I have been thinking again recently about the dangers of cynicism. It can so easily grow in our lives, to the point where it overwhelms our hopes and turns our longings into dust. So many world and national events can contribute to a sense of powerlessness: slow recovery from the pandemic, or fears it will continue; the war in Ukraine and other parts of the world; national issues that so deeply polarize, like the recent leak on a possible abortion ruling in the United States Supreme Court. But there are also much more personal struggles we or those we love go through, struggles that seem to never end. For those of us who are praying people, those prayers seem to go only to the wind.
All of this and so much more can strike at the very heart of our desires and longings for change, for a better life or world. How we need more hope! Recently I have been thinking about, praying for, and teaching at times on the need for hope in our lives. Not only faith, but also hope. The Hebrew word most often translated hope in the Old Testament is tikvah, and it has the idea of having a confident expectation of good. In the New Testament it is translated most often in Greek as elpis, and has a similar idea of anticipating the future with joy and a certainty. In the whole of the Bible hope, or similar words, is used perhaps as many as 316 times, 32 times in the Book of Job alone. (does anyone wonder if Job needed hope?)
Biblical hope is rooted in waiting, not in an optimistic or positive sense alone, but in struggle based in growing certainty rooted in God’s character. I love the way Adam Young, a counselor and author, puts it: ‘Hope is groaning inwardly while waiting expectantly’. There is a groaning to hope. A bringing our longings before God, wrestling with Him in those longings, and finding a place of confident expectation that He will bring good. It may not be in the timing or way we would desire, and perhaps some longings or prayers will not even be fulfilled in this life.
But we keep hoping. We keep remembering how God has met us in the past, sometimes in the most agonizing moments when all human hope was gone. We keep holding on, often of course not alone but with others holding us from all sides. Holding us up. Keeping us breathing when the next breath is only full of heaviness and pain. This is not a rosy picture of hope, but one of deep lament and inner war at times within our soul.
Last year at this time we were losing several friends in India to the ravages of covid. With the time zone difference, we would go to bed at night thinking that a friend in India was improving, only to find out in the morning that not only had they died, but the funeral had already happened. It was a devastating time as India faced the second wave of the virus. In the last few weeks we have been back in India, meeting some of the spouses and friends of those who died a year ago. I have been stunned to see the hope resident in their lives, though they have gone so deeply into the valley of the shadow of death. A hope that has come through such struggle. Does true hope come without it?
A common alternative to a life of hope is a life that becomes steeped in cynicism. When we face disappointment after disappointment, and our hope is more and more weakened, the result can be a sinking into the quicksand of cynicism. It is the loss of hope. As Adam Young so rightly says, ‘Cynicism is the byproduct of repeated experiences of powerlessness’. As followers of Jesus, we pray less and less because it seems like there is no power in and no answers to those prayers.
I can write about the dangers of cynicism because I have faced it in my own life at times. My unfulfilled longings for change, whether in my own life, my organization, my family of origin, or my nation or world, have at times caused me to lose hope and give in to the growing paralysis of cynicism. But through grace from the One I love and hold on to, and the love and care of family and friends, I continue to repent (turn from) that cynicism and turn to a place of renewed hope. I choose to keep praying and longing in hope.
Last year at this time, when my heart deeply struggled with the deaths and unanswered prayers in India, I officiated at a wedding on the beautiful Oregon coast of some very dear friends. You can read about it in the post A Very Present Help in Trouble. In a way I did not fully understand at the time, hope was infused into my soul through that wedding. Hope comes through so many ways, unique to our own lives and longings.
Let your hope live again. Let go of disappointment and cynicism, even with God or with your self or others.
(For those interested in listening to an excellent podcast on hope and trauma, I highly recommend Adam Young’s The Place We Find Ourselves. The specific episode is titled: Why your story makes it so hard to hope, and is number 18 of the podcast.)