Great expectations: Discovering a hope that doesn’t disappoint

More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
-- Romans 5: 3-5

Can you believe it? We’ve almost made it through 2020, y’all.

It’s not that I expect the pandemic — or any of our other problems, for that matter — to magically disappear when the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve. However, I do think it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate that we’ve made it this far and opening our doors and windows to any fresh breezes that 2021 may send our way. Plus, we’re now officially in the Christmas season — a time of renewed awe, hope, and wonder. (Even if you’re not Catholic, I highly recommend adopting our tradition of continuing the festivities all the way through the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which falls on January 10 this year.) And boy, did Christmas come just in time.

Our world feels wearier than ever — weary of the pandemic, of political divisiveness and unrest, of financial uncertainty and strife, and of fear and isolation and mistrust that permeate the very homes and families that were meant to offer a safe haven from these troubles. As I edit this post from the waiting room of my car dealership, a nearby television blares one depressing news headline after another like a litany of reasons to despair. (I literally just had to sit through a eulogy for a precious baby who died of cancer and try not to cry in front of my fellow Nissan customers.) We long for the “thrill of hope” that we sing about in our favorite carols. But in order for that hope to truly satisfy and sustain us into 2021 and beyond, it needs to be rooted in the right things. Specifically, it needs to be rooted in the right person — Jesus. Not long ago, I had to learn this the hard way, after placing my hope in ALL the wrong people, places, and things.

2019 was undoubtedly one of the hardest years of my life. There were many contributing factors, but to borrow a line from Taylor Swift’s new album, “Long story short, it was a bad time.” By the time the holidays came around, it felt like everything had unraveled and I was sitting in a mess of loose threads, unsure of how or where to begin the process of disentanglement. The prevailing emotion? Deep disappointment. I had started the year with such wide-eyed enthusiasm, only to end up more jaded and disillusioned than ever.

So you can imagine the major eye-roll I did when I came across the above passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans one day. Hope does not disappoint?! I thought. I beg to differ! It seemed as though my tendency to dream big and look on the bright side was precisely what had gotten me into this mess. As Panic! At The Disco would say, “I had to have high, high hopes for a living” — and as a result, I had witnessed just how far these hopes enabled me to fall.

However, I sensed that the opposite approach — i.e., expecting nothing to avoid a letdown — wasn’t the solution, either. After all, hope is a theological virtue woven throughout the entirety of scripture and salvation history. We need it, and let’s be honest, we want it. So what was I missing? What kind of hope never disappoints?

One of my first major turning points occurred while I was reflecting on the story of the Road to Emmaus. It’s a passage I’d heard many times before, but until more recently, I didn’t realize what it could teach me about hope and my own tendency to doubt.

That very day two of them were going to a village named Emma'us, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, "What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?" And they stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, named Cle'opas, answered him, "Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?" And he said to them, "What things?" And they said to him, "Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened..."
-- Luke 24: 13-21

Here we have two men, walking and talking as they attempt to wrap their minds around some pretty crazy events that have unfolded. Their long-awaited savior had finally arrived — or so they thought — and after demonstrating His power and wisdom through a series of miraculous healings and rousing sermons, He was humiliated and murdered alongside two criminals. And as far as these men were concerned, that’s where the story ended.

They were likely experiencing a variety of different emotions — sadness, shock, and fear, to name a few — but disappointment was definitely in the mix. You can practically hear it dripping from their voices as they say, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” As in, “This Jesus guy really seemed like the real deal. But now he’s dead, and it’s been 3 days. I guess we were wrong. Now what?”

They had gotten their hopes up. They desired to believe in Christ’s promises, but when things didn’t look like they wanted or expected, they were disappointed, and doubt started to creep in.

A few verses later, Jesus points out their error:

And he said to them, "O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. 
-- Luke 24: 25-27

The prophets had predicted that things would unfold this way and had spelled it out in the scriptures; yet, the men still questioned and doubted and just plain forgot. It’s easy for me to criticize their ignorance or lack of faith, but y’all, I do this all the time. I definitely did this amidst the Great Dumpster Fire of 2019. Lord, my life really isn’t going as planned. For a while I felt like we had a “thing” going…I was doing my best to follow you, and everything was going pretty well! But now it’s all fallen apart. What happened to your promises? What happened to the “great plans” you supposedly had for me?

We can contrast this to Mary’s fiat, one of the highlights of our Advent readings over the past few weeks.

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!" But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. . . And Mary said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." And the angel departed from her.
-- Luke 1: 26-31, 38

Understandably, when the angel Gabriel came to Mary and announced that she would give birth to the Son of God, she had a few logistical questions. (Can you blame her?) But ultimately, she accepted God’s plan and gave her “yes” wholeheartedly, because she knew and understood the scriptures, and therefore she knew and understood the character of God. He was someone she could trust without reservation, even when she didn’t know all the details of the plan, and even when the plan would inevitably involve suffering. As Mary’s cousin Elizabeth later proclaimed, “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled” (Luke 1:45). Mary placed her hope in the Lord and His promises — and in these things alone.

Of course, I had thought I was doing the same, but when I took an honest look at the Epic Pile of Burning Garbage that was 2019, I saw how often I misplaced my hope or misconstrued God’s promises to fit my own desired narrative. For example…

  • God promises to always be with me (Matthew 28:20), but this doesn’t mean I will always feel His presence. I will experience periods of spiritual desolation as well as consolation, valleys as well as mountaintops.
  • God promises to provide me with all that I need if I seek His Kingdom first (Luke 12:22-31), but what I actually need and what I think I need often differ immensely. Sometimes He will even withhold something I think I need so that I learn to lean more heavily on Him.
  • God promises to work all things for good for those who love Him (Romans 8:28), but this doesn’t mean that I will always see or understand this good in my lifetime. Just typing that sentence makes me want to hurl my laptop out the window and say some choice words, because I want so badly to understand all the things and immediately find meaning in all of my pain. But I’m learning to live with some unanswered questions and loose ends and trust that God will resolve them at the appointed time.
  • God promises that His plans for me are ordered toward my welfare and not my woe (Jeremiah 29:11), but this doesn’t mean that my life will always be easy, fun, or free from suffering. The Lord is looking at the big picture, so he will permit some woes — even significant ones — in order to bring about the greatest welfare of all — my salvation.

I still have a long way to go in learning how to balance big dreams with harsh realities; to set ambitious yet flexible goals; to appreciate the goodness in my career, relationships, achievements, hobbies, and possessions without expecting these things to satisfy the deepest longings of my heart; and to anchor my hope in truth and not simply wishful thinking, tired clichés, or prosperity gospels. But I now understand what Paul meant when he spoke of a “hope does not disappoint us.” He wasn’t talking about the kind of flowery Hallmark hope that we often associate with the “magic” of Christmas. He wasn’t talking about false optimism or simply “looking on the bright side.” He was talking about the fact that we don’t just have a deity or a distant god who can’t be bothered — we have an Emmanuel, a Lord who loves us so much that He willingly — gladly — became a human to endure all the grit and grime and messiness of life with us, all while enacting His plan to ultimately save us from it.

That’s the thrill of hope. May our weary world — and our weary hearts — learn to rejoice in it.