God gives hope. God gives hope that change is coming—that hope is certain. The Christian faith is not an experience, it’s not a doctrine of, “Oh, just hang in there and maybe things will get better if you try hard enough, or if you wait long enough, or if you have the right beliefs in your head or emotions in your chest.” That is not what we’re saying. We’re saying we have a God who promises to make things better, to make them different.
We talked about what episode to do for the end of the year in December and, naturally, one of the things that landed on the table was an episode about hope. And the Christmas season always brings up questions and the importance of hope. And certainly, obviously, in the year we’ve had between COVID and all of the fraught tensions around politics and race, and so many global concerns, it’s a year that it makes sense to talk about hope. But if I can be honest with you, my first reaction to the idea of doing a podcast on hope was negative. And I think, the heart of that negativity or reluctance to venture in, it wasn’t that I don’t believe in hope or I don’t believe it’s important. I’m a counselor. I work in an organization of counselors. We have, as one of our core, most vital jobs is to give hope every conversation to people who are in situations where they strongly need it. And I know that I need it.
So, I believe in hope, so why was I feeling reluctant? And I think what came through to me as I began to process why I was feeling that way, is just that hope can so easily seem like an abstract word, like a distant concept. Something like, “Yeah, I know it’s good and I know I need it” but it can sound generic or far away. And that’s not what I want. So anyhow, I was planning not to do a podcast on hope. I didn’t think I had anything all that helpful or fresh to say that was going to be worth talking about. And then, as I’ve been spending some time in Hebrews, something hit me that I had never seen before. And I’d love to spend a little time processing that particular insight with you today. So, let me read a little bit of Hebrews 6 to us and then flesh out just a few of the things that have got me thinking about hope. I’ll start in verse 11 and I’ll read through verse 19. Obviously, there’s a lot in here and we will focus in on just one or two particular things, but I think having the whole context is helpful.
So, here’s what the author says in the middle of chapter 6. He says, “And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises”. For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself saying, ‘Surely I will bless you and multiply you.’ And thus Abraham, having patiently waited obtained the promise. For people swear by something greater than themselves and in all their disputes, an oath is final for confirmation. So, when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise, the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath. So that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul. A hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain.”
There’s a lot in here about Abraham and his promise and his experience—and I’m not even going to begin to get into that, but let me tell you something that may seem obvious to you, as eventually it did to me as well, but it’s this: it is very strange that God would make promises to us. That’s a very odd thing for a sovereign God to do. The God who holds all of history in his hands, who is going to make things go the way that he chooses for them to go, who holds every last moment and every last atom utterly under his control, why does he bother giving anyone, any promises ever at all? I mean, he can just make things happen. So, whether he promises it or not, it’s not like he’s… A person says, “I promise I’ll find a way to make this happen.” Then he goes out and he works hard, and makes it happen. And thankfully, he comes through on what he said he could do.
No, it’s utter certainty that he will do it and we don’t need to know. And there’s lots of things he doesn’t tell us. Why does he bother promising things to us? Why does he tell us, “This is what is going to happen” when there’s nothing we can do to change that nor to speed it up, nor to have it happen on our timeline. Why does he promise things? And I think the answer is here, in this passage, and it’s in the middle of verse 18, and it’s essentially this: he wants promises to encourage us. He wants promises to be this ever replenished seedbed of hope for us. His choice to make promises rather than just do what he’s going to do but actually to tell us ahead of time, “Hey, just so you know, this is something that is going to happen. This is going to be true. This is how I’m going to operate today, tomorrow, a thousand years in the future, at some time as yet unknown by anyone.”
He makes us those promises because he deeply desires that we would be encouraged. It gets interesting to me as I think about the idea that, he talks in the passage here about how he swears an oath as well, there’s this confirming of it by swearing an oath, God cannot lie. Essentially, the oath is a doubling down on the promise. It’s funny because the promise itself, in one sense doesn’t change anything for us, because it’s still going to happen, whether we know about it or not. And the oath making the promise more certain, I mean, if God promises it, he doesn’t have to swear an oath, it’s there.
If he says I will do it, then nothing can possibly stand in his way. Yet here he is not just making a promise, but even going so far as to make an oath, this solemn covenant, this promise with a secondary level of, and he makes an oath to confirm it. And I like the language the author uses here, that he deeply desires to make the unchangeable character of his purpose clear to us, that he wants us to have a strong encouragement so that we would really hold fast to the hope. There’s something about God’s awareness of our predicament as human beings in a life full of suffering and a life of uncertainty, knowing we are limited creatures and we don’t see the big picture, and it makes him, just delightedly, eager to help us through the suffering in life by giving us promises, by giving us hope, by desiring to draw encouragement near to the center of our being and into the core of our soul.
