Now May the God of Hope…. The Biblical Obligation to Hope in Suffering, Part II

 Photo by  Jake Blucker  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jake Blucker on Unsplash

Consequential Nature of Hope in Suffering

Despair and Hope: A Contrast

The word hope itself appears for the first time in the book of Ruth, but it is the absence of hope in suffering that is noted rather than the existence of hope. Having come under horrendous grief, Naomi’s soul is embittered toward God. She has lost her husband and her sons, and with them, she has buried all natural hope for safety and prosperity. As could only be expected, she despairs in sorrow, but her despair is particularly characterized as bitter and hopeless.[1] She proclaims herself to be a victim of God’s cruel treatment (Ruth 1:12-13; 20-21). Having adopted this filter through which she sees reality, Naomi inadvertently positions herself against God and speaks out as a perpetrator of his goodness. Through her story, the Bible attests to the fact that experiences with deep sorrow and tangible evil are powerful enough to serve as blinders to all hope; in fact, in this scenario, Naomi rejects hope as an offensively unrealistic mindset and an intentional, disregarding assault toward her pain. Yet, biblically, hope is neither artificially constructed nor dismissive of suffering, and hope in suffering does not preclude grief. Naomi’s rejection of hope is tied to her fundamental misunderstanding of God’s character in light of his dealings with her (Ruth 1:12-13). Though enduring life-altering and heart-breaking suffering is sufficient to produce hopeless bitterness in any soul, the biblical narrative indicates that in view of God and his mercies, it need not, and it must not.

Hannah, too, “was in bitterness of soul,”[2] (1 Sam. 1:10), but rather than resenting God as the cruel catalyst of her pain, she laces her sorrowful cries with confessions of hope. Hannah not only prays, but she weeps, continually pouring out her soul (1 Sam. 1:15), “an involvement of the whole being.”[3] The sufferings of both Naomi and Hannah affronted the core of their beings, and each woman writhed in anguish. Even so, Hannah was unable to relinquish her hope in God. She unleashed the cry of her anguished soul with the confidence that God would not treat her grief casually, nor would he dismiss it flippantly.[4] Hannah’s heart was weighed with her grief, but as her prayer reveals, it was lined with a hope that properly positioned her to receive a response. To this point, it is interesting that though Eli blessed Hannah according to the formal appellation, “God of Israel” (1 Sam. 1:17), a reflection of his deity and authority over the nation, Hannah prayed to “Lord of Hosts” (1:10-11), referencing the personal, covenantal name of the one who revealed himself as compassionate and loving to her ancestors at Sinai (Ex. 34).[5] She knew the one to whom she prayed, and she boldly appealed to him with hope that he would display his goodness in her situation. Even before Samuel was conceived, Hannah’s grief was turned to joy because she received God’s promise by faith and anticipated it in hope.

 

Culminating Value of Hope in Suffering

The grief of both Hannah and Naomi was answered through miraculous means of unexpected provision; both women tangibly received the desires of their hearts in this life, which is certainly not promised or universally experienced (John 16:33; 2 Cor. 12:9-10). Ultimately, God will right every wrong, and though justice and vengeance may not abound until this world has been purged of evil (2 Pet. 3:10), he guarantees that he will wipe every tear and renew all that is groaning under the curse of sin (Heb. 6:19). It is the biblical intent to inspire hope.[6]

In light of God’s revelation, there is a biblical obligation to hope, yet the inescapable reality is that each person will suffer and make a choice as to how he suffers. To this end, we are implored to pour out our anguish before the Lord of Hosts, even through tears of bitterness, and emerge as those who, through storm, wind and fire, have been unmoved from the rock that is Christ (1 Cor. 15:58). Yet, just as mankind was free to choose the road of sin that led to suffering, we are free to suffer apart from God and void of hope; we are free to turn from him in hopelessness, embittered by the conclusion that evidently, circumstances have revealed him to be less loving than he promised. In either case, and in any case, God will make all wrongs right (1 Cor. 15:24-28), but a choice has to be made whether the claims of the biblical narrative will be believed and its God trusted by faith. G. K. Chesterson summarized the rejection of God, and the rejection of hope, in these words: “When belief in God becomes difficult, the tendency is to turn away from him; but in heaven’s name to what?”[7] It is imperative that we hear the biblical command to hope, for without it, the one suffering will be deceived into constructing a distorted view of a distant and unfeeling God. This misconception is fatal to the soul. In light of the Savior, this must not be the experience of the Christian. The Bible answers the cries of human suffering with a depiction of a God whose nature and ways among men validate humanity’s sorrowful cries while answering them with a proclamation of consoling hope.

Surely, hope trusts in the goodness of God’s character and the reliability of his word, and it submits to the process by which he promises to produce perfection. While bitter grief is laced with anger, resentment and a latent distrust of the one who could allow such seemingly unjust treatment, hopeful grief is paradoxically “sorrowful, yet rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10), expectant and confident in God’s goodness. It is essential that the biblical obligation to hope not be mistaken as an attempted means of escaping suffering. God’s love is enduring and perfecting, and it must be distinguished from weaker forms that dilute genuine love with permissive kindness that stiff-arms all sources of discomfort, no matter its value in the end.[8] The biblical narrative witnesses much too loudly to suffering for Christian theology to be distorted according to moralistic therapeutic deism. Though pain and suffering are the unavoidable byproducts of a sinful existence, the character and promises of God, as revealed through the biblical narrative, offer an unshakable source of enduring and eternal hope that is anchored in God’s commitment to create good out of present evil and pain.

 

Conclusion

Though traces of this transformative goodness can be detected in this life, suffering will finally give way to glory in eternity, and the moral knowledge of God, his character and his promises, obligates hope in the present (Rom. 8:18). Rather than simply commanding the Christian to endure suffering, the biblical narrative implores him to do so with hope because hope distinctly validates the conviction that all is not yet well, while simultaneously appropriating God’s strength to be sustained through suffering. Paul encouraged the church in Thessalonica, “We remember before our God and Father … your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 1:3). His prayer must be appropriated by every generation of Christ-followers.

When suffering threatens to capsize the believer, hope anchors him in the person and promises of God. To Abraham, God “swore by himself” (Heb. 6:13) and established his person as the grounds for Abraham’s hope. His specific promises were filtered through the reliability of God’s person, so hope was sustained through years of silence, and Abraham “against hope in hope believed… according to that which had been spoken” (Rom. 4:18). Regardless of how outlandish the content of the promise sounded to Abraham’s reason, he instead reasoned through eyes of hope, because it was God’s unchanging character that was the backdrop to each of his promises. Having received inspired accounts of God’s faithfulness to reference, and having seen in Jesus the full and perfect revelation of God’s character, we now, with even greater confidence, must flee to God for refuge “to lay hold of the hope set before us” (Heb. 6:18). Hope certainly is the graciously ordained “anchor for the soul” (Heb. 6:19).

 

 

[1]  Ruth 1:20: “The Almighty has dealt to me very bitterlyהֵמַ֥ר שַׁדַּ֛י לִ֖י מְאֹֽד.

[2] נָ֑פֶשׁ מָ֣רַת וְהִ֖יא. The same root word found in Ruth 1:13 and 1:20 and is found here: מָר, “bitter.”

[3] David Toshio Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 121.

[4] “Then Elkanah her husband said to her, ‘Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? And why is your heart grieved? Am I not better to you than ten sons?’” (1 Sam. 1:8). Hannah sought consolation that validated her suffering.

[5] Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel, 122.

[6] “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).

[7] Ravi Zacharias, Cries of the Heart, 65.

[8] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (New York: Macmillan, 1994), 33.