Why ‘no ordinary’ hope?

By 12 October 2019 October 17th, 2019 No Comments

In chapter 4 of Romans, St. Paul writes something fascinating to me. He says, “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed”. That would seem to make no sense if “all” really does mean all, which I believe it does. This is why I believe Christian hope must be, and is, no ordinary hope. We perhaps could say something like this: “against all [ordinary] hope, Abraham in [unordinary] hope believed and so became the father of many nations”. Abraham believed in God and became the father of many nations – ie the church. Therefore, Paul considers (retrospectively, of course) Abraham’s hope as Christian hope.

No ordinary hope

So what is ‘unordinary’ about Abraham’s and Christian hope? A hope that can be held against all hope? That is to say, a hope that we can still hold on to when we ourselves and those around us can see in our circumstances no hope whatsoever.

As we know, ordinarily hope is aspirational. It is founded upon what might and could happen. It may be almost certain: for example, a beloved child hoping that their mum and dad will give them a nice birthday present. Or it may, on the other end of the scale, be what we might call ‘wishful thinking‘: for example, I could hope that Brighton and Hove Albion win the premier league this year. The point is that all things we ordinarily speak of in terms of hope are to a certain degree uncertain. Their likelihood could, in theory, be placed by a statistician/actuary on a probability scale, say from 0.01% to 99.99%. But that figure could never be 100% because we are talking about the future. Paul is saying in his letter to the Romans something different. Something that I think makes Christian hope no ordinary hope. Firstly, because the event that we hope for has a past as well as future component. Paul can use a word as strong as “guarantee” (Romans 4:16) when speaking about that which our hope is in. His argument throughout is that, because the resurrection of Jesus is an event that happened in history, Christian hope is in a future that is therefore guaranteed because the event on which everything depends has already happened. And secondly, our hope is in God who is the author of hope – he has authority over it – because he is the “God of hope“ (Romans 15:13)we have a hope that we can base our whole life on, even when it seems like there is no hope, no future, because Jesus is God. He is the author of hope, the one who creates it. He does not manufacture it out of something, he creates it (NB the resurrection is the doctrinal foundation for creation ex nihilo, but this is beyond my point here). The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is not an event that fits within any frame of reference that we had previously. It is impossible unless Jesus is God (is why Thomas declares to the risen Jesus, after he has touched Jesus’ scars of crucifixion and death “my Lord and my God”, John 20:28). To live in this hope is not at all to deny the rationality and causality of our world, but to declare with our lives that this rationality is contingent upon a God who creates and sustains it.

Lesslie Newbigin: “The event of the resurrection … breaks every mould that would imprison God in the rationalism of a fallen world. … It is the starting point for a new kind of rationality, for the possibility of living hopefully in a world without hope, for the perpetual praise of God who … breaks through fixed orders to create ever-new situations of surprise and joy.”

No ordinary hope

It is a legitimate question to ask then, ‘why does Paul use the word hope at all?’ If the resurrection guarantees our future and that event is incredible to any frame of reference, outside of the event itself, is ‘hope’ an appropriate word to use?

