by Sarah Groen-Colyn
I’m glad for this chance to write to you as Christmas Day draws so near. I think of you in your homes, churches, and communities around the world and am moved by the mystery that together we form the beautiful and broken body of Christ. We are those who continue to grow and become, and we are those who watch for the light. Whether you stand in confidence and strength this December or are struggling in a place that seems dark, you are in good company. I am profoundly grateful that our Father does not ask us to make this journey alone, but places us in a family, a body to which each one of us is precious. I pray that the Spirit breathes life into my words today and uses them to share the gift of hope with you.
At Advent we look back at the moment when Christ took on flesh and the Word came to dwell among us. And we look forward to when He will come again, riding on the clouds. We live our lives on the path between Bethlehem and the New Jerusalem. Hope is the virtue that keeps us on the path and the posture that keeps us oriented toward eternity and our God who is the great I AM. Our lives as Christians are an ever-unfolding journey of simultaneously anticipating and receiving the finest gift: “Christ in you, your hope of glory.”
In this letter I will share the words of two wise Christian brothers: Josef Pieper and Sill Davis. Pieper wrote an excellent little book, On Hope, which conveys the pastoral wisdom of Thomas Aquinas about this essential virtue. And Sill presented an insightful and healing workshop about hope at last summer’s MPCS in Wheaton. Hope is a fundamental virtue of the Christian life, and it is worth the effort to seek wisdom about what hope is and how it can grow within us.
Hope is the journeyer’s virtue. Aquinas named the Christian life the status viatoris, which is the condition of “being on the way.” One day we will finish the race and possess the fullness of life that God gives. But in this world we are journeyers. “I do not consider that I have laid hold already,” as Paul writes in Philippians 3:13. We are in the process of becoming who we truly are in Christ. If someone asks, “Are you a Christian?” our truest answer would be, “Yes, I am, and I am still becoming a Christian.” I wonder if you can feel the deep comfort of this truth. Whatever is asked of us, whatever we are called to be, we only need to say, and indeed only can say for ourselves, “I’m working on it.” Or more accurately, “We–God and I in relationship with the body of Christ–are working on it.”
Hope is fundamentally about the direction we’re heading. In hope, God’s grace collaborates with the “yes” of our will to point us in the direction of who we are to become. The one who looks to Jesus is continually in the process of becoming more of his or her true self. Hope is a theological virtue: something divine that happens in us through God’s presence and work in our lives. God brought us into existence ex nihilo–out of nothing. We are His creatures and derive our existence from Him. It is our nature to move toward being, and hope keeps us centered in this longing to be who God made us to be. Without hope we will turn in sin back toward the nothingness from which we came. Hope is a theological virtue because it is about being “grounded in a real, grace-filled participation in the divine nature, which comes to man through Christ” (Pieper). It’s much deeper than the simple feeling of human confidence that something good is coming our way. This true Christian hope is something we can’t live without. As Sill described so well, our hearts cry out for hope the way a hungry baby cries to be fed: “Give me that hope! Give us what we need to birth our dreams.”
This status viatoris life of being-on-the-way has guardrails on both sides of the path: humility and magnanimity. Hope is about becoming who we truly are, and humility and magnanimity grant us accurate self-understanding. Pieper’s definition of humility is crystal clear: “Humility is the knowledge and acceptance of the inexpressible distance between Creator and creature.” God has created us, chosen us, and adopted us as His children. We are His creatures. We are infinitely loved, fully known, and faithfully cared for, and it is God’s being that gives our being such incredible dignity. Humility is something we often get confused about, thinking that it means putting ourselves at the bottom of the list or focusing on our negative traits. Humility isn’t about looking down on ourselves; it’s about knowing God as other. Humility helps me remember that I am not God, but am possessed by God, and helps me rejoice in the right relationship between the infinite God and little me.
