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

 Photo by  Hillie Chan  on  Unsplash

Photo by Hillie Chan on Unsplash

 

Introduction

One need not search the Bible long before finding honest interaction with the concept of unexplained suffering. The biblical narrative unapologetically attests to the sufferings of mankind. It does not posit a quip response or simplistic answer to humanity’s hardest reality, nor does it suggest that the problem can be diffused, avoided or ignored. Rather, the biblical response is one that dignifies a world that suffers under the weight of sin and the threat of death. The biblical response to suffering is embodied in the suffering Son of Man, who paved the road to eternity by way of the cross. In his paradoxical example, the believer is granted a vision of the divinely extended gift of meaningful, absolute and certain hope in the midst of suffering. Biblical hope is neither wishful thinking nor blind optimism; it is reckoning in the present what is guaranteed in the future. Hope actively and expectantly waits for what is assured but not yet realized. While faith believes in God’s revelation and trusts in his declarations, regarding the past, present or future, hope is exclusively anticipatory. The biblical call to hope, then, is distinct from the call to have faith.[1]

With a compassionate and courageous voice, the biblical narrative affirms the pain of suffering, while in the same breath repeatedly and distinctly beckoning the Christian to hope. The reason is clear: Christian hope is contingent upon the unchanging character of God. Faith in the reliability of God’s nature and the immutability of his word is foundational for Christian existence, and hope for their future realization is the bedrock for fruitful endurance in times of suffering. The Bible presents a God who is essentially loving, and the unflagging, immovable conviction in his goodness produces hope. To hope in suffering is meaningfully and personally to internalize and respond to biblical revelation and directives. If the God of the Bible is to be trusted and his promises believed, hope in suffering is not just an invitation but an obligation; hope is the silver cord that tethers a suffering world to a loving God.

 

Biblical Reality of Hope in Suffering

Human Examples of Hope in Suffering

The Psalter walks the reader through national and personal journeys of pain, loss, betrayal, joy and victory, and more than any other canonical book, it contains frequent references to hope. The psalmists reflect on the way that blessing and suffering seem to travel along parallel tracks in the lives of the righteous ones, and though confounded by suffering, they attest to an obligation to hope. Interestingly, the Psalms reiterate an enduring hope in God’s promises to the house of David, though the Psalter was arranged after the exile when there was no trace that Israel would ever see another Davidic King. Despite this reality, the Psalter finally concludes in a proclamation of hope and a call to praise, though the Davidic throne sat empty (Ps. 146-150). God is celebrated as Israel’s king, and there is the certain hope that he will, as promised, assume rule over Israel in a tangible way (Ps. 145). In light of Israel’s national suffering and apparent abandonment, hope for a Davidic king should have been forsaken in spiritual disillusionment, and individual Psalms that reminded God of his commitment and celebrated the future realization of these promises should have, at least, been arranged less prominently in the Psalter.[2]

Yet, proclaiming hope in the midst of suffering characterizes the Psalter and emerges as a distinctive marker of those who know God. The psalmists frequently rejoice in God’s promise never to forsake those who hope in him (Ps. 21:7; 22:4-5; 26:1; 31:6, 14; 52:8; 56:4, 11).[3] Their endurance in suffering was fueled by hope that they would again see the outworking of God’s unending, unfailing love. They were persuaded to hope in suffering because of the one whose goodness was unaffected by the forces that threatened them, and their hope was fueled as they constantly rehearsed this truth. They hoped not simply because they had a God, but because they knew precisely what he was like (Ps. 33, 36, 100, 117, 118, 136). The Psalmists, and the community of faith whom they represented, were unable to lose hope (Ps. 43:5).

The ability to express genuine hope in the midst of suffering is not unique to the psalmists; the biblical witness presents it as the paradigmatic experience of God’s people.[4] As he lamented the destruction of Jerusalem and the seeming hopelessness of rebellious Israel’s future, Jeremiah’s despair was turned to joy when he remembered God’s goodness: “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: It is of the Lord’s great love that we are not consumed…‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him,’” (Lam. 3:21-24). When the prophet recalls the steadfast love and faithfulness of God and the commitments that he made to his people, a remarkable transformation occurs and the hopelessness of the previous chapters give birth to hope.[5] Though the circumstances causing his suffering were unchanged and his pain was no less tangible, the shift in his spiritual and emotional disposition is due to a shift in his perspective. The prophet’s bitterness and despair gave way to renewed hope when his vision cleared and he caught sight of the Lord and his “great love.”[6] As Heaven’s spokesman, Jeremiah had faithfully proclaimed God’s love and faithfulness to Israel, but sitting in the midst of deep suffering, he experienced it, and his head that hung in despair was then lifted in hope.

The book of Job famously paints the Bible’s first picture of a righteous, innocent sufferer who all but loses hope. Yet in the midst of Job’s confused and pained lament, the book is second only to the Psalms in its references to hope. Long before a robust hope of resurrection appears in the Bible, there is hope in the person of God (Job. 14:7, 10).[7] Though Job despaired of the brevity of life and the inexplicable depth of human suffering, he found the courage to confess, “Though he slay me,” said Job, “yet I will hope in him” (Job 13:15). God’s face was hidden and his ways looked dark, but Job’s knowledge of God and experience with him prevented total despair from consuming the God-fearing sufferer. Though Job’s friends were incorrect in their estimation that a righteous person is surely shielded from such an unimaginable amount of suffering, their proclamation that “there is hope” (Job 11:18) does attest to the truth that God does not abandon his people. Having given him room to grieve, God finally responds to Job’s cries not by dictating an explanation, but by revealing a vision of the one in whom Job could surely trust (Job 38-41). Before God restores Job’s life, he restores his hope, not by answering his complaints, but by answering the single cry of a heart shattered by pain (Job 42:5). Realizing how suffering had accentuated his mortality and weakness, Job despaired that God “is not a mere mortal like me that I might answer him,” and he cried out for “someone to mediate between us, someone to bring us together” (Job 9:32a, 33); Job’s cry likely sounded pitiful and futile in the moment, but it was not. The Old Testament dynamically paints a picture of a God who is present and responsive in suffering, and though Job certainly never envisioned the astounding extent to which his plea is answered, this picture is ultimately given flesh and breath in Jesus Christ.

