Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 12

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‘Yodh’

Is there a difference between optimism and hope? “Both optimism and hope,’ explains Miroslav Volf (Against the Tide), “entail positive expectations with regard to the future. But…they are radically different stances toward reality.” Optimism is looking at past or current conditions and mapping out likely positive future occurrences based on those experiences. It is based on circumstances and situations. Hope, in contrast, explains Volf, “is grounded in the faithfulness of God and therefore on the effectiveness of God’s promise.” Yodh, the tenth stanza of Psalm 119, illustrates for us what hope—not optimism—looks like.

Your hands made me and formed me; give me understanding to learn your commands. / May those who fear you rejoice when they see me, for I have put my hope in your word. / I know, O LORD, that your laws are righteous, and in faithfulness you have afflicted me. / May your unfailing love be my comfort, according to your promise to your servant./ Let your compassion come to me that I may live, for your law is my delight. / May the arrogant be put to shame for wronging me without cause; but I will meditate on your precepts. / May those who fear you turn to me, those who understand your statutes. / May my heart be blameless toward your decrees, that I may not be put to shame” (Psalm 119:73-80).

The psalmist has had, or is currently experiencing, troubles of some sort. He’s suffering. He’s been “wrong(ed) without cause” and “afflicted.” He’s a rational person and there is no good reason to be optimistic based on his situation. He cannot extrapolate any realistically good outcome from his current experience with any sense of reliability. Optimism has failed him.

But listen to the hope infusing this segment of the psalm—words like “rejoic(ing)”, and “delight” explode the myth that pain removes dignity from life. Rather, in the midst of his pain, the psalmist looks to his Maker, the LORD God, to be faithful to His promise to be loving and compassionate to him. He is comforted by this relationship of love that God has initiated; he rests heavily on the faithfulness that defines God.

Circumstances have no power over the lives of those who entrust themselves to God. This is the most freeing truth the Biblical text communicates. While optimism can too easily shift to become despair, anchoring our hope in a loving God brings lasting peace and a solution to the dilemma ‘How do I live victoriously in the midst of suffering?’

It all comes back to promise. The faithfulness of God is always expressed and communicated to us in the form of promise. The psalmist recognizes this and reminds himself and God with the phrase “according to your promise.” And what is this promise? It is the theme that runs throughout the Bible from start to finish, spoken and respoken in many ways. An earlier psalm phrases it this way: “All nations will be blessed through him, and they will call him blessed” (Psalm 72:17b). The promise is Jesus whose purpose was and is to bless all peoples through His work on the cross—the unthinkable death of the Author of life bringing unimaginable life to those who were enslaved by death. He is Promise and He is Hope.

The result of living life with hope is a greater awareness of God’s thoroughgoing involvement in our daily lives. We become more aware that He made us with all our physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and social complexities. We become more resolved to submit to God’s ways (vs.73), more sensitive to encouraging others (vs.74), more open to God’s faithfulness, compassion and love in the midst of suffering (vs.75-77), more faithful in obeying God’s precepts (vs. 78), more connected to others who also fear God (vs.79), and more wholehearted in relationship with God (vs.80). Hope restores our humanity to us through the perfect humanity of Christ.

God never gives us second best. That is why hope beats optimism every time. Promise gives a preview of how life not only ought to be, but will someday truly be. Hope in the Promised One will take even the worst of our suffering and transform us into people with the character of the perfect God-man, Jesus.

OUSTING LESS FROM HOPELESS

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Euthanasia was the solution for our family dog yesterday. She had been getting steadily worse over the past three weeks and there was no improvement even with antibiotics. The vet phoned to prod us to action; the situation was hopeless, and Lassie was beginning to suffer.

The current rise in interest and political lobbying for human euthanasia may have some core similarity to our dog’s situation. I don’t mean about the suffering, because that’s a given. I’m wondering, rather, about that daunting word ‘hopeless’ that has such a dark and hollow ring to it. Is it more an issue of hopeless suffering that begs a solution than just the suffering alone?