Now, God’s words, of course, are the ground of our words as we speak to others. God wants us to be hope-givers and us to be encouragers, and us to be pointing each other back to his promises. And I think one of the main reasons for that is that you just live differently when you have hope. You live differently after encouragement. I think sometimes we think about encouraging one another, or being encouraged by Scripture, as sort of nice icing on the cake of the Christian life. And that is not so. Encouragement and hope are vital, necessary components of a sustained walk with the Lord and you live differently. It actually changes your choices. It changes the way you see the world. It changes your understanding of what options are on the table. It changes what you care about and how you invest your time and effort, and money and resources, and skills. I think about the old, there’s a… I believe C.S. Lewis, although I can’t remember where it is and perhaps it’s not Lewis (when in doubt, just say, ‘I think C.S. Lewis once said…’), I believe this is a Lewis analogy or metaphor, or parable, or whatever you want to call it. But he talked about two men working for a year in a factory doing fairly menial labor that was not very engaging or interesting. And he said these two people doing the exact same task for the exact same number of hours are going to have radically different experiences if one of them knows he’s going to be paid $2 million at the end of the year and the other knows he’s going to be paid minimum wage for his work that year. What you are looking forward to really impacts the way you go about what you do. We have countless accounts from concentration camps of how much hope can have a physical impact. People who lost hope died vastly more quickly in severe circumstances than those for whom there is this hope set in the center of their heart that cannot be faced by their circumstances.
I’ve had various times over the years where counselees, people who have come to CCEF for counseling, have said, “The counseling saved my life.” And of course, on one level, that’s not true. It was just words. It was just conversation exchange. It was just care from one person to another and a different way of seeing things offered, and another person who was invested in a struggler’s story. But at the same time, of course, there is a literal truth that people will operate differently in the face of severe struggles when they have encouragement, when they have hope.
That’s how we operate in busy seasons at work. It’s why childbearing is often used as an analogy for hope in a world full of suffering in Scripture. That like the pains of labor give birth to something good. There is this hope that that overcomes or walks us through the difficulties that we face in this life. As we are in the month of December coming towards vacation time for school children, at least in the Northern hemisphere, most places, you have the looking forward to Christmas break. The winter holiday is a very small, but very significant source of helping you get through weeks of school if you’re a child ready to be out.
It makes me think of Psalm 27:14, at the last verse where, and the entire Psalm, I think is a profound response to the experience of anxiety and a clear confession of the experience of anxiety in the psalmist as well. And it ends with wait for the Lord, be strong, take courage, wait for the Lord. Waiting for the Lord happens where there is hope, happens where there is encouragement, happens where there are promises.
What is the core problem here? What is the core assault on our hope? It takes a lot of forms but I think at heart, the core attack against your hope, against my hope, against our hope, is the simple idea that things are not going to change. Things are not going to change. They’re not going to get better. In some form, that is the tip of the spear. That is the core theme in every way that this world and our own flesh, and our enemy, the devil, come against and attack our hope. So, in relationships, when you’re in conflict or when there’s strain or tension, or total silence, or cutoff, or anger, that sense of, “Oh, we’ve been here so many times before,” or, “Oh, I can’t see it getting any better. They’re not softening. I can’t see a way for that.” The idea that this relationship is going to remain in this awkwardness or this limbo, or this hurt, or tension. The idea that’s where it’s going to say, that is one of the most profound generators of hopelessness that human beings experience.
Or think about loss. I have lost someone I loved. Obviously, especially, in a year dominated by conversations around COVID in 2020, that has been a huge piece of experience for many of us, is knowing people who have lost people, losing people ourselves, fearing our own loss, the loss of a way of life, the loss of so many things. Okay, perhaps not every loved one, but so many experiences with loved ones. So many things that we loved about the freedom and the good gifts and God’s creation, and our culture, and community have been shut down and taken away. That loss, that sense of it’s never going to change. You can’t get that loved one back. The loss of this season cannot be restored. It’s never going to change. We’re never going to get back to true normal. These are thoughts that easily come and assault.
