For most of you, who have been following my Sprachspielen articles since they began last summer, you have seen that in these articles I have been addressing certain terms or vocabulary that have direct impact and applicability to who we are and what God has called us to do in missions. These terms have missiological, theological, spiritual, and even practical applicability to who we are and what we do, and I have been taking the time to explain the specific significance of these words to our vision and ministry in order that you might understand better what we mean, when we use these terms. Last month, as it was Christmas time and the end of 2020, I took the liberty of deviating ever so slightly from my normal approach by looking at the word “incarnation,” which was more general but obviously appropriate for the season. Hopefully, I was also able in this general way to bring the theme of “incarnation” back to a missiological understanding and application of that important theological concept.
In the same spirit and as this is the start of a new year, I am going to deviate once again by looking at a word, which is certainly appropriate for this time of year, but more general in nature, rather than specifically dealing with the particulars of our vision and mission. But, as with last month’s Sprachspielen, I desire to bring this general understanding of a very common word back to a missionary application to conclude this article.
The word that I would like to address in this month’s instalment of Sprachspielen is “hope.” This word “hope” is common in the vocabulary of most devout Christ-followers on one hand, but also in the day-to-day vocabulary of those from every faith background and none, on the other hand. The term “hope” is almost always associated with expectations and/or desires for a positive outcome at some future point in time, and this is true for anyone, who uses the term, regardless of the object of any faith they might have, including having no faith at all. For example, no one says things like “I hope that I will fall down the stairs and break my leg.” No, hope is something good, something perhaps miraculous, even for those who don’t “believe in that sort of thing.” Hope is a concept that is sustaining and empowering.
As I mentioned in my update for this month, “hope” is often associated with the start of a new year, which is one of the reasons I’ve chosen it as the object of our linguistic exploration this month. I think that generally pretty much every New Year is a time for hope and a desire that things will be better and that we will be better people in the year ahead. However, after the year most of the world has had in 2020, I think that this craving for hope in this new year is more pronounced and intensely felt than in New years past. I think that we are all probably desperate to believe that the future will be better than the recent past. This is another reason for my being drawn to the word “hope” for this month’s article to begin the New Year.
Of course, “hope,” for those who are in Christ, has tremendous significance and power in our lives, as we seek to follow Jesus and look forward to His return. I will look more at what “hope” means for Christians a bit later. But we also realise that the term “hope,” whether used as a verb or a noun is very often used in common, day-to-day vocabulary and by everyone, often with no particular faith significance in the usage, even when used by Christians. Before we look a bit more theologically at the term “hope,” I think it might be a good idea to look at how people frequently use the term, often meaning something quite different from the Christian understanding of “hope” in more theological terms.
I would like to give just three examples of ways that we use, or perhaps better to say misuse the term “hope” in day-to-day speech. I say misuse, because we often use the term “hope,” when we actually mean something else. First, we often say “hope” as an expression of intent. For example, I might say, “I hope to come by tomorrow for a chat.” In this sense, I’m simply saying this as an expression of my intent. Now, I might be sincere in saying this and really plan to do my best to follow through, but ultimately it cannot be guaranteed with 100% certainty. This is why we use the word “hope” here, rather than saying “I will come by tomorrow for a chat,” because inherent in the use of the word “hope” here is the possibility that it might or might not happen. Second, we often use the term “hope” when we really mean “desire” or “wish” or perhaps more technically “wishful thinking.” For example, to an invitation to attend an outdoor picnic with friends (pre-COVID clearly), I might reply, “I hope that we will have good weather for it.” Now, I might have no way of knowing whether or not we will have good weather tomorrow, nor have any irrefutable proof that it is likely to be fine weather tomorrow. Basically, when I say, “I hope it will be nice weather tomorrow,” I really mean “I wish it to be nice weather tomorrow,” with no particular guarantee that my “hope” is well-founded or reason to believe that the weather will actually be fine tomorrow. Finally, we often use “hope” as a noun, when we might more accurately mean “encouragement.” For instance, a possible statement that is quite timely for our situation at the moment might be “We place our hope in the vaccines and medical treatments for COVID-19.” I’ve actually heard government officials and scientists use such or similar language. Now, I would be the first one to say that I believe God works through science and medicine all the time as a means of demonstrating His grace to us. I believe that the new vaccines coming out and new treatments for those with the illness are blessings from the Lord and very good news for the world. However, I do not place my hope in them, nor are they the source of hope. Rather they are an encouragement to us in this time of crisis. But as good of news as this might be, it isn’t such as to give absolute confidence to us. It is at this point that we can begin to see the significant difference between the Christian view of “hope” and those views that might be expressed through common, everyday usage of the term.
