meter dashes) offer the highest drama. For me, however, the smug memories of “I did it!” were suddenly tempered by the realization that my colleague was right. If you watch the kids on a school playground, it’s clear that some can run and some can’t. High decibel exhortation makes almost no difference at all.
The searchlight of 1 Corinthians 4:7 is sobering, indeed, for it applies to all human activities. High performers in the classroom earn high marks on examinations and projects. Whose fault is it? God’s. And those who score marks by virtue of hard work rather than native intelligence-whose fault is it? God’s.
In short, whatever we do is a gift of God’s grace. Whatever we do is simply a returning of that gift back to the human family in ways that can bless others. At least that is God’s intention.
And that brings us to the question of “indestructible hope” during a quarter when all the lessons are focusing in one way or another on the endurance of hard times in “The Refiner’s Fire.” Two biblical characters who inevitably crop up in a discussion of this topic are Jeremiah and Job, both men of integrity who were called to endure extraordinary difficulties. David and Peter finish way back in the back because they brought most of their difficulties on themselves. But Jeremiah and Job were simply innocent men who suffered a great deal.
Was their hope “indestructible”? Well, they survived and we have their stories in Scripture. They both had their moments, to be sure. Jeremiah has bequeathed to us some of the most anguished prayers in his so-called “Confessions (11:18-12:6; 15:10-21; 17:14-18; 18:18-23; 20:7-13, 14-18). And Job, after his noble declaration, “The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord,” was able to hold his peace for just one week. Then he “opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth.” Indeed some of the ancient rabbis claimed that in the balance of the book Job actually did curse God. That’s why the Lord gave him a double reward in this life because he had forfeited all rights to a reward in the life to come!
It’s a fair question to ask, then: Is hope really indestructible? Or does everyone have their breaking point? Those who do survive the hard times often testify to their desolate feelings in the valley of the shadow. Jesus’ cry on the cross is one of the best examples: “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
In modern times, C. S. Lewis’s journal after the death of his wife, A Grief Observed, highlights the contrast between the good times when we sense God’s presence and those moments when we feel abandoned: “Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing him, so happy that you are tempted to feel his claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to him with gratitude and praise, you will be-or so it feels-welcomed with open arms.
“But go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once, and that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?” (1.7)
Lewis finally came to the point where his mind no longer met “that locked door” (4.4). Toward the end of his journal, he states:
“I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.” (3.25)
I’m grateful for stories of survivors. They give us reason to believe that maybe hope really can be indestructible. We need that kind of help.
Alden Thompson is professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla University, College Place, Washington.