It seems the best writing I have read in life has emerged out of a person’s experience. Carl Rogers said that personal experience was his highest authority. Thomas Merton suggested his best writing was always done in journals. I don’t go as far as Rogers and have yet to become as prophetically vulnerable as Merton. Nonetheless, when I’ve heard others share their experiences, my periodic loneliness lifts and my sense of unhealthy powerlessness (due the illusion of feeling I suffer uniquely) fades. One of my favorite lines in Merton’s journals reads something like this: I’m having another one of those breakdowns again. It has been a difficult year and a half. I wonder if you have experienced any of these losses too: The loss of your job, wife, health insurance, house, car, all money, pretense, and ministry. The list could go on, but suffice it to say that by God’s grace, these losses have resulted in a more faith—filled depression than my previously held pseudo—holy hope.
T.S. Eliot’s words have haunted as much as helped me in recent times. He said, in “East Coker,” from his work, Four Quartets:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought.
We put hope in things where it doesn’t belong. Let me say, I have. In the difficult 18 months after the loss of my admittedly fledgling, brittle and heretical American Dream, still culturally-shaped Christian commitments, and an upwardly mobile empowered Romans 8:37, more than conquerors attitude, I have discovered my hope was rooted in things (“Christian” and otherwise) that were not God alone. A seminary professor’s comments have come back to me as I have wrestled with being hopeless. Referencing Gabriel Marcel, he suggested, “to say ‘I hope that…’ is really not a Christian statement.” If we put a condition on our being hopeful, when true hope by its very nature emanates and is sustained by an Unconditioned Reality (i.e. God), then we end up being God instead of God being in us and vice versa (c.f. John 15; Col 1:27, 3:3, Eph 1 or 2 Peter 1:4). The real tragedy is if we determine what will make us hopeful, we put ourselves in a position to never have enough of what we say will make us hopeful. If I get a job? Well, which job? This one or the next one after I lose this one? If I get married? Well, which marriage? The one that is in my head or the one I am actually in? Inevitably, these things will change, even if they last a lifetime and some days will be diamond.
Hope rooted in the things of the world (while ultimately good, c.f. Gen. 1) breeds hopelessness. I want to encourage you to hope less, not to be hopeless. Per Eliot above, (c.f. and Jeremiah 17:9) we are prone to self-deception. This has only been magnified on a societal level. The gospel, in our culture, has been co-opted by our country’s ethos (e.g. a strong economy, family values, an unrealistic utopia of our own doing, etc…), and we have bought into it, sometimes literally, at the expense of a true gospel-infused hope. Real hope does not have to deny suffering or muscle through it, avoid repentance, turn away from our conflicted loyalties, fear occurrences of the unlikely or unexpected, or that hope might be disappointed. It can’t. It can’t be disappointed because it’s not our own misplaced hope, which is the point. On the contrary, true Christian hope, rooted in God alone, has the courage to face the darkness, waxing sin, both disappointments and brighter seasons, waning holiness, and the pleasurable experiences in this life. Why? Because we are being rooted and grounded in The One who is the Paschal Mystery—dying and rising—who embraces joy and pain in life. Eliot’s subsequent passage in “East Coker” echoes this mystery, encouraging a courageous hope rooted in God alone:
“So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing. […] The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy. Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony. Of death and birth.”
We wait crying out, sometimes wearily, yet inherently hopeful, by that very cry. Increasingly, singularly saying, “Come Lord Jesus!”
Duke Walker is a regular contributor to the Soul Care Collective.