This summer I’ve read books written by Richard Beck, Brene’ Brown, Bradley Jersak, Greg Boyd and other interesting writers. A recurring theme is that of the inherent vulnerability of the human condition and experience, especially in the experience of following Christ. Put more simply than probably should be, to be vulnerable is to be Christian, and to refuse to be vulnerable is to refuse the full call of Christ. More specifically, to hope is to be vulnerable, and therefore, to not hope, is to miss the call of Christ.
The peculiar beauty of human excellence just is its vulnerability. – Martha Nussbaum
This might sound pretty obvious, right? “Of course we’re supposed to hope! Christ is coming back!” No, no, no. I mean, yes, you’re right. But you’re missing what I mean by “hope.” Yes, we are to hope in Christ, but we are also to have hope in everyday experiences. Hope that you get that job you want, or hope that your friend comes to know the beauty and love of Christ.
We are also to have faith in him. We are to obtain our very identity and significance from him. We put our faith in his love, and we hope for his return (sound like 1 Corinthians 13?). When we put our faith in his love, and we receive it, fully acknowledging that we are unconditionally loved by the Creator of the Cosmos, fully letting that seep into the darkest parts of our being, we are freed to be vulnerable. How?
Well, if my identity, my significance, is found either within myself, or within my culture/other people, of course I will be afraid to be vulnerable. More concretely, if my significance/self-esteem rests on what you think of me, I’m going to do everything I possibly can to make sure you continue to think highly of me, even going so far as to put on a mask, to be a hypocrite, to perform, if you will.
However, if I’m receiving my significance from outside myself, from outside my culture, and instead receive it from Christ, who I know will still love me whether I fail or succeed, and whose grace never runs out, I no longer have anything to prove. To you, to myself, to anyone. I am free to be vulnerable in a chaotic, messy, unpredictable, contingent-filled world.
[Seeing oneself as a child of God establishes] the ground of personal dignity, so that a profound sense of personal worth can absorb the fear reaction. This alone is not enough, but without it, nothing else is of value. The first task is to get the self immunized against the most radical results of the threat of [the unknown.] When this is accomplished, relaxation takes the place of churning fear. The individual now feels that he counts, that he belongs. – Howard Thurman
What does this have to do with hope?
Hope is a vulnerable thing. When you hope, you want a contingency, generally out of your immediate control, to become a reality. More simply, you are wanting something to happen or come about in a certain way. But you are not God. You are a finite being with free will in a world with other finite beings with free will. There are a lot of reasons that what you are hoping for might not happen. And yet Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:13, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” It appears as if the three great Christian virtues are faith, hope, and love. All other virtues (or “fruits”), I would argue, stem from these three (which of course are rooted in the solid understanding of Christ’s love for you as an individual). It seems, then, that the Christian is still called to hope, just as much as the Christian is called to have faith and to love.
An ecstasy of perfect love pervades the fulfillment of his will by those who surrender to it; and this surrender practiced each moment embodies every kind of virtue and excellence. – J. -P. de Caussade
But why are we called to hope? What is it about hope that is so important, especially in the face of such fragility?
Without hope, we would keep giving up in this risky thing called life. We could, at the farthest extreme, become nihilists. On the other end of the spectrum is blind hope, or denial of the situation. There comes a time when a situation needs to be let go. Where the reality of disappointment needs to be faced. Hope sits in the middle. Hope is a tension. A difficult, painful, exhilarating, beautiful tension that can lead to beautiful outcomes or disastrous consequences. Hope is dangerous. Hope is risky.
Yet, with the foundation of Christ in the heart and mind of the one acting on the hope, either outcome can be worked through. The beautiful outcome is received as a gracious gift, a blessing that leads to worship. The painful outcome is received as a means to draw closer to Christ for comfort, as well as any healthy community one may find him/herself in. Either way, either outcome, can be received with wisdom, humility, and gratuitousness in the disciple of Christ. Either outcome can be used to ensure the disciple grows. However, if the disciple refuses to hope, and just gives up, the disciple remains stagnant. Something that could have been beautiful is missed out on because of fear, or because of an inability to deal with the tension. However, if the disciple refuses to give up hope in an obviously hopeless situation, the disciple becomes blinded by the situation, and trades growth/beauty for stagnation/ugliness. That is not to say that there are exceptions. Wisdom says there are always exceptions.
For the sake of brevity, let us not go into possible exceptions, and the subjective aspects of the disciple’s relationship with Christ.
People who know they are deeply loved by God are free to engage reality. – Nathan Foster
The reality is that what the disciple hopes for may or may not come to pass. This is the reality the disciple must live with; the tension and ambiguity that the foundation of Christ permits the disciple to rest in securely.
Again, I believe the importance of reinforcing the idea that without the riskiness involved in vulnerability and hope, the disciple’s life can quickly lack the beauty, grace, and love Christ wants to bestow upon him/her. Without risk, there are no beautiful outcomes. It is up to the disciple to decide if the possible outcome is worth the risk of having to endure the painful outcome. Once more, if the disciple does have to endure the painful outcome, he/she will not do so alone, and will be able to work through it with the help of the loving Trinitarian God.
Troubles and pains come to those who practice God’s presence, as they came to Jesus, but these seem not so important as compared to their new joyous experience… ‘Perfect love casteth out fear.’ – Frank Laubach
It just so happens that hope happens to be a recurring theme in my own life. I didn’t plan for this to happen, but it’s rather convenient that what I’ve read this summer is very practical in my own life.
In this season, God seems to be leading me in the direction of neither letting go, nor claiming something as certain (which, as an aside, I don’t believe has any grounds to begin with). While I sit in this tension, I embrace the possibility that I could be sorely disappointed. However, I also embrace the possibility that I could be pleasantly surprised. But I refuse to let fear control me, while there is still room for hope. In the meantime, I thank Christ for the foundation he offers in the midst of the ambiguities and uncertainties of a chaotic, contingent, risk-filled world, and look onward expectantly for whatever may come; joy or sadness. Or, more likely, a subjective conglomeration of both.