Magnanimity guards the other side of the path. I encourage you to get comfortable with this wonderful word magnanimity. It means “the aspiration of the spirit to great things,” and Pieper explains that “a person is magnanimous if he has the courage to seek what is great and becomes worthy of it.” In the first verse of “O Holy Night,” the writer captures the feeling of magnanimity that stirred in humanity when Christ appeared, “and the soul felt its worth.” Truly God has created us with awesome possibilities, and He ennobles and empowers us to reach great heights. If you have been captivated by a moment of human greatness when standing before an exquisite work of art or watching an athlete in a peak performance, you have felt the rise of magnanimity in your soul. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, we have been united to God and are empowered creatures who live in the Spirit. With magnanimity, we make our choices toward the greater possibilities we have in Him, and we dare to be as great as He has made us to be.
Hope is about being on the way as creatures who are both finite and marvelous. Sill described hope as fuel for the trip, like gasoline in the engine of a car. Hope ignites our God-given nature to grow and become. When my son was learning to ride his bike, he discovered that he had to keep moving forward in order to keep his balance. This is what it’s like to be human–in order to be who we really are, we must keep becoming. When we lack the virtue of hope, we turn back toward nothingness. In his ministry in Chicago, Sill works with men involved in prostitution. The most difficult aspect of his work is not getting the men off the streets or free of addiction; it is reaching a man who has fallen into hopelessness. I think it’s important for us to be wise about what life looks like when we lose hope, because this knowledge gives us power to come back onto the good path. Just like any path, it’s possible to wander off on either side. For those of us whose early lives were marred by abuse or failures of love that blocked the fundamental nurture of our little souls, we may be more vulnerable to losing hope. Pieper has named the badlands that flank the path of hope despair and presumption.
Let’s look at despair first, not to dwell on it, but to become wise about this dangerous threat to hope. If we can identify despair for the distortion of reality that it is, we can orient ourselves back to God’s kingdom reality. Fundamentally, despair is when a mind changes the “not yet” of this life into a barren “not.” Hope calls us to journey toward a life abundant, knowing we have not yet fully arrived. The despairing heart hears Christ’s invitation to be resurrected, healed, and to follow Him and answers, “I will not. Don’t ask anything of me–just leave me as I am.” Despair is a decision of the will to renounce our inner longing for wholeness and close the door to becoming.
As Sill shared in his workshop, despair can take us to very dark places emotionally. He described well the downhill slide of a despairing soul–despair can shadow our face, the way we walk, and the way we dress, and compel us to use drugs or relationships to try to grab hold of some feeling of happiness. But despair has another, sneakier guise as well. Western cultures are brimming with despair in the form of a forced, prideful insistence: “I’m fine just the way I am.” Lady Gaga’s hit song chants, “I’m on the right track, baby; I was born this way;” this explicitly religious anthem is a fitting theme song for despair.
The truth is that our souls restlessly ache for greater wholeness. In our “born this way” state, we feel a deep dis-ease that whispers something is wrong. But the despair of the world tells us that we must try to silence this whisper, ignore this longing. Despair takes the fundamental invitation to become and treats it like a curse or a small-minded intolerance. The world calls hope dangerous. Again I say that it’s important to recognize despair for what it is, because we don’t yet have full immunity to these hope-killing voices of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
God’s true message to us is so different from the message of the world. God touches our lives with awesome dignity by coming to us, just as we are, and claiming us for His own. But He doesn’t stop there. He continues His saving work in our lives by calling us to become more and pours out His grace and mercy to make this becoming possible. The world has gone so far as to make despair prescriptive, but Christ has overcome the world–alleluia!
If we veer off the path of hope to the one side, we find ourselves in despair. But there is another possibility that leaves us without hope, and that is presumption. In despair, we claim that we will not change and close the door to becoming. In presumption, we claim that our process of becoming is complete and that we have already laid hold of the prize of fullness of being. We deny the journeying nature of the Christian life, not by refusing to move, but by telling ourselves that we have already arrived. In sharing about hope, Sill described a challenging moment in his healing journey: “I wanted to go into ‘hyper healing.’ I wanted to say, ‘Lord, hurry up and get it over and done.'” He was tempted, as we so often are, to try to make his healing happen, and he recognized that this impulse would actually take him out of God’s will and steal his hope. In this wish to skip to the end, we are leaving the true path of listening, following, and trusting God. This attitude kills hope because we’re grabbing onto a feeling of security that isn’t real in this world. We’ve left humility behind–that knowledge of the difference between God and us–and we’ve also strayed from our willingness to live in complete dependence on Him.
