When Hope Hurts

When Hope Hurts“I don’t know who that old self is. What I do know is that God says to him that he must die.”

That was the counsel given as I began to realize past pains and abuses long hidden, unspoken, unknown. As I began to wrestle with the feeling that the self I’d come to know was without foundation. Who was I? And who was this God? How could this be true? And how could He love me when I didn’t even know who I was?

I suppose my experience is more extreme than what many of us commonly experience. But it is only that—more extreme. We all have those times when God brings us to the end of ourselves. Indeed, He must, for it is only in dying that we live, only in willingly sacrificing our old selves that we may be raised with Him.

I believe many of us know this truth. It is the gospel. I believe many of us have experienced the new life, the new freedom, the new identity in Christ. I believe it for myself and for others. God transforms lives and hearts and marriages and friendships, gives life and hope and joy.

But hope can be hard. What happens when hope feels like it falsely promises? We know that it cannot, ultimately, for God tells us “hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.“ (Romans 5:5) But I believe we all know those times when it feels like perhaps hope is flagging and failing, when the cry “How long, O Lord” is less a cry of faith and one of despair.

Telling my story of rescue, I can speak of the freedom God has given me even in the struggle with my bipolar. I’d never shared publicly the my  bipolar condition. Yet as I wrote the story and as I told it, I was reminded and re-impressed with the persistent presence of the reality. Medication is a relief, perhaps not a means of grace but an avenue for blessing. Yet short of a divine miracle, I may experience lessened symptoms, but freedom from them will remain always only beyond the pale. Those days when depression strikes, or even when I simply know the reality that it will, hope flags.

So circumstance can make hope hard.

So can new growth.

Those events in my past and those means of coping I uncovered I’ve seen growth in, but it has been slow and painful. And at times, I despair of freedom, for it seems so afar. And at times, I see how pervasive the harm, and I despair of rightly knowing either the pain or myself.

I find myself in these situations tempted to a mantra of “Don’t hope. Hope hurts.” There is the temptation to return to the old ways. The greater temptation, though, is to remain where I am, miserable though I may be. Because somehow the hope for relief seems somehow an additional pain, the misery of the now and the misery of what seems like it will never be.

So how can we hope?

As the prophet Isaiah ends his exhortations to Israel, God proclaims the following:

“Before she was in labor she gave birth;
before her pain came upon her, she delivered a son.
Who has heard such thing?
Who has seen such things?
Shall a land be born in one day?
Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment?
For as soon as Zion was in labor
she brought forth her children.
Shall I bring to the point of birth and
not cause to bring forth?” says the LORD,
“shall I, who cause to bring birth, shut the womb?
says your God”

I believe the pain of hope is the pain of new birth. It is the pain of life being born. It is the pain as there is a death to give new life.

Hope can hurt because hope is the longing for what has not yet come to pass. In this, it partakes in joy, which C.S. Lewis describes as the painful longing for something beyond our experience, to which all our experiences point us. All pleasures then, have joy, but the joy is the pain of knowing that our pleasures are not yet consummated.

We only hope because we desire the better, the fulfillment. I only hope to be free from bipolar because God has given me glimpses of what will one day be. I only hope to grow into the freedom to embrace and walk through my past because I have seen glimpses of the man God wants me to be. And I only hurt because those things are so beautiful, so pure, that to not have them must hurt. They would not be true joys if the lack of them was not painful.

The hope I now have is knowing that what I feel is God bringing to the point of birth. The reason I continue to walk forward and will not give up on hope is because the One in whom I hope promises that He will give the birth of what I long for.

I believe this is what the church is. It is the place that we bring our pains and our joys to find them ultimately fulfilled. But only in hope. For the greatest joy we may feel in church is but a foretaste of the eventual consummation of all things.

This is why church is for the suffering. The church alone can fully own the suffering as an evil and yet name the sufferings as wrong because of the joy that remains. Were the gospel untrue, sufferings would cease to be sufferings and simply be what is.

This is why the church is for rejoicing. The church alone can fully own the joys of life as goods and yet name them as only partial fulfillments because of that same remaining joy. Were the gospel untrue, joys as well would be simply what is.

God promises that our sufferings and joys alike are the pains of the new birth, and He alone promises that He will not make those the end, but will give the birth they foretell.

So I can let that old self die even without knowing fully who he was and embrace the new self even without knowing fully who he will be. Jesus holds me. In this I hope.

Todd Wedel