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There is a spiritual element to the problem of finding the right hope, albeit it is mysterious and subjective. One way you may think about this is by asking, how much is God working behind the scenes, helping you to find the right hope? I cannot answer this question for you satisfactorily. What I do know is that there is an interplay between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Christians are in a relationship with God; we’re not robots with no free will.
Admittedly, I don’t understand this interplay because it takes me to the limits of my mental capacity. Each time I get to that mysterious spot with the Lord, I see a sign that says, “Stop, go no farther.” The wise recourse is to obey the rules of sovereignty: stop, trust, and rest. You must know that you cannot know all that you want to know about God’s role in your life or your responsibility to cooperate with Him. What you do know is that there is something very different from how God works and how you operate; He’s Sovereign Lord, and you are not.
So, you rest as much as one redeemed but fallen soul can when pondering the interplay between the finite and the infinite. Still, you wonder how much God is guiding you through the corn maze of life. Though He permits you to make decisions, He is the Author, writing a narrative that is leading you to the hope you must have to survive. In theology, we call this journey “progressive sanctification,” which is the macro view. But when you go back to your maze, it’s mission-critical that you rest in knowing that you submit your best decisions to God’s ultimate guidance.
The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps (Proverbs 16:9).
Trusting God is an “imperfect science.” Every person places their hope in the wrong things, especially their “early hopes.” You could say that your hope is always evolving until you make it to the Lord, your ultimate aspiration. Don’t beat yourself up because of your growing but imperfect relationship with the Lord. Embrace it! We’re all in that boat. Most of us begin our journey to God poorly as we go from false hope to false hope until we find the Lord.
For example, when I was a child, I latched onto many things that became my hope. I did this because I was not a believer. And I was immature and “sovereignly dependent” on others to do what I could not do for myself. My early hopes were very much human—a fallen human at that, so I trusted my parents to guide me. I needed their help; I also had other authorities in my life, like my teachers. These folks were supposed to be my salvation.
Was I wrong to depend on my authority figures as a youngster? No. Of course, it would have been great if my parents had stepped up to the responsibility of leading me well. I wish they had told me that they had a limited and fallen role in my life. And that God had exclusive rights and control over my life, and that until I fully submitted to Him, I would never be happy.
My parents did me a disservice. They not only failed in teaching me these deeper, albeit practically transforming truths about life, relationships, and ultimate hope, but they failed in their limited, fallen responsibility of stewarding their call to parent me to God. They dashed my hope in familial and authoritative structures. They obliterated any reasonable human hope that I should have had.
Their collective failures at parenting, stewarding, training, leading, and shaping a child sent me reeling and scurrying to find hope in whatever I could hang onto, even if it were a few thin threads that would carry me from childhood to adulthood. My scurrying led me to another hope, a false one. It was my new “salvific strategy.” Isolation.
I isolated myself from the horrificness of my early childhood. This season was the first time that I felt the double sting of anger and victimhood—a deadly duo. The television, walks in the woods, and other pseudo attempts to hide in plain sight only deepen my dysfunction while entangling me into the intricated, complicatedness of my mind. By the time I was fifteen, my strategy had landed me in jail.
You would think that five days in solitary would be a wake-up call for anyone. Not me. My stubbornness, rebellion, and victimhood were at an all-time high. The accumulation of disappointments from others can blind you to personal responsibility and all sober self-awareness, which is worse when there is a trace of legitimacy to your claim as a victim. The burden of my five-day stint in the slammer did motivate me to make a slight auto-correction. Regrettably, it was not God who became my hope.
I knew that I could not do what I had been doing, which would only lead me to similar results. So I shifted from a life of crime to the life of a hard worker. I used my God-given work ethic to find significance. I was not handsome, so girls were never an option. I was not intelligent, so finding acceptance through academics was out, too. I had one shot, which was to double down on my insatiable desire to fill my love cup by becoming a hard-working teenager. It worked! My newfound hope was in my ability to perform for applause.
Index forward ten years: I found Jesus and brought my hard-working, self-reliance into my fundamentalist culture. I was ready-made to be a legalist. I went from zero to super-spiritual in 60-seconds. I was “head and shoulders” above (1 Samuel 9:2) my “fundy colleagues” because I had a more expansive list of rules, preferences, and practices that put a super-shine on my holiness. It was inevitable: I became a preacher. “My (love) cup runneth over.”
Index forward ten more years: the Jesus that I found at the cross took me into the wilderness and “beat the tar out of me” for a decade. I say this with all respect and gratitude, though that is not how I initially thought about those devastating disappointments with God. I went to Bible college to gain a theological education, and the Lord tossed me in the crucible of suffering to burn the residue of my inferior hopes out of my soul. He’s not finished yet, but when God does “realign you,” it does place you on the right rail.
I’ve had many inferior hopes. Some of them happen with the natural course of life, i.e., parental expectations and school teachers. Others you stumble upon usually have something to do with self-reliance, i.e., work, beauty, intelligence, and social aptitude. Some make you a victim, and others are because you chose them, either ignorantly or willfully. Either way, none of them satisfy. Even the most stubborn person who has spent decades dulling his conscience so he can fain happiness still knows something is amiss.
Even the right religion does not help if you haven’t entirely worked through your former manner of life that you trucked into your relationship with the Lord. For some, like me, it was a couple of tractor-trailer loads of fallen habits that they brought into their experience with Jesus. And this is where it becomes dicey. You can place your hope in the right person and get a different outcome from what you expected.
At the heart of this tension are your intellectual understanding and practical application of biblical suffering. I call this a “theology of suffering” because that language fits the issue the best. You could call it “God and your suffering,” which is the proper note you’re looking for to address your disappointments as a believer. Most Christians are weak in this area. You will know this by how they respond to the things they don’t like.
The most proper realignment that you can make is to read Hebrews 11 and place yourself at the most acute crisis point in that passage. And then compare your reaction to your disappointments with how those folks of the faith responded to God and others when things went sideways for them. One of the most vital things you will ever do after God regenerates you is to bolster your understanding and practice of suffering.
If you don’t do this, you will continue to swirl in Christian mediocrity while making a case for why you are correct; God is wrong. Everyone has experienced victimization, and no believer should ever dismiss the hurts of others as a trivial thing. But there is a problem: when the legitimacy of your victim-ness becomes your controlling identity, you’re on the precipice of blindness. From there, it’s a short step to a rationale that will be hard to change.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).