Physical pain. Physical pain, even when it’s relatively brief—personally I hate being nauseous, I hate being nauseous and I hate having back pain. Those are the two things that I most instinctively shudder at when I think about them. Thankfully, I’ve never had either for any significantly extended period, but when I’m in the midst of them, it feels like I don’t think I can make it the next 10 minutes or the next hour, the next 20—the idea that this is still going to be here this evening is almost unendurable. And that’s relatively mild things for one day or one week, the idea of chronic pain or physical harm that you feel in your body, where there is no real expectation of change. These are huge attacks on hope. We could keep going on, there’s so many.
Shame says, “This is how I’m going to be seen. This is what I am like. This is who I am and it’s ugly, and gross, and unviewable. And I just want to run away from it all, and from everyone, and from myself. I feel alone. I can’t break this pattern in my life. I don’t have hope that I myself will be able to change. I want to change. I see the need to change. I am walking a path of destruction in my own life, and I cannot seem to turn aside.” Again and again, and again, there’s some version of: the situation just isn’t going to change. And that is a devastating blow. That is a sledgehammer to the chest of our hope, but God gives hope. God gives hope that change is coming, that hope is certain.
The Christian faith is not an experience, it’s not a doctrine of, “Oh, just hang in there and maybe things will get better if you try hard enough, or if you wait long enough, or if you have the right beliefs in your head, or emotions in your chest.” That is not what we’re saying. We are saying, “We have a God who promises to make things better, to make them different.” So, don’t let anyone, especially yourself, tell you otherwise. Now, of course, this is ultimately and most dramatically true in heaven. The new heavens, the new earth will be an answer to every chronic pain and every broken relationship, and every depth of shame or hopelessness, or addiction or anything else you have done, or had done to you, or suffered through. The new heavens and new earth will cause that scar, will cause that harm, will cause that pain to, in retrospect, look back and you’ll say, “What it did, what the Lord did in and through that to bring me here that I am now on the other side of the river Jordan,” there is no comparison.
The New Testament makes this point many times, especially Paul and 2 Corinthians 4, just talking about how our troubles will actually, in comparison to the joy of heaven, seem like light and momentary troubles. He says that not to minimize what we’re going through now, he says that to maximize, to try to give us just an inkling of how profound will be the redemption that God is working in eternity. And if that was all we had, if that was the only promise that Scripture ever made to us, it would be more than enough. It’d be hard, it’d be tricky to hang in there for 90 years till heaven in some cases and say everything that bad happens, you just take it in stride and you’ll get there, but it would be enough, but there is so much more. There are so many promises right now, today, tomorrow, the day after. There is the promise of God saying, “I will be with you. I will walk through death and whatever valleys of its shadow you may have to endure between here and death. I will be with you, and you will hear the sound of my rod and my staff clicking on the ground. I will forgive you. Come to me. You know that you are broken and you make wrong choices, and you respond poorly to your shame, and your pain, and your isolation, and your discouragements. I will forgive you. A broken and contrite heart, oh Lord, you will not despise.” “Fear not little flock,” Jesus says. “Fear not, for it is your Father’s good pleasure, his delight, his joy to give you the kingdom.” I love that our pastor closes our church service with that benediction every Sunday, “Fear not, little flock. It is your Father’s delight to give you the kingdom today, the kingdom coming through the work of the spirit in your hearts, the eternal tomorrow of being in his presence.”
Think even just about Christmas, think about how God didn’t have to make any promises. He could simply have sent his Son and all the substitutionary atonement that he did and the act of obedience that is attributed to us—that all would have happened whether God said a word about it or not. You get the sense that that God can’t help himself. He’s just dropping hints all over the place. Author after author, theme after theme, pointing forward from Genesis 3 on, a savior is coming. The seed of the woman is coming. The one who will be the perfect servant is coming. The prophet, priest, and king will be brought altogether in one person. He will endure temptation and resist, and overcome. There is the sense in which God can’t help himself, but speak about and point to, and encourage, and give hope as he does what he’s doing through history. You get the sense all through the Old Testament and then exploding way forward towards, from the cross on through revelation, that God wants us hearing his promises again and again. He knows we need to be encouraged again and again and again, to have hope again and again and again, and he’s taking us through the valley of the shadow to somewhere good. He’s just passionately interested in giving us encouragement that shapes our ability to endure, that changes our choices and our values every step of the way.
So, here’s the summary. It’s kind of strange that God gives promises, but we need them for our encouragement. Those promises are part of our lifeblood. The attack on us is always going to be, “Things aren’t ever going to really change. I’m not going to change, things aren’t going to get better.” And so, what we need to have hope is to feed on his promises. So, let me close with simply this question: What promise or what promises of God from his word, do you need to feed on in this waiting season this year?