The Gift of Hope

“I claim the gift of hope. I have hope, not in the glorious achievements of man, but in the ever-glorious providence of God.” – Dwight Longenecker

I like to pride myself in being an optimist – you know the “glass half-full” kind of person. You, too? Optimists are surely more fun to be around than pessimists!

But in a world full of problems that seem unsolvable, optimism falls short. It usually is unrealistic and is ineffective in addressing the challenges of life. Instead, I suggest we turn to hope. Not the weak, “I hope so” kind, but a strong biblical hope based solely on the providence of our almighty, all-loving God. It’s a hope that is an assurance God will act, good will come, and justice will prevail, even though we may have to wait for its complete fulfillment. If our hope is based on biblical promises, what we hope for is as real as the ground we walk on.

In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul assigns hope with faith and love as the three main values that endure. Why, I wonder? I think because faith is needed to access hope. When we learn to trust God’s promises and his character, we will be filled with hope. With that in place, what can we do but love him and love others? Godly hope energizes love because we know we are and will be taken care of – there is enough of God’s provision for everyone. Hopeful people are loving people.

Once we get a taste of that kind of hope, we realize the shallowness of mere optimism. Hope based on God’s providence is not optimism. It’s reality.

“And 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

Tuning in to Heaven

“When I am tempted to complain about God’s lack of presence, I remind myself that God has much more reason to complain about my lack of presence.” Philip Yancey

Every morning, I walk into my quiet place and shut the door. Then I whisper, “For this time, Lord, I’m unavailable to the earth because I’m tuning in to Heaven.” Shutting the door is a tangible signal to myself that the world is shut out so I can turn to the eternal.

Why does that little ritual matter? It seems that for a time every day we should turn to the most important thing – knowing, loving, and following after God. If he is who we think he is, don’t you think it’s possible we hurt his heart when he’s ready to relate to us, and we turn to him with only minimal attention?

If we can shut a door or turn off the cell phone, we’re letting God know we are available to him for whatever he wants. And, if he has something to say, we’ll be listening.

Do you remember Jacob when he was running for his life from his brother? He wasn’t really paying attention to the spiritual world but, as he slept under the stars that night, God gave him a dream about a ladder that reached heaven. Here’s his reaction: “When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it” (Genesis 28:15). God was there, and Jacob almost missed him!

Let’s take a daily opportunity to be in God’s presence – completely, earnestly, with full attention. He wants to commune with us. That’s just too amazing to miss!

The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” – 1 Samuel 3:10

Enduring

“I’ll lift you and you lift me, and we’ll both ascend together.” – John Greenleaf Whittier

If you’ve lived very long, you’ve figured out that life’s road can be (and will be) bumpy. There are challenges around every corner it seems. We tend to think that, if God is all-loving and all-powerful, he should protect us from those challenges, smooth out the path under our feet. Make it a straight line – and an easy way.

Having lived in the Rocky Mountains for a few years, I learned that the most difficult treks can be the most beautiful. The twists and turns have great surprises along the way. The climbs and curves slow us down enough to see the views, the wildflowers, and the wildlife that would be a blur on a long, straight path where we can speed along at our best pace.

God knows we would prefer an easy way. But sometimes he has a bigger purpose for us than ease (that restfulness will come only in the life to come). There are periods in our life for slowing, for thinking things through, for relying on another traveler to help us get past the rough spots, and for simply trusting God. None of that happens when everything is easy.

What do we do if we are on a rocky part of the road right now – and maybe it’s been challenging for a long time, with no smooth path in sight yet? We endure. We go a step at a time. We ask for help from someone near. And we cling to the promise that God is producing something good in us as we take courage and keep on keeping on.

“The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped.” – Psalm 28:7

Bad news?

And all my life, You have been faithful
All my life, You have been so, so good
With every breath that I am able
Oh, I will sing of the goodness of God
*

We’ve all been on the receiving end of bad news at some point or another, right?

“You’ve been a great employee, but we have to cut costs. Sorry.”

“Just calling to let you know about your lab tests.”

“There’s been an accident.”

