Veteran Wheatstone Mentor Fr. Micah Snell shows how Christian hope steers a way between naive optimism and depressive "realism" to find redemption.
survey of that bastion of enlightenment, the Internet, discloses plenty of people opining on the nature of hope, but they pretty much reduce down to two categories: the Pollyannas ➊ and the Pandoras. ➋ For the tragic Pandoras, to live is to suffer and we are fools for enduring. Hope is naiveté. For the comedic Pollyannas, blithe cheeriness shall charm away our suffering. We just need to stay happy!
But both Pandoras and Pollyannas are dangerously myopic. Pandoras struggle to find significance outside anything but themselves. Pollyannas find the solution to all life’s problems inside themselves.
It would be convenient to caricature these extremes, lament them, and boastfully fall back on the superiority of good ol’ Christian hope, but, when you look around, it’s not evident that Christians live out a healthy perspective on hope with any greater regularity. Like all human beings, we Christians inevitably obsess about ourselves. We have little innate faculty for “the big picture” or “the eternal perspective.” However capable we are of religio-babble, real hope (like faith and love) is a virtue that must be cultivated, not just named and claimed. Too often, we don't cultivate it.
Real hope (like faith and love) is a virtue that must be cultivated, not just named and claimed. Too often, we don't cultivate it.
must, by dogma, be optimists. We love a God who is all good, “who loves us with passion, without regret, He cannot love more and will not love less.” ➌ We know the end of the story, and God wins.
Yet, optimism is too easily misunderstood as nothing more than glass-half-full-ness or some club with mantras like, “Promise yourself to look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true.”➍ Such idealism testifies to the extent of our desire for positivity, but most of us are sensitive to the harsh realities of life. Some Christians try to stop there, but anyone who has tried to be everlastingly cheerful knows it is impossible. Pollyanna-ism is just farcical comedy. There is too much evidence of the misery and suffering in life for us to simply dismiss it with giggles, unicorns, and lollipop rainbows.
And this is the crux of the Christian’s burden of hope. We must not deny the hardships of this transitory life. We are gross, pathetic, miserable sinners who live in a tragic, fallen world. We cannot be escapist and glibly proclaim the power of Jesus, pretending that tomorrow we’ll wake up very much more pious than we are today. Sanctification is a difficult and painful process. And yet, in the face of our spiritual squalor, there must be (there is!) a way out of our own inadequacy. We merit nothing, we earn nothing, and still we participate in redemption. We contribute to the Kingdom of God. We grow in grace and knowledge. We cannot be afraid. We cannot be hopeless.
In the face of our spiritual squalor, there must be (there is!) a way out of our own inadequacy.
But if this
isn’t just name-it-and-claim-it hopus pocus, how does it work? Christians, after all, are prone to the two errors we already suggested. Some Pollyanna Christians think we can just decide to be hopeful and God will make us awesome. Some, regardless of what they profess, live as if they can only be saved by their hard work. Pandora Christians say we’re hopeless and this life is tragedy, so it matters little what we do. God will pluck us from our suffering and brash sinning and grant pardons all around.
Neither error manages to maintain the perspective that we are sinful, incapable of perfection, reliant on grace, and active participants in our own redemption, all at once. There’s no magic, nor a prescribed formula. Real hope, like the faith that precedes it and the love that it begets, is tensed between earthly and eternal perspectives. In Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers says it is like the sleeping tension at the verberant core of music. It thrills the heart and boggles the mind. Hope does not escape the misery we experience, but seeks selflessly to heal and redeem, and thus it becomes love.
Hope is a
romantic notion. Good romances like Shakespeare’s begin as tragedies, but end as comedies. They turn on divine sovereignty and on humans who find redemption through grace. Our story, like those in Shakespearean romances, is too good to be true, but it is true nonetheless. Through our faith, we are smitten by hope, and, in the smiting, are gradually shaped into the figure of love.
Fr. Micah snell
Fr. Micah Snell is a specialist in religion and early modern drama who teaches in the Honors College at Houston Baptist University. He has a wife and three children. He thinks his passport doesn’t have enough stamps. He believes every project should be DIY. He still holds the karate school record for breaking the most bricks. He agrees, “…there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” He is ordained in the Anglican Church in North America.
➊ Pollyanna is a popular children’s novel by Eleanor Porter, featuring a title character whose defining feature is her insistent ability to find something to be glad about in any circumstance.
➋ Pandora is a character is classical Greek mythology. When Pandora opened her ill-fated box, Hope was the only thing left to her. This is popularly considered a mercy from the gods, but Hesiod also suggests that hope is the last torment: it makes us willing to continue suffering when there can be no consolation.
➌ Michael Card, Joy in the Journey.