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You are allowed to feel whatever you want to – what ever you need to – in response to death near you. Some simply cannot process loss because they may have no other way to understand death than as a “howling, lacerating moment” – the way Christopher Hitchens described the death of his adored mother.

At my age and disposition, it will not take the death of a loved one to loosen my grip on joyful hope. I realize I have to be careful not to assume this in the presence of those who can’t imagine the comfort of trusting God. Both my wife and I anticipate death as the breaking-into the glorious hope of God’s intentions – from the spiritual adventure and preparation of this life. Perhaps naive with faith, we are fearless – not because we are courageous; rather we are courageous because of trust developed over the long journey of walking with our Abba Father.

Crisis of Faith

What will it take, I wonder, to expose those secret idolatrous views I lean on, that give false comfort, and to which I am blind? Will there be – can there be – such shaking that cracks what I think is the firm foundation of who God has revealed Himself to be?  After all, there has been, and will continue to be “crises of faith.” These are the ongoing erasures of false gods and images of God that are unworthy of Him. Each crisis of faith is a disclosure of His nature, and a course correction for me.

Life and death is firmly set in the wider wonder world of God’s creative impulses and redemptive purposes. No matter what I might think in theory about facing death, when death is as near as a loved one, or as near as your own bedside, all theory is tested to the breaking point. Such is the nature of the crisis of faith. Take for example:

Adolf Schlatter (1852-1938), one of Germany’s premier Biblical Theologians, but who is lesser known to Western readers. One of his early recollections is the example of faith-in-action by his parents on the occasion of his sister’s death when he was 13:

We children were called into the bedroom.  We stood encircling the bed of our deceased sister.  Then our parents accompanied us to the living room where Bibles were opened and we read Revelations 21 and 22. Our sister was dead: the first gap torn in our little family circle. Our pain was profound. But instead of lament our parents placed before us that word which sheds a ray of light on God’s ultimate purposes.

They did not just look back on the lost past, nor again gaze questionably into an unknown future, but rather set their gaze and ours on God’s eternal city.  I encountered the incomparable hope that the New Testament mediates. Such hope detaches us from our pain and personal possessions, situates our lives in God’s grand scheme, and shows us our place as members of the great fellowship He creates, a fellowship that is eternal because it is God’s.

Focus of the Gaze

I do not take from this example, a refusal to accept death, nor as a hyper-optimistic view that “everything’s gonna be alright.”  If there is a refusal, it is the refusal to be blind to truth that is truer than the evidence of one’s pain and loss; to gaze on the incomparable hope of God in Christ. In this way hope is of a different substance than optimism, though we might think of them as synonyms.


Hopeful or Optimistic: acting despite evidence to the contrary?

I might characterize optimism as a willful positive perspective of mind that a person exercises despite evidence to the contrary. It is rather like what we find in the studies of successful sales people who are able to interpret every failure as “outside” themselves, and who, in turn are the kind of people (I say in sweeping generalization) who are prone to be incapable of taking responsibility for moral failures, and who have only a finite pool of “positivity” against the onslaught of negative pressures. No wonder Fortune Magazine asked “Is there suicide contagion on Wall Street?” It reminds us that Japanese had to invent the word Karōshi to describe work related suicides. It is the ultimate failure of personal optimism – and is what I am getting at in Audacious Subversion and Humble Recognition.

Hope is of a substance outside of yourself that you can’t quite put your finger on. You don’t have the proof… yet, but you have hope nonetheless. While on the surface, hope also acts despite evidence to the contrary, it is not a willful perspective on your part. Hope comes from somewhere else than your unique ability to “be positive.”

Biblical Insight on Hope:

In contrast to mere optimism, listen to how the Apostle Paul writes about hope. He reminds us that hope is found “in Christ Jesus” as we are brought near to God. In fact the tandem “without hope and without God” is rather like an inseparable couplet, each part informing the other. Thus, to have hope is to have God, and vice versa.

Remember there was a time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For He himself is our peace… He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through Him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Later on Paul writes to the Thessalonians to encourage them not to grieve loss as if they had no hope (this is not saying, “do not grieve loss” – but rather ” do not grieve as if you had no hope.” This is an important distinction that recognizes the necessity of grief and the reality of hope); this is a continuation of the theme of hope whose source is God.  In this way hope is not our demand to muster up a limited optimism:

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.

Answers of Hope

To the question, where does our hope come from? – the answer comes from Christ.

To the question, in what is our hope? – the answer is found in Christ

To the question, for what are we hoping? – the answer is found for Christ. In other words, all lesser aspirations find their consummation in relationship with Christ. As Karl Barth put it, “because the sun rises, all lights go out.” We will find in the end that every aspect of beauty and life and desire were glimpses of glory of the ultimate union for which we were made to hope.

Listen to how one of Jesus’ closest friends put it; the Apostle John speaks to a hope that “purifies” the one who hopes – for it is a hope that we shall be like Jesus – and in turn – be more the very persons we were created to be. This hope purifies, in that it refines out pettiness and selfishness that lives without Christ. It is the hope for which we were made to hope.

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!…

Dear friends… we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see Him as He is. All who have this hope in Him purify themselves, just as He [Jesus] is pure.

Don’t worry if you don’t understand this; or if you reject it out of hand at the moment.  This is… you know… more that enigma thing.