When I pause to attend to the cadences of the culture—the messages of movies and music, media and the marketplace, I find myself pulled toward two edges. One edge is characterized by optimism peppered with denial. The logic here seems to be, if we can corporately deny our problematic past, we can embrace an optimistic future. This is Disney and beer commercials and politicians who are committed to, in the copyrighted words of Donald Trump, “Make America Great Again.” The other edge is characterized by despair, the post-apocalyptic obsession with coming catastrophe and the disempowerment that such visions foster. This is Hunger Games and Doomsday Preppers and all things zombie.
Somewhere between optimism and despair lies hope. But hope is a tricky posture to maintain. It’s not a simple middle ground. It’s complicated and ambiguous. Augustine (1) says that all virtues have a kindred vice and a contrary vice. Despair is certainly the contrary vice to hope, and one would be hard pressed to confuse the two. But optimism is a kindred vice—it looks close enough to hope that we sometimes mistake them.
I once responded to a friend going through a difficult time by giving her a Bible verse to read. This is not my usual M.O., though after spending my teenage and college years deeply entrenched in American evangelicalism, one might forgive my reflex to grab a memory verse and throw it at the problem. I suggested that my friend take comfort in Jeremiah 29:11, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” Good verse, right?
The verse had meant something to me when I was walking through my own period of darkness in my 29th year. But my friend was unimpressed. Somehow an isolated Bible verse lobbed into her grief did not feel comforting. I think had come across as peddling optimism rather than offering hope. “God doesn’t have a plan,” she told me. It wasn’t my finest moment of pastoral care. (In my defense, we were texting at the time and there is a limit to what can be done in that medium.)
The thing is this. Hope does sometimes seem cheap and unbelievable, especially when it is pressed upon you by someone telling you “you should be hopeful” even when everything around you says, “this is hopeless.” We sometimes make hope do the work of providing sure and certain good news, when such assurances can only appear to be elaborate stratagems of denial.
In fact, our psalm this morning leans toward a kind of easy, aphoristic hope that evades the ambiguity most of us live with. “Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves” (Psalm 126:6, BCP). As my colleague, Steve Bishop, notes, there is a “force of certainty that is central to [this] psalm.” Although the psalm begins deep in the depths of Israel’s particular history of struggle, it ends with a generalized adage that seems a bit too easy when faced with, say, the suffering of Job or the passion of Jesus, the loss of a job or the death of a parent.
There is a kind of hope that relies on the heroic god, the righteous king, the all-powerful parent who will clean up the mess and put things right. Hope, then, becomes a heroic gesture, sure and solid, relying on the guaranteed good outcome. But real hope is what is left when our heroes are gone and we realize that we are the only grown-ups around and we can’t fix what’s gone wrong. Hope is what is left when we come face to face with a problem that does not have a solution, a story that will not have a good ending.
Paul seems to be wrestling with this kind of complicated and obscure hope in the passage we read from Romans. He writes, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption” (Rom 8:22-23). By invoking the metaphor of labor pains, Paul turns the groans of creation from hopeless suffering to productive exertion. But then, when he focuses in on our suffering, human suffering, he shifts the metaphor. Our groaning is not imaged as the fruitful suffering of labor, but as the powerless suffering of the orphan—we groan, he says, “while we wait for adoption.” By shifting the metaphor, Paul leaves us with a groaning that does not contain its own resolution but which waits for an event that may or may not come. Perhaps this is why Paul tells us that hope, by definition, does not see that which is hoped for. There is no guarantee that this is going to work out. That’s why it’s hope.
If I were to try again with the friend who received my uplifting-bible-verse-as-pastoral-care moment, I might say something more like this: Hope is not an answer to suffering, but a way of suffering. A way of waiting. Not exactly waiting with expectation—that presumes too much—but waiting without blocking, waiting for a glimpse of something beyond the groaning, a spark of light, a moment of grace. It is a waiting without seeing. In times of grief we can’t see what a future would look like; suffering atrophies our imagination. And so, lacking sight, we rely on others—a friend or two who can walk alongside, help navigate the darkness, and remind us that what is now invisible may one day become visible.
Poet and essayist, Christian Wiman, has written about his own rebirth of faith after his diagnosis with cancer. He observes, “Christ comes alive in the communion between people,” but, he adds, “I’m not sure you can have communion with other people without … moments in which sorrow has opened in you, and for you.” (2)
Maybe that’s what we hope for in this groaning that Paul describes. Not the superhero, not the saving parent, not the fix. Just the carving out of space in the self within which some sharing of life can bloom.
That, I think, is what I wish I had said to my friend.
1 Augustine cited in Thomas Aquinas, Summa II-II, q. 21, a. 3.
2 Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss, 20.