 

Divine Example of Hope in Suffering

Biblical hope in suffering is personified by the divine, innocent and victorious sufferer. Though fallen men try in vain to escape suffering, God actively pursued it. Though it was human freedom that chose, against the will of God,[8] the path of sin and suffering, the cross climaxes the biblical presentation of a God who shares in pain to offer humanity hope, deliver it from sin and rescue it back to himself (Col. 1:13). Though the concentrated echo of humanity’s cries would deafen mortal ears, “there is a place where there is an aggregate of human suffering and questioning. That place is the heart of God.”[9] The creator God is the suffering Savior who wept, grieved and sweated drops of blood in sorrowful dread of the inexplicable pain he would endure. Yet, “for the joy set before him” (Heb. 12:2), he did endure. With assured expectation of his glorious exaltation, Jesus was sustained in suffering with unwavering hope that was born out of his unflinching, perfecting and unrelenting love (Phil. 2:8-11; Is. 53:10-11).

It is of optimum importance that Jesus bore both humanity’s sin and suffering on the cross. As James Stewart of the Church of Scotland reflected, “He did not conquer in spite of the dark mystery of evil. He conquered through it,”[10] and he emerged on the other side as the single source of hope for those still journeying to join him.[11] Though the suffering that men experience is paralyzing at times, “Jesus took away the only kind of suffering that can really destroy you: that is being cast away from God.”[12] The hope of complete reunion with the God of love promises that every cry will be answered with a greater response of glory on the day of reckoning. Jesus bowed under the weight of death in order to defeat it, so that rebellious humanity would only have to walk, for a short time, through its shadow (Ps. 23:4). He now compels his followers to consider his example and endure, with hope, as he did, for those who do so will not be put to shame (Phil. 3:10, 2:5; Rom. 5:3; Rom. 8:18).

It is the character of God, seen most clearly at the cross, that is both the inspiration and actualization of hope. The biblical narrative pays witness to hope that exists in both the objective sense, as that for which we hope, and the subjective sense, as an attitude of hope, and God is both the source and the anticipation of hope in suffering.[13] It is from the foundation of God’s character that hope arises, because hope is effected in the hearts of those who know the love of God (1 John 4:8, 18). God’s supreme love commissions hope to preserve a suffering humanity, and it is to Love himself that hope ultimately returns (Rom. 5:5). Love is both the road that hope travels and the destination it reaches (Ps. 25:3, 7; Ps. 31:24; Ps. 40:1, 11-12; Ps. 103:5-6). The love of God is the very foundation and anchor of hope, which awaits the future realization of glory, the full expression of God’s love.[14] Whereas faith will give way to sight and hope will give way to reality, love will never give way (1 Cor. 13:13).

Since hope is a crucial means of experiencing God’s love in suffering, the biblical narrative treats hope neither as a peripheral byproduct of robust Christianity, nor as the preferred attitude that may soften life’s blows. Rather, to endure with hope is the obligation of those who know “the God of hope,” the one who gave himself at the cross and gives of himself through his Spirit so that his people will attest to the reality of the faith and supernaturally anticipate his promises by “abound(ing) in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13). It is God himself, and the word he speaks, that is the cause for hope, and he obligates himself to answer the hope which he inspires (Ps. 119:49; Ps. 33:4; Num. 23:19).[15] By virtue of his experience, God relates to suffering men, and by virtue of his character, he consoles them with hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes:

[1] Though faith precedes hope, it does not necessarily guarantee it. For instance, the suffering Christian can simultaneously affirm by faith that “the universe was formed at God’s command” (Heb. 11:3) while despairing in hopelessness.

[2] The opening of the Psalter includes Psalm 2, a celebration of the Davidic King’s special relationship with God and cosmic rule. This Psalm is referenced and quoted at Jesus’ baptism, transfiguration, as well as in Acts and Hebrews.

[3] Willem A. VanGemeren, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs 5, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 102.

[4] The book of Micah contains a beautiful example of the proclamation of hope in the midst of suffering. Though he can only see judgment and suffering for Israel (Micah 3-4), Micah had been assured of future salvation, so he proclaims his confidence that God would transform his current suffering: “But as for me, I will look in hope to the Lord, for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me. Do not gloat over me, my enemy! Though I have fallen, I will rise. Though I sit in darkness, the Lord will be my light” (Micah 7:7-8). Though he suffered, he was anchored in God’s promises.

[5] F.B. Huey Jr. Jeremiah, Lamentations NAC 16 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1993), 473.

[6] Huey, Jeremiah, Lamentations, 473.

[7] Job lments, “At least there is hope תִּ֫קְוָ֥ה for a tree: if it is cut down, it will sprout again, and its new shoots will not fail…but a man dies and is laid low; he breathes his last and is no more” (Job 14:7, 10).

[8] Genesis 2:17; 2 Peter 3:9.

[9] Ravi Zacharias, Cries of the Heart (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2002), xiii.

[10] Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994), 174.

[11] “We who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf,” (Heb. 6:18b-20a).

[12] Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (New York: Penguin Group, 2013), 181.

[13] Ibid., 522.

[14] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 651.                     

[15] VanGemeren, Psalms, 746.