It would be quite impossible for me to give an exhaustive, Biblical analysis of the word “hope” in the Scriptures. That would be a book. However, I would like to express some thoughts and Scriptures that might help us understand what “hope” means from the Christian point of view. In fact, so different is this Christian understanding from that expressed in common parlance that I could confidently claim that true hope is only truly understood and available to those, who are in Christ. To put it another way, if someone were to catch me without my dictionary handy and ask me the definition of “hope” from a Christian perspective, I might answer something like this: “‘Hope’ is the patient, confident, persevering belief and expectation that God is going to work for good at some point in the future.” I’ll try to unpack that a bit.
Of course, the term “hope” is used often in both the Old and New Testaments. To be certain, there are times, when the term is used more figuratively in ways that would make it more similar to the understanding of the term as it is commonly expressed in everyday language. However, in both the Old and New Testaments, “hope” is understood more deeply and theologically, as inherently tied to God and His people’s relationship with Him. For example, in the Old Testament, “hope” is often used to describe God’s people’s waiting and expectation that God would work miraculously for their deliverance, whether as individuals or a people. When we move to the New Testament, the theme of hope becomes even more central. We see the importance of “hope” as a spiritual reality and virtue in many places, but especially in 1 Corinthians 13. Of course, love (God’s love, i.e., ἀγάπη “agape”) is the highest virtue extolled in 1 Corinthians 13. However, Paul does say “And now abide faith, hope, love, these three” (1 Cor. 13:13). Even when describing love, the “greatest of these,” Paul describes this love with the words “……hopes all things….” (1 Cor. 13:7). We even see what comes very close to Paul’s own definition of “hope” in Romans 8:24-25: “For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance.” And of course, we must contextually place Romans 8:24-25 between the “groaning” of all creation (Rom 8:18-23) and the promise of God to work all things for good to those who love Him (Romans 8:28), including the clarification that God’s definition of this future “good” for which we wait in hope is anything that makes us resemble Jesus more closely (Romans 8:29). Returning to Romans 8:25, we see three important words: wait, eagerly, and perseverance. The future good for which we hope comes on God’s schedule and not ours, which almost always involves the discipline of waiting. It is interesting that some languages like Spanish and Portuguese reflect this connection by virtue of their having one word, which means both “to hope” and “to wait/await.” I think that waiting is probably one of the hardest lessons for us to learn, as we are growing up. And if we’re honest, we never really get comfortable with it. But somehow the “hope” that we see described in places like Romans 8:25 and others in the New Testament is of such strength and so very “worth the wait” that this hope empowers us not only to wait, but to do so eagerly (with joy) and also patiently (with perseverance). We also see the ties between “hope” and “confidence” more overtly stated and associated in places such as Hebrews 3:6: “but Christ as a Son over His own house, whose house we are if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm to the end.”
