Reasons for Hope, Part 1: Promises for You

Paying attention to the news is a good recipe for pessimism. I noticed the other day that most of what I read and much of what I write is fairly negative, always attacking this or complaining about that. Given the state of American culture and the American church, perhaps that is unsurprising or even necessary. But it is important to remember that even when events are discouraging and it seems like our culture is sliding rapidly downhill, Christians have every reason to be fundamentally optimistic. Today and next week, I’ll be considering a few reasons why we can be hopeful even when the news of the day is not. The first reason is that you and I have very practical promises of daily help from God himself.

Unfortunately, the popularity of the “health and wealth” prosperity gospel means that any discussion of God’s promises needs to start by noting what he did not promise. Nowhere in the Bible does God promise you health, wealth, or any other material indulgence if you can just conjure up enough “faith.” Rather, the Scriptures suggest that trials are an ordinary part of Christian life. Peter warns, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (I Peter 4:12), and the epistle to the Hebrews says, “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted… He disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (12:3,10). Of course, like Paul, we can and should pray that God would lift our trials, but, also like Paul, we must be prepared to be content if the answer is “no” (II Cor. 12:7-10).

Feeling the optimism yet? Thankfully, this isn’t the end of the story. One of the dangers of theological mistakes is that, in addition to misleading those who believe them, they also divert those who swing too far in the other direction. It is easy, in reaction against false prosperity-gospel promises, to act as if God has not offered any promises that might be relevant in the moments between our salvation and the day of final judgment. In fact, though, we have many remarkable promises for daily life, some of which I have discussed elsewhere. For the moment, I want to focus on two promises which I find particularly encouraging when I start to feel downcast about the state of the world.

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Contentment, pagan and Christian

For the great teachers of paganism, contentment rests on the idea that expecting nothing is the only way to avoid disappointment. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus taught his followers that the events of life are beyond our control. Trouble, pain, and suffering may or may not come, but when they do, we cannot do anything about it. All we control, Epictetus said, is our response. Therefore, the secret to contentment is to discipline ourselves to accept the inevitable with calmness.

In Buddhism Plain and Simple, Zen teacher Steve Hagen tells an old story about the Buddha. A farmer came to him with a long list of concerns and complaints about his health, his family, his work, on and on. He asked the Buddha for advice. The teacher’s response was simple: “I can’t help you.”

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