Earlier I described how cultures and communities promote despair. I’d also suggest that our communities can promote presumption, even our church communities. Good Christian people that I minister to from their twenties through their eighties have asked me, “Shouldn’t I have this figured out by now?” My answer is an emphatic, “No!” I pray that God blesses every one of us with relationships in our churches where we can honestly share about our process of becoming and the “not yet” aspects of our lives. Truly our whole life is rich with meaning, and hope holds us on a journey in which we are always becoming more of who God made us to be.
I imagine that each of you reading this letter deeply desires a life dominated by hope. Folks in this worldwide community of people whose lives have been touched by Leanne Payne’s ministry bear ongoing witness to the journeying nature of the Christian life–higher up and further in! Hope is a theological virtue, which means that it is God’s gift to us, the result of God’s presence in our lives. We can’t earn this gift; yet we do need to cooperate by exerting effort of our own (see I Peter 1:3-7). So how can we encourage one another to grow in hope? I’d like to suggest two important hope-builders: fear and commitment.
Pieper describes this first hope-builder, fear, as something that “lives intimately” with hope. His advice may ring strange to our ears, but he makes a compelling case that fear of the Lord keeps us moving on the hopeful path. He reminds us that to be fearless in this sin-torn world would be unnatural. We don’t have to look far to be reminded that we are vulnerable creatures. Most of all, we are vulnerable because of our ability to sin. This ability to turn away from God and from the true self He made us to be puts us in danger. Fear of the Lord is what will compel us toward Him, much as we might hurry through a dark night toward a bright bonfire. I encourage you to pray through your anxieties, sharing them with your Father and allowing Him to reveal what’s in your heart. Somewhere at the base of any anxiety, we are likely aware of our potential to turn away from God. Separation from God is a wonderful thing to fear! Fear of the Lord turns us to Him, and as long as we’re turned to Him, we are facing in the right direction to continue the process of becoming. Psalm 115:11 puts it this way: “They that fear the Lord hath hoped in the Lord” (Douay-Rheims Bible).
The second hope-builder is commitment. Commitment is a quality that early Christians called stability of place (stabilitas loci). Rebecca DeYoung’s book Glittering Vices describes how the desert fathers discovered commitment as an antidote to despair; commitment blocks our impulse to leave the path and holds us in the place of becoming. Stability is essential to hope because it allows us to persevere in the process of becoming as we stick with the relationships, habits, and practices that help us become who we are in Christ. Commitment is the opposite of relying on quick results and protects us from depending on gratifying feelings as we decide what we will do each day. And commitment is key to holding us in our faith-community relationships where we can be encouraged, challenged, and ministered to. When the journey of becoming has taken us outside of our comfort zone or left us weary, stability and commitment will help us persevere until we reach the prize.
The power of commitment shapes not just our personal habits but also our relationships. Stable participation in our faith communities allows us to grow in hope together. Sill shared about a member of his church who has held him in this place of commitment, a true friend in Christ who has fueled his hope: “He’s a big guy. He’s probably about six feet, four inches, has hands big enough to palm a basketball. At a time when I wanted to run out of the prayer meeting, this big hand grabbed my shoulder, and he pulled me close to him and just prayed and loved me.” We can share the gift of hope with one another through these simple but powerful actions of commitment to reach out to one another, share truthfully about our journeys, and pray together.
MPC is a ministry that embodies hope. Each one of us who serves in this ministry is engaged in the process of becoming, and we are inexpressibly grateful for the privilege of journeying with all of you. It is a joy to write to you in this Advent season, to share the wonderful news of hope. We can look ahead with joy and persevere each day on this holy path with the deep-hearted confidence we have in our Savior and King. One of my favorite parts in the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder is when the family has come through a crisis, and Pa says, “All’s well that ends well.” These are true words of hope that don’t dwell upon the danger or darkness, but affirm that where we find ourselves in the end determines what kind of journey it’s been. Our God is named Alpha and Omega, for He is our origin and the one in whom our becoming is fulfilled. All who remain in Christ will know, see, receive, and become something more wonderful than we could ask or imagine. Hope proclaims: It ends well for me. It ends well for you. It ends well for us!
In Christ, our hope of Glory!