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I went to a church meeting yesterday, and the Bible reading was the Old Testament promise that God would not allow one of his righteous servants so much as to stub his toe against a stone. If he fell, the passage promised that God would send an angel to catch him. The congregation did not appear to see any contradiction (or even a connection) in the fact that the reading was preceded by an announcement that the pastor was not there because he had fallen off the back of his ute, and broken his wrist pretty badly. Apart from the obvious humour of that situation, there was the oft ignored contradiction that some of the things we read in the Bible do not seem to measure up to our everyday experiences.

As it happened, I had also attended another church service earlier in the day, where there was also a reading about Hope. It included this quote: "Hope has one foot planted in the world as it is, and another planted in the world as it should be." I liked that. It seems to sum up well the importance of hope in a world where things do not always work out the way we think they should.

This seems to be something that so many religious extremes miss. It has always baffled me that so much is said about faith and about love, yet in that great "Love Chapter" from Corinthians (I Corinthians 13), Paul says, "And now abides faith, hope, and love." Hope kind of gets left out, and is sometimes even looked down on, on the assumption that it represents a lack of faith.

If someone says (to the average evangelical), "I hope that I will be accepted into heaven when I die," the evangelical would most likely take it as proof that the person saying it is bound for hell, simply because they have not expressed "I know for sure" faith on this all-important matter. For many of these sort of people, it is not even good enough to say, "I BELIEVE I am going to be saved." You have to KNOW it, and to know it beyond even the slightest hint of doubt.

What this fosters is something I have, in the past, called "salvation by bluff". Each person tries to out-do the other with their boastful expressions of faith that everything has been taken care of; they have their ticket to heaven; and nothing in all of creation could ever take that ticket away from them. Personally, I don't think God is impressed with the self-deception that such a teaching and attitude fosters.

This same bluster pours out of the mouths of many with regard to other matters that may not be as certain as they want us to believe as well. They want you to know that they have the answers for all sorts of things and that they can prove it, in one way or another… usually through some convenient biblical proof text.

But when I turn to the Bible, I see that the idea of justice and peace is described in terms (e.g. lions lying down with lambs, and no righteous person falling without an angel to cushion the fall) that rarely measure up to my own day to day experience.

I rarely see miracles; I often ask for things that I don't get; and all of my best efforts to be righteous keep falling flat. All of this tends to be air-brushed out of what the keenest believers profess. For those looking on, such dishonesty often acts as grounds for dismissing faith in God altogether. But only, in my opinion, because both sides have overlooked hope.

In particular, hope relates to another life and another world. If you google all the references to hope in the New Testament, you will find most of them referring to things like the resurrection or the return of Christ, times when all the good guys will be rewarded and all the bad guys will face God's judgment. From time to time that happens in this life; but mostly what we see now is bad guys triumphing and good guys suffering. Hope leads us to appreciate the promises that Jesus gave about life after death and about him eventually returning to earth, to set things right. One foot planted in the world as it is, and the other planted in the world as it should be.

But hope alters the way we live here and now too. Every time that we pray for help with our own battles, we are hoping that God will vindicate us. And some (most notably political activists) go so far as to seek justice for others, besides themselves, as well. They do it because they have hope that something can be done to change the course of history, even though experience shows that the change is often very slight.

I know that a lot of evangelicals say to forget the needs of the poor, etc. because our efforts will never bring the kind of changes that we imagine will come when Jesus returns; but you will probably not find one of them who does not at least ask for a little help from God when they themselves are in dire straits. We all exercise some measure of hope for peace and justice in this life, even if it may never come.

So much that is good in the world (an end to slavery, programs for drug addicts, aid for people suffering from disasters, cures for various diseases, etc.) came because people believed that they could make a difference here and now. People turned away from seeking only their own welfare, and dedicated their lives to helping others... trying to make at least one small portion of the world more like it "should be".

Many young idealists have fallen away as they have aged; and I have heard that it is common for pastors and priests to go through a similar disillusionment over time… when they have seen that their own efforts did not usher in the dramatic changes that they had hoped for. This disillusionment (whether by spiritual leaders or just the rank and file) often takes the form of cynicism, where people focus mostly on the failures, often to the exclusion of what good has come their way as well. That is hardly an improvement on the dishonesty that comes when one chooses to block out the bitter realities of their own shortcomings, and the bits that don't seem to measure up to what we had hoped for, claiming in the face of evidence to the contrary, that others need only do such and such and all will be well. While the religious zealots ignore the flaws, the cynics ignore all signs of progress.

But there is something else that I have noticed about hope. There seems to be an obvious similarity between hope and faith. In Hebrews 11, we are told that faith is "the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen." In other words, even faith has to cope with apparent failure and contradictions at times. Nevertheless faith is usually supported by evidence in other areas. We see, for example, that the world and all that is in it is so intricate and beautiful that it must have come from some unfathomable Designer. And out of this, we profess faith in a Creator God. We can't see that Creator Himself; but we do have, in his creations, some pretty convincing reasons for believing He exists.

Faith needs to fall back on hope, however, when evidence starts to go against what we would like to believe. When we pray earnestly for something and it does not come; when injustices seem to go unhindered; when stuff we read in the Bible does not line up with stuff we experience in our everyday lives… then we can choose to throw it all out; or we can hope that it's just some error in our own understanding. We can hope that it will one day make sense in a way that it does not now. We can hope that, in another life, everything will be put right.

Someone has said, "I believe in God, because he does not stand to reason." When trials come, it often challenges our reason to the point where we do not have answers. We are overwhelmed, it seems, by the forces of darkness. And yet hope raises its head out of the darkness and says, "I want to believe anyway… whether or not it stands to reason."

Atheists and agnostics are not so far from the truth when they say that many believers seem to "need" God to fill in the gaps in their lives. There does seem to be a universal need for us to believe that life has a purpose, even when we don't have a clue what that purpose might be. If God were not real, it would be necessary for us to invent him, because our whole being cries out for an explanation which only a Supreme Power can provide. A Source, a Creator, a Judge, a Rewarder.

And so, hope springs eternal. It keeps speaking up for the existence of a personal God, even when everything else seems to be saying for us to give up, to stop believing, to stop loving, to just take care of number one and live like the animals. Hope brings us back to the centre of our existence.

The verse from Corinthians says, "And now abides faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of these is love." Very true. But the one that is there when love and faith do not produce the fruit that we would like to see, the one that brings the others back to life when they seem to be fading, is still hope. In recognising that, I believe we can become more mature in our faith, and more effective in our love. When people reject our faith, and spurn our love, we may still have a chance to build God's eternal kingdom by encouraging ourselves (if not them) to hang onto hope… for a better world and a better understanding one day.

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