Hope Will Not Disappoint Us
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5: 1-5 NRSV)
Just a few years ago, on June 17, 2015, in Charleston, South Carolina, nine men and women, while they while they were studying their Bible, were murdered for the simple reason that they were African-Americans. We have grieved and continue to mourn over this random act of malice. This weekend, we remember the mass murder of innocent Christians gathered at Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. They will forever be a part of the worldwide history of martyrs.
This horrible episode was front-page news nationally and internationally. We couldn’t ignore it, even if we wanted to. This was an overt, in-your-face hate crime, nothing subtle about it. The perpetrator admitted that he wanted to start a race war.
We are reminded of the pain, suffering, and injustice of human existence. The challenge of Christian people, especially, is how to walk through this “valley of the shadow of death,” or any raw and sorrowful experience, without getting stuck there.
Paul wrote these words about endurance and hope in the Epistle to the church in Rome during an equally ugly era in history. His was not a comfortable, soft, and easy world. Evil and injustice happened then as it has in every generation before and after.
This isn’t a new list. Here in the fifth chapter of his letter to the church in Rome, Paul had advice for those living in even the most horrific of circumstances. Remember that Jesus, the Savior, had been murdered only a few years earlier. Remember that persecution of Christians, such as Stephen, had already begun. Yet, Paul had the temerity to suggest that it’s possible to take the most awful circumstances life can throw at us, and use even them for the glory of God.
Such a response is not universal or automatic. There are other options.
First Option: Deaf and Blind
We can simply ignore the pain, as long as it’s happening to someone else. We can turn a deaf ear and a blind eye. My Old Testament professor said the great sin of the Old Testament was, “They would not listen.”
My home church in North Augusta, South Carolina, received a bequest at the death of a church member. The income was a windfall, and the congregation made a decision to spend the money for a variety of outreach projects, one of which was to asphalt an outdoor basketball court as a means of bringing teenagers to the church campus.
God answered their prayers and teenagers came. Unfortunately, to that congregation, the young people had the wrong skin pigmentation. The church did not see them as valuable. So the church built a tall fence around the basketball court and padlocked the gate to keep the teenagers out. The playground remains unused and silent to this day, thirty years later.
There are none so blind as they who will not see.
What will it take to make us see those who do not look like us? What will it take for us to value them?
- Thank God the “Me Too” movement has called our attention to all manner of sexual assault that previously had been ignored.
- Thank God the exposure of pedophiles is helping people in positions of power finally to acknowledge and report a perennial problem that’s always been there, but hidden.
- Thank God that in the 1960s and 70s black students marched, sat at lunch counters, and protested to focus a spotlight on some of the injustices of life in the segregated South. How could so-called “good Christian” white men, women, and teenagers not see the injustice of segregation? How can we still not see the injustice of white privilege as it manifests itself in education, medical care, housing, and employment opportunities?
Isn’t it odd that a culture that could ignore, or even applaud, lynchings was finally moved to action by the inability of African-American college students to order a meal at the restaurant of their choice?
Oh, we can be blind and deaf.
Second Option: Cynicism and Contempt
Another option of response to the pain and suffering of the world is contempt.
We South Carolinians should all be familiar with the infamous “Cheegro” sermon preached in February 1956, by W. A. Criswell, one of the premier pulpiteers of his generation, and pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. This scornful, cynical attempt at dark and misplaced humor is part of our South Carolina history. Two times Criswell preached this sermon in South Carolina, the first at the Evangelism Conference of the South Carolina Baptist Convention. The Baptist preachers laughed so heartily Criswell was persuaded to reprise his remarks the next day before the state’s highest officers during a joint gathering of our state’s legislators. More laughter.
His punch line? In his sermon, Criswell lamented that “… Southerners would no longer be able to say ‘chigger.’” The NAACP, Criswell claimed, would require us all to say “cheegro.” To Criswell, that was a Big Joke.
More contempt for the African-Americans in our state. More cynicism.
It wasn’t enough that black citizens were relegated to an undignified second-class status in South Carolina. Our state’s religious and political leaders laughed at the desire of the state’s black citizens not to be referred to with a racial slur.
Cynicism comes in all shapes and sizes, some of which have nothing to do with race. Recently, I spent time with a woman who was fatalistic about life, her outlook tainted by unhappy experiences. Her daughter’s drug dependency and a business failure had overwhelmed her. Her theme for our conversation was identical to sections of Ecclesiastes: “Everything is useless.” This inconsolable weariness is a second possibility as a response to suffering.
