“Keep Hope Alive!” or “What Would Jesus Do If a Deadly Pandemic was Sweeping the Globe, the Stock Market Dropped 3,000 points in One Day, Whole Cities were Shutting Down, Hospitals Might be Overrun with Sick People and Not Have the Medical Equipment to Deal With it, and Other Such Matters?”
Hope is a precious commodity these days. While some call hope sentimental and naïve, the apostle Paul included it at one of three foundational forces—faith, hope, and love—that “remain” when everything else goes belly up.
During his time in a Nazi prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to his friend Eberhard Bethge that he was neither a pessimist (expecting things to get worse) nor an optimist (expecting things to get better). He said that he was living by hope.
I find Bonheoffer's allusion to hope as an alternative to optimism or pessimism to be helpful. Bonheoffer was writing about hope in a moment when he was awaiting execution because of his opposition to Nazism and his underground church movement. Our problems are just as overwhelming as his—the fear of getting sick or losing loved ones to the COVID-19 virus, regular hand washing, sheltering in place, and losing money in our pension funds and 401K’s. Bonhoeffer lost his life as many will to this virus. But to the very end Bonhoeffer defined reality in the context of a larger hope.
Biblical hope is much different than the way we use the word in everyday parlance; as in, “I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow.” Or, “I hope Tom Brady doesn’t leave the Patriot’s” (Sorry, misplaced hope.) Optimism looks at the data and makes a positive assessment about the future, pessimism a negative assessment. But hope looks squarely at that same data and dares to see a different outcome because God is behind all of history.
In times like these, fear (the antithesis of hope) is not far from any of us. It is a fear that can eat away at one's soul and render us powerless to do what needs to be done or to be a source of courage for others.
It is the hopeof which Bonheoffer wrote that dispels such fear. Not optimism. Not pessimism. But hope! Jesus’ most frequent words to his disciples were, said, “Be not afraid.” He repeated this over and over, as if he knew how much they (and we) needed to hear them.
When Israel was under siege from Babylon, the prophet Isaiah warned them not to rely on false security. They had entered a shaky alliance with Egypt, they were worshiping false gods, their economy was suffering, and they were trying all kinds of schemes to stave off an attack. Isaiah reminded them, “Your God reigns!…The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God”(Is. 52: 7,10). We need to remind ourselves during these times that our God still reigns!
The cynic may ask, “If this is the state of affairs when God is in charge, I’d hate to see the state of the world if God was asleep at the switch!”But the faith-filled might ask, “If God is working during these times when so many people are sick and dying, what might the outcome be like?”Hope becomes operational when we start thinking about how God might be at work using even these awful circumstances to make the world a more generous, just, and peaceful place.
I hope God might use these times to awaken hopeful people to look at the suffering of the whole world with Jesus’ eyes in ways that we have previously ignored. I hope that God might use these times to help us understand the world is radically interdependent and if we try to go it alone, we’re cooked. I hope that God might use these times so people might see that the common good is just as important as individual rights.
Perhaps after the pandemic is passed and the economy starts to rebound, will we put it all on the table and ask once again: What did we learn about the heart of the Gospel from going through this? Will we who claim loyalty to Jesus be a better disciplined, a more generous, a more focused, and humbler people? I hope so!