Hope does not disappoint us.
Paul’s statement is quite bold. If this is true, why do I often feel disappointed? Am I hoping in the wrong way? Reinhold Niebuhr said if you feel disillusioned it is likely because you believed in illusions to begin with. Is this my problem? Were my hopes too naïve or utopian? I admit it, I assume things will work out. Jeanne knows that when things are uncertain, one of my common phrases is “We will figure it out.” How will we manage to build a garage and finish the basement with all this inflation? We will figure it out! How will we deal with a thorny family issue? We will figure it out. How will the church in America recover from COVID and member decline? We will figure it out! Often this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. With patience, curiosity, and creativity; solutions emerge. Hope does not disappoint us!
But sometimes my optimism is avoidance. “We will figure it out” translates to “we will put this off and hope it solves itself.” Avoidance may help us temporarily cope, but problems have a way of catching up to us. The Netflix movie “Don’t Look Up,” wonders if our society has lost the ability to face hard problems honestly. The plot centers on the discovery of a large meteor heading to earth that will wipe us out. While some leaders propose solutions to stop the meteor, others simply encourage everyone “Don’t look up!” Maybe the scientists are wrong. The asteroid will likely miss us. God will take care of it. The movie reminded me of Thomas Hobbes saying, “Hell is truth seen too late.” Capitulation seems to be the standard response to gun violence, the rising climate emergency, or a host of challenges confronting our species. Did Apostle Paul get it wrong, that hope will disappoint us in the end?
Ezra Klein wrote a great piece in the NY Times this week titled, “Your Kids Are Not Doomed.” Klein reflects on two common questions from readers. The first: Should I have kids, given the climate crisis they will face? The second: Should I have kids, knowing they will contribute to the climate crisis the world faces? I know it is a very real question since our kids of child-bearing age. A recent poll found that a quarter of people without children said climate change is a major factor in their decision. Klein tries to speak words of hope as one who is both a dedicated father to young children and strong advocate of policies to mitigate climate crisis.
First, he reminds his readers how far we have come in the last two centuries to alleviate suffering. For much of human history, An estimated 27 percent of babies did not survive to live beyond one year. 47 percent of human beings died before reaching puberty. Reaching adulthood was a coin flip for thousands of years, yet people had enough hope to continue procreating. Nothing in the future looks so horrible that it should become immoral to have children. Second, Klein cites reasons for optimism. In 2010, the most optimistic prediction about solar panels was the costs would fall by 6 percent a year. In reality, the costs dropped 15 percent a year. Klein argues that simple, boring things like heat pumps and fixing our electric grid, which loses 50 percent of our electricity through inefficiency, would make an enormous impact on warming temperatures.
Klein is realistic. He knows that global warming will cause tremendous human suffering, especially among those already poor, but let’s not give up hope and stop having children. Instead, let’s try to imagine a world where every child’s carbon footprint is very low. You could have added Paul’s words to the end of his essay, “we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not disappoint us.” (Romans 5:3-5)
What shocked me was the negative response Klein received in the comments. Here are three of the most recommended comments:
Far from being an act of hope, bringing children into this world today is an act of cruelty paid forward by people who will be long gone. This piece is irresponsible in the most selfish of ways
Ezra, Ezra, Ezra. This piece reads as a well-written attempt at rationalizing your way out of the guilt of being one of the most privileged procreators on earth. You and Steven Pinker share the tone-deaf luxury of being able to reframe anthropogenic biosphere collapse in terms of techno-optimistic progress.
Religion will not alter human selfishness. Indeed, some religions provide a rationale for giving as little as possible. I have to agree with Scrooge that sometimes it’s better to die and “reduce the surplus population”.
Now we are going to make pre-Christmas Scrooge a hero and model for the common good? Charles Dickens would roll over in his grave! Despite the desperation of poverty Dickens brought to light in his books, he said, ”It’s always something, to know you’ve done the most you could. But, don’t leave off hoping, or it’s of no use doing anything. Hope, hope to the last.”
Dickens took human suffering seriously, and I believe the Apostle Paul did as well. But this text is often misread to say that suffering is good for you. If suffering leads from perseverance, to character to hope, should we say, “Bring it on!” The more you suffer, the better person you will be? On the one hand we may learn from suffering. If a child puts a hand on a hot stove, they learn it is dangerous and keep away. If we have suffered illness or loss, it may enhance our capacity for empathy for others. But suffering can also be soul crushing. A child may learn about safety touching the hot stove, but how long do they need to touch it to learn? Two seconds should be enough. Beyond that serious injury occurs. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder comes from too much pain for too long. Paul’s point is not that suffering is good for us, but that suffering is inevitable. When painful things happen, Paul encourages us to stay connected to God. It’s not the suffering that makes us better, it is God’s love for us during suffering that builds our character and brings hope. Paul’s message is that life is tough, but God will not abandon you and love will get you through.
Paul urges hope, but he is not an optimist about human nature. In this letter to the Romans, chapter 3, Paul takes this dim view:
There is no one who is righteous, not even one;
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
there is no one who shows kindness;
there is not even one.”
“Their throats are opened graves;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
Tell us how you really feel about humanity, Paul! And yet a few thousand words later in Romans 8 he writes, “All things work together for good for those who love God.” Talk about theological whiplash! Our reading for today from Romans 5 is right in the middle of this theological U turn from saying humanity is a hot mess to saying human beings are capable of doing something good. Paul says we are justified by faith, so we have peace with God, and the grace that transforms us. The language here is complex and archaic to us, and lately I turn to The Message Bible. Eugene Peterson, the translator, had a gift for bringing ancient thoughts to modern ears. He translated justified by faith through grace this way,
“When we throw open the doors to God and discover at the same moment that God has already thrown open the door to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand-out in the wide-open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise!”
I love this image, it’s like a-joining rooms, we open the door from our room, right at the time God opens from the other side and fall through the threshold in surprise and wonder.
Paul believed if we had this kind of remarkable encounter with God, the joy and gratitude of it gives us the faith to be better, to not be selfish and unjust or “our throats are open graves.” This is what Paul would say to the critic in the Times of Ezra Klein who said religion will not alter human selfishness, so we have let the surplus population die. Paul believed religion was exactly the thing that alters human selfishness. But hope is only real if we face our challenges and persevere, allowing love to shape our character. Hope isn’t saying God’s got this under control. It’s more like saying God’s got me, so I faith in what comes next.
Hope is something we build together with God’s help. I love the last line of this scripture. God’s love is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Rather than trying to explain the work of the Holy Spirit, lets imagine it.
I invite you to close your eyes and quietly take a couple of slow and easy breaths. Allow a picture to form of water pouring. Maybe you see a waterfall, or a pitcher pouring into a basin. Whatever image forms for you is just fine. Let the water slowly pour for a moment. Hear the sound of the flow. Sense how the atmosphere is charged by splashing water, the smell like new rain. You can up your hands in front of your heart and imagine the pouring water flowing into your hands and overflowing right into your heart. This is God’s love flowing down from heaven right into you, into your heart, and pumping throughout your body. Stay with image a moment….Where do you need hope right now? Hope for your life…Hope for the world…Hope does not disappoint us. Let that sink in. Take a moment to close by sharing your gratitude with God. Amen.