But Christians are taught by Jesus to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
The Serenity Prayer teaches us to ask for “… the courage to change the things I can.”
There’s no place for despair in either of those prayers.
Third Option: Endurance and Hope
Finally, there is a third option for dealing with pain, suffering, and injustice that is Biblical and beneficial. We find it in Romans 5: 1-5. This is God’s Word. The third alternative, according to St. Paul, is hope and endurance, based on our confidence in God’s grace.
Romans 5: 5: “Hope will not disappoint us.”
The mercies of God can prevent our pain and misery from being a dead end.
Of the three choices, I’d prefer to side with Paul.
In church, we say, “God is good … all the time.” And we believe it.
However, this third, biblical option involves waiting. We may not like that, but that is a basic life lesson. You plant a seed today, and you do not gather the harvest tomorrow. There is a time when the earth is silent, but the seed matures. Even when the seed has grown, winter comes, and vines, bushes, and trees look as if they have died, but they are merely dormant. Winter is not death. It is not a dead end. It is a season. Spring will come. We wait. We endure. We persevere.
A popular concept in contemporary politics and business is whether or not there is a path forward. Paul says there is a path forward.
Problems provide an opportunity. Any motivational speaker will tell you that. Being a Christian is not required, but it helps. Endurance or perseverance means to hang in there, to keep on keeping on, to cling to hope. Coaches and teachers have us practice what we need to learn because we absorb lessons through repetition. Persevere. Endure.
Romans 5: 5 reads, “Hope will not disappoint us.”
If we have lived more than a few years, we know spring will return. We can’t rush it, but inevitably, year after year, spring follows winter.
Endurance, Paul says, will build our character. Here’s where we come to a fork in the road. When we are faced with difficulty, character is either built, or it’s not. In a short story about the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky, author Wendell Berry describes a character, Uncle Peach, this way: “All his life he had been drifting. All his life he had followed the inclination of flowing water toward the easiest way, and the lowest.” Uncle Peach’s character did not improve with time.
Evil happens, sooner or later, to everyone. Winter comes. Some, more than others, experience overwhelming trouble, accidents of birth or happenstance, hard times.
Life’s circumstances may seem random and unfair, but, even then, they provide an opportunity to grow in spiritual maturity.
How do we find a Biblical path, a way forward, that is neither a) blind nor b) cynical?
The third option, the biblical preference is patient, faithful endurance, and hope.
Paul says the goal is to find hope. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood this, quoting William Cullen Bryant, “Truth crushed to the ground shall rise again.” That’s hope.
Martin Luther King, Jr. also popularized the belief that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That’s hope.
Romans 5: 5 says, “Hope will not disappoint us.”
A word related to perseverance is patience. Richard Rohr reminds us that Jesus
“… uses metaphors of the seed, the maturing ear of corn, weeds and wheat growing together, and yeast rising. His parables about the ‘Reign of God’ are about finding, discovering and being surprised, changing roles and status. None of these notions are static; they are always about something new and good coming into being.”
Christians love stories of instant transformation, of repentance, of immediate change, of a hundred and eighty degree turn from evil to righteousness. Far more common in my experience is incremental change. Ships don’t turn instantly from going east to traveling west. The ship’s course is changed incrementally, degree by degree, point by point.
So it is with our response to evil in the world. One change begets another.
- We suffer, then, persevere, and our moral character matures by a fraction.
- We witness a heroic act, and we are challenged and grow.
- We read an inspirational story, and are encouraged, and deepen our moral character, understanding and behavior.
- We face difficulty, and we act courageously, and our patience and faithfulness and sense of justice expand. We no longer shrink from doing the hard things.
- We walk through the valley of the shadow of death, not fearing evil, because our Shepherd is with us.
Even Broadway, in Man of La Mancha, with lyrics by Joe Darion, can teach us there’s a time …
“To fight for the right without question or pause,
To be willing to march into Hell for a Heavenly cause.
And I know if I’ll only be true to this glorious quest,
That my heart will be peaceful and calm when I’m laid to my rest,
And the world will be better for this.”
Hope is real. It’s not naïve.
It’s not deaf or blind.
There’s no need to be cynical.
Hope is part of the Bible from Genesis to the Revelation.
Hope does not disappoint us.
The Rev. Marion D. Aldridge, DMin
Pastor and Author
Coordinator Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of SC, Retired
President South Carolina Christian Action Council, 1991-1992