So how do we react? At first, panic, desperation. Then sadness or depression. But, over the long haul, we pull ourselves up and begin to think clearly. Paul shows us by example that there’s something we can focus on to get us through the bad news times:

When he was on trial before King Agrippa, he recounted his earlier life, his conversion, his missionary efforts, and finally his arrest in Jerusalem, and he sums it all up by saying, “To this day I have had the help that comes from God” (Acts 26:22).

He’s in trouble – again. This time he’s about to be sent to Rome to stand trial before Caesar, an emperor known to throw Christians into dungeons or to the lions. And, what is Paul thinking about? The past. God’s faithfulness. God’s help in every situation.

If we are in distress today, we can do what Paul did: think about the times God has helped us in the past. Times when we’ve had bad news, and he came through. Times when we prayed and were flooded with peace. Then we ask him to do it again. He is faithful to his children and hears their cries for help.

“. . . you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy. – Psalm 63:7

“The Goodness of God”, written by Ed Cash, Ben Fielding, Jason Ingram, Brian Johnson and Jenn Johnson, and published by Bethel Music

Just a Word

“I know I am coming to the day in which I will be free of words: their master rather than their servant.” – Thomas Merton

Sometimes we talk too much. And, if it isn’t our own speech, it may be the talking of others. We are surrounded with words – written, spoken, heard.

Maybe we should look for a little more silence – internal quiet that provides space for communication beyond words – the kind that true friends share, and the kind the Holy Spirit gives. Here are a couple of thoughts on this from the Bible:

Be concise

When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent (Proverbs 10:19).

Author and pastor Eugene Peterson was known for long pauses in his conversations. If he was asked a question, he would often sit quietly for a time before responding. And then his answer was concise, to the point.* I want to learn to do that. Not to just say the first thing that comes to mind and then go on and on explaining what I mean. Isaiah indicates the same concept when he prays, “. . . that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary” (from Isaiah 50:4). Not a sermon or a book, but a word. Sometimes that’s all we need to say.

Be gracious

 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips” (Luke 4:22b: about Jesus).

To those who followed him, to those who were in need, to those who were seeking truth, his words were filled with grace. I’d like to be like Jesus that way, wouldn’t you?

Today may our words be few and gracious!

Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” – Proverbs 16:24

*Winn Collier, A Burning in My Bones: The Authorized Biography of Eugene H. Peterson (New York: Waterbrook, 2021).

Surprise Ending

“Do what God tells you to do now, and, depend upon it, you will be shown what to do next.” ― Elisabeth Elliot

When we’re going through a tough situation, we have a tendency to predict how things will play out. Though we have limited power, we put our logical thinking into play and try to figure how to make things better. Nothing wrong with that. That may be exactly what we should do.

But when you introduce God into the scenario, prediction goes out the window. I saw it today in Judges 4. Deborah received a message from God she needed to pass along to Barak. He was to gather troops and fight against Sisera, leader of the army of the enemy of God’s people. Barak told Deborah he’d go to fight only if she went with him. She agreed to go, but warned that the honor of capturing Sisera would belong to a woman, not to him. That wouldn’t be an insult today, but it was in that culture at that time

So what do we all think will happen? Deborah, a judge and a prophet, is somehow going to defeat Sisera. But, no! God had something else in mind: There was a woman, Jael, who Sisera thought was on his side. He fled from Barak and stumbled exhausted into her tent. When Sisera fell asleep, Jael killed him, and is forever remembered in Israel’s history as the woman who conquered an enemy general. Only God could have engineered that ending!

Invite him into your situation. He may have an ending to your story you never would have thought of – one that will surprise you!

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.”1 Corinthians 2:9b

Beautiful

“The greatest saint in the world is not he who prays most or fasts most; it is not he who gives alms, or is most eminent for temperance, chastity or justice. It is he who is most thankful to God.” – William Law

Do you remember a time when someone did something really nice for you? Maybe it was a gift or an act of service or a rescue from circumstances beyond your control. How do you thank someone who does something so above and beyond you cannot possibly repay it?

Mary of Bethany found herself in that situation after Jesus raised her brother Lazarus from the dead. You can’t repay someone for that! But she wanted to do something to show her love and appreciation. So she got out her most treasured possession – a jar of nard, probably something she was saving for her wedding day. But, instead of keeping it, she brought it to dinner at Simon’s house where Jesus was also present. She broke the jar open and poured the expensive contents on Jesus’s hair and feet (John 12 and Matthew 26). She then proceeded to wipe his feet with her hair.