We’ve all suffered to some extent. There have been the scrapes and bruises of life, the physical as well as the mental and emotional; there are the deeper injuries of broken relationships and interpersonal conflict. The cancers and dementias and chronic deteriorations take their toll and reveal how frail we really are for a species who thinks we have so much in our power. But is it the pain itself that defines the worst of suffering, or is it the hopelessness we fear?

Could it be that when we can envision no good purpose to our pain that our suffering becomes insufferable?

Read that again. Let that thought mull in the mind for a moment. The bottomless shaft of pain is not really the worst of the suffering, is it? It is the failure of the situation to embody any sort of good purpose. We want to know we are intrinsically bound to a higher purpose, a good that transcends the pain we are feeling now.

And if we can’t find that higher purpose, we’ll do all sorts of things to move that thought out of our consciousness: we’ll destroy ourselves if we have to, but we cannot endure the thought of hopelessness.

So when God, in His Word, the Bible, communicates the main theme of hope, it seems like that is about the most relevant piece of information our species could be given, doesn’t it? Listen:

Ephesians 2:12 “Remember… you were without hope and without God in the world.”

Colossians 1:27 “God has chosen to make known…this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Hebrews 6:13-19 “God made his promise…’I will surely bless you’… (and) we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.”

Yes, there is and always will be on this aching old planet more suffering than we can see a purpose for. (Some people will use this as their main rationale to discount God’s existence). But in the midst of it all, God has made a promise to bless us. ‘Surely’, He says. ‘I will surely bless you.’ In other words, the pain may be chronic and far-reaching in this life, but this life is not all there is. There is a life fuller, more expansive, eternal and good for every person on this planet, just waiting to be grasped. There is even a good purpose to our suffering which, while we may not see or realize it in the here and now, will be revealed in that eternal life. That’s what generations of people who have opted for faith in Christ have chosen to believe.

It’s a narrow doorway to hope – we can only access it by entrusting ourselves to Jesus’ work on the cross for us. But it’s the most spacious and expansive place awaiting us on the other side. That’s what hope from hopelessness is all about.

KISSING THE FEAR OF DEATH GOOD-BYE

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A squall tumbles headlong onto the lake and the sailboat is being swamped. The boatload of ex-fishermen has seen storms before, but never one like this. Raging waters are coming over the gunwales and the small sailboat is listing at a crazy angle. One thought rises in the minds of the men: they are about to face death! Their greatest fear is being realized this very moment .

It’s something each of us must face sooner or later – our own death. Most of us succeed in tucking the disturbing thought into the deep recesses of our minds, but that won’t change the dreadful reality of our own mortality. Some of us have experienced the piercing pain of losing a loved one firsthand. Some of us are more aware than others of our own imminent death. What may be the most common response of those facing this universal milestone in life is fear.

The men onboard the careening boat know fear; they feel its icy fingers clenching their hearts as wave after wave of the heavy seas crash into their vessel. Like foolish schoolboys they suddenly remember their sleeping passenger and tumble over one another to get to Him.

“Master, Master!” they cry, waking Him from his deep slumber. “We’re going to drown!” they bawl over the howling of the wind. The fear in the voices and eyes of the motley crew touches Jesus and he takes notice. He loves these followers of His, but they are so slow to learn.

We’re like that too, aren’t we? Whether we admit it or not, we fear death too. We’ve learned it from others around us – the skull icons we see around us so commonly in the marketplace are a bold front designed to mock death, but we just can’t seem to conquer that persistent ubiquitous feeling of fear that rises in us at unexpected times. Ian McCormick, the young New Zealander who encountered a near death experience in the soon-to-be-released film, “The Perfect Wave” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W8DOyx8OjUo) admits feeling fear as his body succumbed to the poison of a deadly jellyfish attack. We seem to believe we deserve to feel and express fear regarding death; nothing else is more extreme in this life than death – of course we are fearful!

Looking at His followers, Jesus feels for them. Their fear is destroying something in them that has only recently begun to grow. Like a tender plant sprouting between rocks on a mountainside, their faith is almost invisible against the massive overshadowing cliff of fear. So He rises, steadying his sandaled feet on the flooded deck of the little boat, and speaks a word of reproach to the elements of nature; the waters become eerily calm, and He turns quietly to His disciples.

