The past couple of decades in brain research has yielded amazing and unexpected discoveries. Using MRI technology, brain researchers have better refined our understanding of the brain’s structure as well as how the brain responds to various stimuli. For example, to better understand how the brain of a smoker works, scientists would tell the test subjects to think about cigarettes and observe how the brain responds through MRI. All good research requires not only test subjects but also a control group. In such studies, the control group would be told to empty their minds and think of nothing. What we accidentally discovered is that the human brain does not default to think about nothing. Our “default setting” is to think about the future.
We think about the future in three ways. First, we fantasize about what the future might hold. These are the pleasant daydreams wherein everything works out in our favor and all is well. Some might call it wishful thinking. Second, we worry about the future. In these moments, all that could go wrong does go wrong, and our prospective future is filled with insurmountable obstacles. Nestled between these two extremes is hope.
The hopeful share five characteristics.
The hopeful person believes the future will be better than the present.
All religions endeavor to answer four essential questions: Where did we come from? What is our purpose? How shall we live? What is our destiny? The Christian faith answers these questions in distinctive ways, especially in response to the last. Christians believe a glorious resurrection and eternal life await us in the future (e.g. Romans 8:18-25). This is the hope — the better future — promised by the gospel. Regardless of what course our life takes, regardless of how painful, miserable or bleak this present life may be, the Christian holds out hope in a future free from tears, aches, and heartaches.
The hopeful person believes behavior links the present to the future.
In 1 John 3:2-3, John says,
“Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.”
Our faith assures us that upon our resurrection, God will transform our body to conform to the body Jesus now occupies. This hope, John teaches, is more than wishful thinking. The one who hopes in Jesus purifies his or her life. The gospel proclaims a living hope, a hope that compels one to act. True hope sees a better future on the horizon and believes behavior connects the present to the future.
The hopeful person sees many paths to a better future.
We think of Hebrews 11 as the chapter of faith. Upon closer examination, the examples brought up in Hebrews 11 shared more than one faith – they shared one hope. For example, by faith Abraham, “waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (verse 10). Abraham chose a nomadic life, dwelling in tents, moving from place to place in the land God promised to his descendants. Abraham trusted in God (faith) while anticipating a better future (hope). Faith is the substance of things hoped for, therefore faith in what we cannot see is leavened by hope and vice versa.
Abraham’s life looked dramatically different from the lives of other faithful people cited by the writers of Hebrews. Did Noah’s life take the same course as Abraham? They were similar insofar as they shared the same faith in God and hope for a better future. But their paths to that better future were remarkably dissimilar.
Moses, Rahab, Jephthah, David, and others reveal and reinforce this simple truth: while we may share one hope with other like-minded people, our path to a better resurrection and eternal life may look dramatically different in comparison. Some of us will die young while others will live long, faithful lives. Some among us will enter eternity having battled depression or anxiety while others have never experienced such troubles. Regardless, we all believe Jesus will raise us from the dead, transform our lowly bodies, and deliver us to the mansion He has prepared.
The hopeful person knows that obstacles will stand between the present and reaching the better future.
Romans 4 is another chapter dedicated to faith. Paul discusses the faith of one man, Abraham, and how he blazed the trail of justification by faith. Again, we see the interplay between faith and hope: Abraham, “who, contrary to hope, in hope believed…” (verse 18). God promised Abraham and Sarah that in their advanced years, they would have a son. Even in our day of medical advances and knowledge of human anatomy, we know the prospect of child being born to a couple who are approaching one hundred years in age is impossible, bordering on ludicrous. Abraham also saw the obstacles standing between his present childlessness and that better future with a child and chose to believe. Contrary to hope, in hope he believed. Hope means hoping when all seems hopeless.
An obstacle-free path leading to a better future is fantasy, not hope. The hopeful person anticipates obstacles and will proceed undeterred, allowing those obstacles to strengthen hope. “And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4). Paul draws a direct line between trouble and hope, depicting hope as the natural result in a life refined by the crucible of trials. When the hopeful reach the end of their rope, they tie a knot and hold on. The hopeful person’s belief in a better future grows stronger as obstacles multiply.
The hopeful person is confident that this better future will happen.
There are two principle passages on hope in the New Testament: Romans 8:18-25 and Hebrews 6:9-20. In the latter passage, the writer of Hebrews emphasizes the active, living hope shared by those who are truly hopeful:
“For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister. And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end, that you do not become sluggish, but imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”
True hope sees a better future on the horizon and believes behavior connects the present to the future.
To bolster our confidence, the writer of Hebrews reminds us of God’s promise to Abraham of which we are all beneficiaries in Christ. He notes that God not only promised the childless Abraham a posterity, but He also swore that He would bring it to pass.
“Thus God, determining to show more abundantly to the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel, confirmed it by an oath, that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us” (verses 17-18).
With a promise and an oath from a God who cannot lie (making both the promise and the oath immutable – undeniable, unchallengeable, irreversible, indisputable, etc.), we have a hope brimming with confidence and assurance. Those who call on the name of the Lord will be raised from the dead, clothed with immortality, and dwell with God for eternity. We know this is true because God promised it and confirmed it with an oath. Thus, hope is “an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast” assured by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.