Hope, by its very nature, has an element of pain associated with it. That’s why we hope at all. If everything were perfect in our present circumstances, then what would we have to hope for? So when you hope, you are implicitly acknowledging that something in your experience isn’t as it should be. But when you hope, even on the darkest days, there is always the knowledge as a Christian in the back of your mind that things were going to be okay, even if it doesn’t happen until we get to heaven.
But is that the real nature of hope? Is hope simply the feeling deep inside you that things are going to get better?
If hope is just believing that things will get better in heaven if not before, then living in hope can easily turn into a starry-eyed gazing upon supposed future events, when things are set right and as they should be. The problem, though, is that you only go to heaven when you die.
That’s a difficult truth because it means that there are many things we are hoping for that we’ll never see this side of the Jordan. Or to put it another way, some things aren’t going to get better. In fact, many things will get worse. Our bodies, our health, the level of morality in the world—these things aren’t trending in a positive direction.
When you find yourself in the midst of despair, heaven feels like a very long time from right now. And the truth is, it might indeed be a very long time from now, just as it was for the Israelites in exile:
“For I know the plans I have for you”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“plans for your welfare, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope...” (Jeremiah 29:11).
God’s people had been sent into exile. The temple and great city of God was destroyed. They were captives of evil oppressors living in a foreign land, and then they get this letter from the prophet Jeremiah.
We might be tempted to read Jeremiah 29:11 as if God is saying, “Hang in there. It’s almost over. This time of difficulty isn’t going to last very long. I’m about to return everything you’ve lost and pretty soon you’ll be back to normal.” But that’s not what He said. God refused to give some pie-in-the-sky version of hope that denies the pain of the present. That’s what we get if we read the context of verse 11:
This is what the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, says to all the exiles I deported from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters. Take wives for your sons and give your daughters to men in marriage so that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there; do not decrease. Seek the welfare of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the Lord on its behalf, for when it has prosperity, you will prosper.”
For this is what the Lord says: “When 70 years for Babylon are complete, I will attend to you and will confirm My promise concerning you to restore you to this place. For I know the plans I have for you”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“plans for your welfare, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. You will call to Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and places where I banished you”—this is the Lord’s declaration. “I will restore you to the place I deported you from.” (Jeremiah 29:4-7; 10-14).
The word of the Lord reads something like this: “It’s going to be 70 years of hurting and pain and exile. It’s going to be so long that I advise you to get used to it. Settle down and make a life in the middle of these difficult circumstances. In fact, maybe you should build a house because you’re going to be there for a while.”
The good and hopeful news for anyone in pain cannot be that “it’s almost over” or “just hang in there a little longer.” God does not urge us to put hope in the change of circumstance. In fact, He said just the opposite. He told these Israelites to build houses, plant fields, celebrate marriage, and live lives.
We cannot hope in a change of circumstances; we must hope in something bigger. God calls us not to escape from our circumstances, but to embrace His presence and will in the midst of them. The question of hope, then, is not how can we get out of this situation. The question is how can I embrace the work of God in the midst of this situation. It’s when the question changes that we begin to hope not in the change in circumstance but in the God who rules over the circumstance.