Several years ago, when I was struggling through a difficult relationship, one of my seminary mentors said, “Always act in the name of hope.”
I’ve thought about his advice many times over the years, especially when I’m tempted to despair. Life is rife with situations and relationships that feel unfixable. But when we act in the name of hope, we can make a small beginning of good — and sometimes we can even begin to turn the tides.
The Stories We Tell
Years ago, my friend Amber told me that we tell ourselves stories to help make sense of our lives. Sometimes the stories are true, while other times these stories distort reality.
“It’s not necessarily a bad thing to tell ourselves stories,” Amber said, “Unless you realize that they’re no longer true.” Sometimes our stories become too small, too restrictive, and we need to open ourselves to larger possibilities.
In Victoria Moran’s book Fat, Broke and Lonely No More she says that the stories well tell ourselves can be a kind of prayer, prophecy or curse. Successful people don’t get there by accident. They make an initial decision to be the person they are meant to be — they begin to imagine themselves that way — and then they choose it again and again through concrete steps toward their goals.
If you want to act in the name of hope, you must first become aware of the voices of despair, that come to us both consciously and unconsciously — voices that sneer, “You mess everything up” or “You’ll always be alone.”
I’ve never met a person who — when they were being honest with themselves — didn’t admit to hearing these voices at least occasionally. As someone who has wrangled with them a great deal, I’ve come to believe that the best way to combat them is through small, concrete acts of hope.
Years ago I came across an article about working toward your dreams. The article said that if you have a dream, you must begin to define yourself in terms of it, even long before you can see any evidence of success.
Each hopeful act, and each moment that we dwell in hope, can bring us a little closer to something good. As Steven Press field wrote in The War of Art, “Never forget: this very moment, we can change our lives. There never was a moment, and never will be, when we are without the power to change our destiny…. This second we can sit down and work.”
Hope is Specific — and Fluid
All of us hope for certain things. We can hope — and pray — in specific ways. We do need to name our desires if we wish to see them clearly and move toward them. Sometimes when we pray in specifics we’re able to see the miracle of prayers answered in recognizable ways.
Occasionally, the very thing we most hope for does occur — and often we’ve been able to help make it happen by taking small, concrete steps in that direction.
But other times, the thing we most ache and hope for in life does not occur. Sometimes we don’t succeed, sometimes relationships fall apart despite our best efforts to make them work, sometimes bodies just don’t get well no matter how hard we pray.
Over the years, I’ve tried to strike a balance between being open to good possibilities — and being willing to move toward them as they become more tangible, while also admitting that sometimes the things I want most might not, in the end, be what I need.
Years ago, when I was trying to decide if I should go to college or on a short-term missions trip a pastor offered me this advice. He said, “Don’t pray for doors to open. Just keep walking forward and pray that God will close the doors that he doesn’t want you to walk through.” Or as my seminary professor Dr. Albert Rossi likes to say, “Just do the next, best thing.”
But of course, when God closes the door, and hope seems elusive, that’s when we need it most. Hope is the flashlight we hold onto as we stumble through the dark toward the open window.
Hope is Not Presumption
Speaking of the dark, that’s where we’d all still be — every night — if not for hope. Think of Thomas Edison who persisted after 98 attempts at the light bulb. Where would we be if he had not been animated by the possibility of electric light, despite his many near and not-so-near-misses?
On the other hand, it is possible to make dangerous presumptions in the name of hope. My husband has often struggled over a memory he has from his experience as a short-term missionary. He was with his team in a small, impoverished mountain village in Thailand and they prayed over a very sick little boy. After praying, somebody from his group said to the anguished father, “Your son will be healed.”
“But how did he know that?” my husband said, “And how devastating that will be for the father if his son dies instead of getting well.”
Hope is not presumption. Even if it spreads its branches toward heaven, it is rooted in the soil of this earth. We don’t just assume — or promise to others — outcomes that have no basis in reality. Hope most often seems to work in the confines of our own experiences, the limits of human time, and in our frail bodies — bodies that sometimes don’t get well no matter how hard we pray.
Hope is Learned
A few years ago, one of our close friends, Jarrod Voltz, died of cancer at age 30. As he wrestled with God and grappled with his illness, he kept a candid and courageous online journal.
Through his journal — and witness — he taught me about hope. He wanted to be healed and he prayed fervently for it, with his wife and family and a tight-knit group of friends. Still, he understood that hope would ultimately transcend the cure.
In his last journal entry, on October 7, 2005, just a few months before he died, he wrote, “Hope is learned — it is not a given. You don’t just do it; you don’t just have it; you grope for it in the dark.”
He went on to say, “I can see the shape of hope; it seems so tangible to me that I want to make a place on the chemical chart for it. It has become elemental…. Whether it be disease, prison, a labor camp, poverty or AIDS, the human spirit is wired for hope by a gracious God who says ‘Hold on!’ even when and if the end is near.”
And we don’t hold on just to be battered by life’s twists and turns, as Jarrod was during his last months. We hold on because this journey is ultimately leading somewhere good — Jarrod’s journey, my journey, all of ours. Like small rivulets that flow through rocky places, hope invites us to follow it back to the Source.
“As we find hope,” Jarrod wrote, “We find evidence that He’s just been here. Hope is the bread crumbs that God leaves for us, not just to find our deepest desire or dream — but Him.”
Copyright 2008 Jenny Schroedel. All rights reserved.