The Power of Hope
Talk Given at our Advent Mini Retreat, 2010
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us. For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance.
In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings. And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will.
Romans 8, 18-27
“We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now”
Romans 8, 22
I approach this passage with some degree of trepidation. Here we have Paul, an unmarried man, discussing labor pains as if he knew what he were talking about. Of course, even Jesus had something to say about labor pains. In the passage that was read earlier we heard, “When a woman is in labor, she is in anguish because her hour has arrived; but when she has given birth to a child, she no longer remembers the pain because of her joy that a child has been born into the world.” I can’t imagine that we men can generate too much credibility when we take the trials of childbirth as our reference point, so I’m resolved to leave the topic to the experts.
Fortunately, you don’t have to have given birth in order to realize that the whole world is groaning in agony. The signs are all around us. We’re surrounded by war, and hunger, and abuse and indifference. Pain seems to ooze from every pore of God’s creation. Paul is promising us, and so is Jesus, that something good will come our way at the end of it all – something so good that it will make us decide that it has actually been worth the pain, and the wait, and the risk. Paul says, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.” Are our sufferings really ‘nothing’? What sort of attitude should we take when we ponder our own distress and that of those around us?
I’m oversimplifying here, but the narrative of salvation is often described by this formula: I was living a life of sin, I encountered Jesus, now I live in the freedom of God’s grace. We might choose to piece together a more sophisticated assessment and describe our life of faith as a series of encounters with Christ, corresponding to an ever-deepening relationship to our Lord; but whether we think of our spiritual life in simple terms or complex ones, we tend to divide our lives into a ‘before’ and an ‘after’. When we ponder the collective life of humanity we do the exact same thing. There’s an age of disorder and trial, which we’re in now, then there’s the promised return of Jesus, then an age of justice and fulfillment. ‘Before’ and ‘after’. We’re in the ‘before’ phase already. There will be an ‘after’ phase – but not yet. Agony, and then joy.
Why do we have to bother with the ‘before’ part at all? Everyone wonders how a loving God could have subjected us all to this life of woe. A lot of people hear the world’s groans and decide that there can’t possibly be a God, or if there is it’s a god who’s utterly indifferent to our struggles. Some people, on the other hand, want to believe and put blinders on themselves; they focus their minds on the glory to come and try to ignore the fact that, right now, we’re in a snake’s nest of trouble. That’s the kind of faith that leads non-believers into the conviction that religion is just some sort of comforting delusion – a way to escape the hard truths of reality. Non-believers reject such a faith. I think you should reject it too.
To the extent that we’re denying the validity of the suffering we endure today, we make ourselves ineligible for hope. I believe Jesus gave us the example of embracing suffering because there’s something blessed about our ‘before’ phase’. We might wish for a life that is all ‘after’ without the ‘before’ but to experience authentic hope, you have to set wishful thinking aside. The fact of the matter is that simply being alive opens us up to all sorts of danger. Nobody is exempt. Paul was right when he said ‘all of creation is groaning’. All of creation includes you. Your troubles aren’t some sort of horrible mistake, or something you could have avoided if you played your cards right. They’re an essential part of the life God has given you, the life that God is giving you every moment of every day.
“If we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance.” That’s not the half of it. We also wait with joy and gratitude. If we’ve only got a taste for the salvation to come, the ‘after’ phase, the promises that will be fulfilled – but not yet, we miss out on the salvation we have already, the salvation we’ve always had. How’s that supposed to work? This salvation we have already can’t really be that great. You have to struggle every day to survive and in the end your struggle is futile because you’re certain to die. These are the unyielding ‘rules of the game’, and you’re supposed to feel joy and gratitude? Yep. You’re supposed to be absolutely awash with joy and gratitude – and not just when you get to heaven. You’ve got to be generating joy and gratitude right now. We embrace our salvation in the world that God has put us in, not the one we’re wishing for.
Even as we wait for our deliverance, even as we labor under the blazing sun in the master’s vineyard, hope is ‘right now’. Paul says, “For in hope we were saved.” Hope is our salvation. What are we hoping for? A world of justice, a world of peace, a world of harmony. We’re hoping to be surrounded by friends we can really trust. We’re hoping for an end to resentment, and regret, and reproach. We’re not just hoping for these things, we’re carrying God’s mercy and compassion to others even as they despair of ever healing. The world is not yet what we want it to be, but salvation is ours already. We’re the agents of the change we’ve been promised.