The disciples began to criticize her extravagance, but not Jesus. He quieted them by saying, “. . . Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me” (Matthew 26:10b). Jesus knew her heart.

Jesus’s raising Lazarus was an amazing gift, but is it any more amazing than giving his own life so we can live forever with him? Doesn’t it just make you want to do to do something beautiful for Jesus as Mary did? It does me. What can it be today?

” . . . the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” – 1 Samuel 16:7b

What was he thinking about?

“Calvary is the one objective, absolute, irrefutable proof of God’s love for us.” – Jerry Bridges

Jesus hung on the cross for a long time. In horrible agony, with time slowly passing as the minutes and hours wore on. What he was thinking as he chose to persist, even though he could have called the whole thing off? He was thinking about joy!

Hebrews tells us he endured because of the “joy set before him” – the joy of saving broken humans.

“I’m doing this for Peter though he argued that this wasn’t going to happen. He denied me multiple times last night, but I love him and want him to be with me forever.”

“I’m doing this for Thomas, too, even though he won’t understand right away. What amazing things he will do for my kingdom.”

“Oh, I’m doing this for Mary, whose heart is breaking right now. I can’t wait to let her know the rest of the story.”

It brought him joy to think about those he loved and about those who would come to know him in the centuries after his death and resurrection. Maybe my name came to his mind. Or yours.

We’ll never fully understand what Jesus did for us or why he was willing to do it. But it seems he had such great love for those who would believe that he wouldn’t quit. That’s who he is. He still doesn’t give up. He supports us in our struggle, encourages our faith, responds to our prayers, and stays with us no matter what. And that gives him joy.

“. . . looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” – Hebrews 12:2

Not much new there.

“Nobody ever outgrows Scripture; the book widens and deepens with our years.” -Charles Spurgeon

We were driving home from church last week, and I asked my husband, “What did you think of the sermon?” The message was based on a very familiar passage from the Sermon on the Mount, so, after thinking for a minute, he said, “There wasn’t much new there.” I agreed.

Every pastor reading this is cringing at this point, but the story didn’t end there. We began to talk about certain points this pastor made, and I acknowledged there was one point that was my “take away” for the morning – something that I needed to hear and to pay attention to in my life. Then Warren said he really had one of those, too, and his take away was specific to him. We had a great time talking about what changed for us as we listened to and processed that message.

What just happened? The Holy Spirit showed up. He took an old message, a familiar passage, and applied it in a new way in our hearts. The scripture is the same we had heard from our childhood until now, but our life circumstances are different, the problems we face have changed over time, and our hearts are more or less receptive at any given moment.

So we need to keep going back to the Word of God. True, it’s an ancient book, but it’s not a dead book. It may be old, but it never gets old. It refreshes our souls in new ways and with new emphases over time.

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” – Hebrews 4:12

Half a Mile Ahead

I never see God. I seldom run into visual clues that remind me of God unless I am looking. The act of looking, the pursuit itself, makes possible the encounter. ” – Philip Yancey

When we traveled to Israel a few years ago, we learned to stay close to our guide. We literally would have been lost without her!

Given that experience, it was interesting to read in the story of the Israelites crossing the Jordan River (Joshua 6) that God gave different instructions. He wanted the people to follow the priests who were carrying the Ark of the Covenant, but they were to follow more than half a mile behind. Not up close, but quite a distance away. That meant they might lose sight of the Ark or the view might be obstructed. I know I would have wanted to be a lot closer to those leaders. It’s more comfortable to follow by sight than by faith!

It made me think about life. There are times when we’re on a path we believe God placed us on, but we’ve lost sight of him, or we’re not understanding his guidance as clearly as we’d hoped. We begin to question whether we’re even on the right path. And, on really bad days, we’re afraid he’s forgotten us. He hasn’t! He’s sometimes half a mile out front making sure everything’s ready when we get there.

God’s not as far away as we think. He may be out of sight, but he’s still leading. We need to follow and trust. We’ll probably see him around the next bend.

 “. . . I go to prepare a place for you. . . And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” – John 14:2b-3