“Where is your faith?” He asks them. Jaws drop open as the disciples look around at the glassy sea. What Jesus has done for the disciples, is a picture of what He does for us every day. His presence is the greatest reality we can know as mortals. Fears have no place in the hearts and minds of those who call themselves followers of Jesus. The fear that we might face dangers that could destroy us is a lie unworthy of the seed of faith He has planted in our hearts. His love is the only cure to drive out our fear; it will replace our fears with the calm of His peace. He promises to never leave us, not even through the experience of our own physical death.

“For I am convinced,” admits a follower of Jesus who would later die for his faith, “that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38,39).

It’s time to kiss the fear of death good-bye. We have Jesus as our ever-present companion and He will enable us to face death with jaw-dropping peace. We can believe that.

REVELATION: Part 5

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Time, Truth, and Human Existence (Rev.2:8-11)

The second letter Jesus dictates is written to a church called Smyrna. He speaks with an air of authority to these believers that rings true to our experience too. He describes Himself as having authority over time, truth and human existence. The letter to Smyrna is a letter to each of us, because, admit it, we all have issues with letting someone else, even God, have authority over us.

“These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again I know your afflictions and your poverty – yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell, you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.”

Jesus is the Time Authority. He calls Himself, “The First and the Last” in the realm of time; He brought time into being, sustains the world within the parameters of time, redeems time for His glory, and is the host who will usher us out of time and into eternity one day.

At its root, Smyrna’s problem is time-related. The church is suffering, and the suffering seems to be endless. The believers in Smyrna are in constant pain, dire poverty, and their very lives are at stake because of their faith. The political climate is not a healthy one for these faithful few; the social stigma and price to pay for their faith is high and is not about to end soon. Jesus admits it. So if Jesus is the authority over time, why does He allow these trials to go on and on?

We know how the Smyrnans felt. Some of us have suffered interminably too: we’ve lost friendships, educational opportunities and job prospects because our faith has called us to be people of integrity. Time hasn’t changed. Pop culture has always attempted to silence those who speak of God’s authority. Jesus encourages us to “not be afraid”, but to “be faithful”. We mustn’t quit. He has time and us in His hands, and it will all come out right in the end. Jesus promises.

Jesus is also the Truth Authority. He calls Himself “The First and the Last” Word. He created the world with the first of words and he has the last say in everything. He knows truth so intimately, nothing and no one can deceive Him: not Satan nor his demons, not those who hide their evil behind facades of false piety, not even the lie that tempts us to think all roads to truth are equal. He alone is Truth. Allowing His Spirit to reveal truths to us through His Word, the Bible, is His exclusive right; the slander of those who seek to destroy is nothing but lies. As we suffer the corruption of truth in our culture of relativism, he who has the authority of truth calls us to endure. Hold fast to truth. His ways are right and one day all will be made right. We have His word on it.

And thirdly, Jesus is the Human Existence Authority. He is the “one who died and came to life again”. He has experienced everything the Smyrnans or we can ever experience, but without sin. He has lived the gamut of life and death experiences; there is nothing in living that surprises Him. Do we have pain? He did too. Have we been disappointed? He knew it deeply. Have we felt joys? Deeper still are His. Again, Jesus says don’t quit: don’t quit believing Him, don’t quit finding identity in Him, and don’t quit living life fully for Him. Jesus, the authority on life, has more life to give us than we can imagine.

Time, truth and life are all under the authority of Jesus. That’s what Revelation 2:8-11 reveals. While culture likes to intimate that there is no ultimate authority, that it’s all relative, Jesus speaks a different message. Don’t be intimidated, He says. I am there for you through all of life and truth and even beyond time into eternity. I give you authority to overcome every obstacle if you are faithful. I am with you. Our response to this challenge determines our outcome. Let’s take the risk, submit ourselves entirely to Him and see what He will do. Isn’t it high time we truly start living?