What I’ve shared above is the tip of the iceberg in terms of a New Testament understanding of “hope.” However, I think that it is clear even from this cursory review that “hope,” true hope, as seen in the Scriptures is vastly different than the understanding of the word, as it is commonly used by people in their day-to-day lives. “Hope” for us is not wishful thinking or simple optimism or our desire or our positive thinking. In fact, the hope that we see in Scripture is really not based or built on or even originating from anything within us or of our own making. Furthermore, hope in the spiritual sense is not founded on or determined by our circumstances. Both of these, ourselves and our circumstances, are too weak and fickle to be the source of this kind of confidence in hope. No, our hope, as seen in the New Testament especially, is a real and reasoned confidence that is based on something – something that is secure, steadfast, constant, and unstoppable. Our hope is founded on the sure foundation, God. This is true for us in at least three primary ways. (1) Our hope is built on His Word. Hebrews 10:23 begins in this way: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised…….” The writer of Hebrews encourages us to embrace this kind of hope, as I’ve tried to describe it through Scripture, because of the promises of God. We can see over and over again in His Word His promises to His people. These are promises not to fulfil our every whim and selfish desire, like a genie in a bottle. But they are His promises to His people as a Father to His beloved children and as a King to the citizens of His Kingdom with an eternal destiny and role to play in His plan of redemption for this world and its inhabitants. (2) Our hope is built on the nature and character of God. Hebrews 10:23 goes on to say “…..for He who promised is faithful.” We can hope in confidence in God and His Word and promises, because of His nature and character. God is faithful. He is steadfast. He is loving. He is holy. He is omnipotent. He is Lord – I could fill a book with His attributes. And (3) Our hope is built ultimately on a person, Jesus Christ. Not just His words and not just His character, but the person of Jesus is our Hope. “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, by the commandment of God our Savior and the Lord Jesus Christ, our hope,” (1 Tim. 1:1). “To them God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Col. 1:27).
For the Christian, therefore, hope is the most rational and natural posture for us to take, as it relates to our attitudes and expectations regarding the future that we must face. It is based on our certainty in the promises, character, and person of Jesus Christ. It is for this reason that we hope with confidence, patience, endurance, and joy. When I mentioned in my monthly newsletter update that I have decided to embrace this New Year with hope, this is the kind of hope of which I was speaking – the confidence we have in Jesus, which is neither dependent on my circumstances (some might say that the situation with COVID and other world issues at the moment does not lend itself to hope) nor on how I feel, how positive or optimistic I may be or conversely how weak, frightened and inadequate I might see myself. Hope as we face the challenges of this new year is the natural and reasonable response, because hope is the soul’s reflex reaction to God’s grace poured out upon us in the person of His Son, Jesus.
I mentioned at the beginning of this article that I would close with a missiological application regarding this word “hope,” specifically as it is understood from the Christian perspective. This application is actually quite easy to describe and understand, though we might forget the power of “hope” in missions from time to time; hence, this reminder. With that said, hope is an essential element to all missionary activities, strategies, plans, and philosophies. This is because our missionary goal, our raison d’être, is to see Jesus lifted high and glorified, in order (1) to bring people of every language, tribe, and nation to a personal and saving faith in Jesus Christ, (2) to see new believers grow in spiritual maturity, becoming true followers and disciples of Jesus Christ, and (3) to establish outposts of His Kingdom on earth (new faith communities, or Churches) in every language and culture, even the European minority languages. The only problem with this plan is that we do not in ourselves possess the power to accomplish any of these primary goals – not a single one. As a missionary, I cannot convert anyone. I cannot change someone’s heart. I cannot give them new spiritual birth. I cannot make them turn their lives to Jesus in faith and repentance. Only God can do these things. I cannot force someone who professes Christ to feel the desire to follow and obey Him. I cannot make anyone pray or read the Bible or engage in any of the other disciplines of Discipleship. Only the Holy Spirit can do these things. I cannot plant what does not belong to me (it’s not my Church – it’s His). I cannot make people into a community by sheer force of will. I cannot make people and communities grow and mature. Only Jesus, the Rock upon which the Church is built, can do these things. All we can do as missionaries is obey and be faithful to do what we know and are called to do, and to work tirelessly and give sacrificially to that end. In other words, we work diligently in the sowing and the reaping, but God does the work in the birthing, growing, and transformation (cf., Mark 4:26-29). This means that our obedience in missionary activity must always be done with hope – the hope that is confident in God, confident in His Word, His faithfulness, and His Person that He will accomplish His will and redemptive purposes in the bearing of fruit in His time, even when we might not immediately, if ever, see the fruit of our own labours. In hope, we trust our obedience to His grace that He might work through these things to bring glory to Himself and His joy and hope to all the peoples of the earth.
I pray that these thoughts might serve as an encouragement to you to choose hope, not the world’s hope but hope that is possible only through Jesus, as you face the challenges of 2021 and also as you serve Him faithfully in mission and obedience, where He has placed you for this season in your life.