I think hope is exactly the right word to use for two reasons that follow from the two reasons that this is no ordinary hope. Firstly, hope is the right word because it is believing in testimony from the past (historical witness) and looking forward to in a future we are waiting for. Faith/Trust is required in this believing and waiting. In this sense it is no different from ordinary hope: “For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?” (Romans 8:24b-25a). This is true at the same time as maintaining that the future in which we hope and wait for is guaranteed, because everything upon which the future depends has already happened in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Secondly, hope is the right word to use because this assured future is not our possession. It is forever a gift (grace); it is forever based on an ongoing, eternal, relationship between us and God (at-one-ment) created by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The nature of this relationship from the human side is faith, and from God’s side the gift and presence of the Holy Spirit poured into our hearts through faith. I’m hesitantly using the phrase “from the human side” because faith is a gift of God too, lest we fall in to the mistake of undermining grace. Theology has the difficult task of describing the relationship between divine and human agency/freedom such that the integrity of both is maintained, including the contingency of the latter to the former. But my point here is that relationships are never possessed, they are always in the gift of the other. We entrust ourselves in one another. God has given (entrusted) himself to us in Jesus and we give (entrust) ourselves to him by faith. Faith and trust are relational terms. Whilst we could argue that relationships are possessed: for example, I am forever the son of my mother and father; my sonship is a biological fact that is ‘mine‘ in that sense. And yet I cannot know what it means to be in that relationship without them, without knowing them. I cannot possess the relationship in that sense, because I cannot possess them. I depend on their participation and commitment, and they depend upon mine. The nature of this participation is faith and trust. One cannot know anything or anyone without faith and trust. (Our knowledge of persons – just as in science – is never absolute or our possession. It is a public not private, temporal not abstract, practical not theoretical, truth. All of which is laid out by far far more intelligent theologians and scientists than I could ever be.) Returning to my point here, if faith is the means by which we enter into a relationship with God and come to know his love, this makes our hope in him still hope. This is because it is not our possession. It is a matter of trust. It is, as I have said, no ordinary hope because the person (Jesus Christ ) we are trusting is God. God’s total faithfulness to us shown in Jesus and the history of Israel, and his absolute sovereignty, as Creator of all, to accomplish all that he has promised, means that our hope is assured. But the need for faith, the relational nature of our assurance, means that this no ordinary hope is nonetheless still hope. There is no place for triumphalism. Paul’s conclusion to Romans 8 is as unequivocal and all encompassing as it could possibly be – it is arguably the profoundest statement of our hope in the epistles of the New Testament – and yet it is essential that we do not miss that it is a statement of faith, not a statement of an indubitable fact: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This conviction, this faith, is not a possession, but neither is it intended to be read as wishful thinking. For Paul (without implying necessarily that he wrote these words in Hebrews), faith is “confidence about what we hope for and assurance of what we do not see“ (11:1). Believing in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection creates a freedom to live in hope when all ordinary hope is gone. And crucially to do so rationally. A rationality that can never be triumphalist because we do not possess what we hope for, but neither can it be mere wishful thinking.

We are not stuck between past and future: God’s presence now by the Holy Spirit is the gift of hope in the present

The Christian faith is founded on a relationship with God in Jesus Christ that is both historical/particular and personal/experiential. Historical testimony needs to be scrutinised, and this not the moment to go into what is, I believe, compelling evidence for the resurrection. My point is that this rationality, this hope, cannot be characterised as wishful. It’s either true or not, in a similar way to how scientific truth is believed or disproved. It is about reality, and we can only come to know anything about reality and truth by believing something that we seek to know. And this is never an academic or abstract reality. The Christian witness is that this believing in Jesus is the way to know a hope in the present that can never disappoint us or put us to shame. (We will never be embarrassed in the future by putting all our hope in Jesus). There is a personal and experiential, as well as historical, foundation to our hope in Jesus: “hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5) Therefore, we can personally say that our hope in Jesus is no ordinary hope.

God hasn’t left us only with historical testimony from the past, as absolutely vital and central to our faith as that is. In terms of the future, we don’t yet see all that will one day be when Jesus returns, and that is why faith and hope remain. But our hope means that we do not have to peer anxiously into the future. We have no ordinary hope because of what Jesus already done guaranteeing what will be our future in him. But our waiting, our hoping, doesn’t just have a past and a future reality to it. There is a present reality to our hope. The gift of God’s personal presence, the Holy Spirit, means not only that nothing will (ultimately) be able to separate us from God’s love, but nothing can (here and now, however hopeless things have got) separate us from the love of God poured in to our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. This is our ultimate reason for saying that this hope in Jesus is no ordinary hope.

In case this all sounds far too neat and tidy, there is so much more to say about hope in the midst of the human condition: suffering, loss, pain, failure, isolation, fear, guilt, shame (along of course with joy, laughter, fulfillment, love, beauty, creativity, delight). The thing I am trying to convey by the title of this website is that there is because of Jesus reason to hold onto hope even when we cannot see any reason to hope. The hope Jesus brings is no ordinary hope because it doesn’t depend on our having any reasons to be hopeful beyond the ‘fact’ (believed not possessed in an indubitable way) of his resurrection from the dead after dying on the cross for us.

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