We’re already saved, even though we’re still coming to salvation. The ‘groans of creation’ take on a different meaning when we equip ourselves with hope. We’re hoping, even while we ourselves are groaning. We’re in anguish, but our trust is in the God who gave us this life of anguish. Hope leads us to be grateful for the entirety of our lives – even that awful ‘before’ phase.
“Creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God”. Guess what? Revelation is right now. God is revealed in hope. We know who God is because it is God who has put us ‘in the know’. Knowing God allows us to hope, and hope allows us to know God. Even in suffering we have a reverence for life because the Author of Life demonstrated reverence even while he embraced our suffering. Because he wants to be close to us, he embraces our suffering in this very moment. Is it possible to be hopeful in the kind of situation you’re in? Well, you’re not in it alone – and the one who’s with you has hope.
We’ve got to resist the temptation to renounce a life that abounds with pain and confusion. Maybe, we think, this life is just some hideous waiting room that precedes an afterlife of glory. Life in this world is something to get over, something to get out of the way. That’s not it. This life – the one we’re living right now — is God’s great gift to us. Not only our life, but the lives of everyone around us. You can address your consideration to absolutely anybody and think, ‘that one is God’s gift to creation.’ That one is God’s gift to you. People are the prize! We can’t appreciate the prize without hope.
The salvation that is still to come will make us happy to live forever. But are we happy to live right now? Jesus is our destination; but Jesus is right now as well. When this whole horrible rat race is done, we’re going to see the face of God. Haven’t you gotten the news? You’re looking into the face of God right now!
We’re awaiting the resurrection, as well we should, but the resurrection is now. It’s been all around us all this time. When Jesus was consoling Martha over the death of her brother Lazarus he told her, “Your brother will rise” but Martha couldn’t understand what he meant. “I know he will rise,” she said, “in the resurrection on the last day.” Martha believed in the resurrection to come, but Jesus wanted her to believe in the resurrection that was hers already. “I am the resurrection,” he told her, “and the life.” (John 11, 23-25) Do we know how precious this life is?
A cynic scoffs at this passage and points out that Christians have been talking about this ‘groaning creation’ for two thousand years – and it’s still groaning. When will deliverance come? You doubt that it will ever arrive, but you’re impatient for what you have already. It makes perfect sense to take stock of our broken world, but hope gives us the confidence to know that it’s healed already – even as we’re in the process of healing it. “Hope that sees for itself is not hope”. We suffer because of what we see, but we rejoice in what we hope for.
Salvation is from God and it will be ours – but not yet. Keep in mind, though, that the hope for salvation is also from God, and it is ours already. “Kindness and truth shall meet; justice and peace shall kiss. Truth shall spring out of the earth, and justice shall look down from heaven.” (Ps 85 11-12) All of this will happen, and it will be God’s doing; but before it happens we will hope for it to happen.
I was at Mass, about a year ago, listening to the prayers of the faithful, when it dawned on me while we were praying for peace that I had lost touch with the hope that peace would ever actually come to our world. My prayer was pointless without hope. I promised myself then that I would pray for peace as if I expected it. Peace is what we all long for, and peace is what God has promised. Hope leads me to put my faith in God’s promise. God will bring peace to our world. God will use us to be the instruments of peace building, and all of this will come about in a spirit of hope.
None of this is possible, though, without prayer. Prayer is the means we have to attune our spirit with the spirit of God. “We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings” I think we do well to yield to these ‘inexpressible groanings’. It’s in prayer that we develop hope. Prayer gives us God’s perspective on life, but prayer takes time and discipline. Prayer can’t simply be something we do when we get around to it. We’ve got to pray regularly as truly as we’ve got to eat regularly.
“The one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will.” Do you trust that God wants what’s very best for you? Then embrace this ‘groaning world’ with gratitude and joy. God wants us to live in a just world because God knows that’s what will make us happy. When the Spirit intercedes for us ‘according to God’s will’ we’re asking God for something unimaginably wonderful. Don’t let your vision be constricted by so-called realistic expectations. Peace will come. Justice will come. In fact, they’re here for us already. When we pray with hope we enter into the fulfillment of what’s to come, the fulfillment of what God has promised.