The dawn of a brand new year does different things to different people. To some, it may bring a sense of excitement and anticipation. To others, it may infuse a sense of foreboding, dread and trepidation. But many, I dare say, step into the new year with the hope that what lies ahead will be better, brighter and cheerier than what they’ve left behind.
I think it can never be too clichéd to say that hope is an indispensable aspect of human existence. The 20th century theologian Emil Brunner is therefore surely right to observe that “what oxygen is for the lungs, such is hope for the meaning of human life.”
“Take oxygen away,” Brunner elaborates, “and death occurs through suffocation, take hope away and humanity is constricted through lack of breath; despair supervenes, spelling the paralysis of intellectual and spiritual powers by a feeling of senselessness and purposelessness of existence.”
Hope is inextricably bound to being human because the human being is a seeker of meaning and purpose. Whether consciously or unconsciously, human beings strive to achieve their potential, their telos—and hope is the power that energises this human quest.
But what is hope?
At one level, we can say that hope has to do with the things that we desire or want but which we do not yet possess. So, we hope that we will get that job or that promotion. We hope we will be able to clinch that important business deal. We hope that the health of the person we love will improve.
In this sense hope has to do with our dreams for the future, our aspirations for tomorrow. Hope is the way in which human beings cope with the ‘not yet’—a future that is ever shrouded in mystery and therefore always remains uncertain and mostly beyond our control.
Every human being, whether Christian or non-believer, harbours such hopes, which some theologians have called “temporal” hopes.
But there is another kind of hope, one that does not emanate from our desires and aspirations, but is grounded instead in the God who has revealed Himself as love in Jesus Christ. This is Christian hope, which Pope Benedict XVI has described as the “great hope”.
In his encyclical entitled, Saved in Hope (Spe Salvi), the pontiff writes: “We need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day. But these are not enough without the great hope, which must surpass everything else.”
“This great hope,” Benedict continues, “can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain.”
Unlike temporal hopes that are shaped by the contingencies of earthly life, Christian hope centres on God, whose unchanging faithfulness is portrayed everywhere in Scripture.
To say that Christian hope centres on God is to emphasise that God alone is its ultimate ground. As Glenn Tinder explains in his insightful and challenging book The Fabric of Hope, for the Christian: “God is not only the object of hope but is also the basis of hope. Not only do we hope for God, we hope in God.”
Christian hope is eschatological: it has to do with our eternal communion with God in the new heavens and the new earth as His redeemed people. We may say that Christian hope points to our journey toward God, and toward the fullness of life that He promised in His Word.
For Christians, then, all temporal hopes must be grounded in and defined by this “great hope”. Put differently, all temporal events must be seen in relation to eternity. This includes the failures, disappointments, and sufferings that we encounter in this life.
Paul exemplifies this perspective when he writes: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us.” (Rom 8:18)
When we view our lives through the lens of our “great hope”, we will never despair. For as Tinder puts it, we will understand that “temporal disappointments are never final. There can be no happening so grievous that we cannot, with God’s help, look beyond it and begin again to live with hope.”
Because the hope of the Christian is grounded in God, it is truly indefeasible!
Brunner, Emil. Eternal Hope. London: Lutterworth Presss, 1954.
Pope Benedict XVI Spe Salvi (“In Hope We Are Saved”),
Tinder, Glenn. The Fabric of Hope: An Essay. Grand Rapids, MI: Emory Press, 1999.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg).
Picture by siam.pukkato/Bigstock.com