“Hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.”
So said Friedrich Nietzche. But was he right?
Promises change things – they give us hope.
Many of us, particular in these days of pandemic, want things to be better than they currently are, we want someone to change our future because our present is not to our liking. We all need hope. Hope keeps us going in the face of problems which seem insurmountable. Without it we become resigned to never ending difficulty and, like Nietzsche, tend towards depression and passivity.
Theologian Jurgen Moltmann writes, “Present and future, experience and hope, stand in contradiction to each other”. He suggests that “hope is directed to what is not yet visible… and brands the visible realm of present experience…as a transient reality that is to be left behind”.
But some are uncomfortable with our constantly living in the hope of a better tomorrow. ‘Mindfulness’, the psychological process of bringing ones attention to experiences occurring in the present, is increasingly advocated as the answer to all our problems. But whilst mindfulness may have its place when we are overwhelmed by unnecessary anxiety concerning the future, grounding us, as it does, in the here and now and helping us appreciate what we have and can currently enjoy, if we imagine we can sort out our very real problems by considering the intricacies of a tree, then surely we are mistaken.
T.S.Eliot penned, “The knowledge derived from experience…imposes a pattern, and falsifies”. What we know from what we encounter is not enough to understand fully. We need to draw from outside of ourselves if we are not to be misled. The present requires the context given it by the past and is tempered by what is expected in the future. A powerful illustration of this is provided by John Piper. He asks us to imagine that, whilst walking through a hospital, we hear the screams of somebody in pain. He suggests that how we feel about what we hear will differ greatly depending on whether we are on an oncology ward or a labour ward. The future matters – it changes our present.
As a doctor, there is a sense in which I am in the business of changing the future for my patients – offering a promise of a better tomorrow for those with whom I consult. I seek to envisage what currently can’t be seen and then endeavour to bring it into reality for them. Moltmann again: “Hope’s statements of promise…stand in contradiction to the reality which can at present be experienced. They do not result from experiences, but are the condition for the possibility of new experiences. They do not seek to illuminate the reality which exists, but the reality that is coming.” So, for example, when I issue a prescription for an antibiotic, it is the proffering of a hope, that the infection will come to an end. It’s a promise that what is not true now, will shortly be so.
But really changing the future is an act solely of the divine – although doctors can help us with an irritating cough, we need more than such trivial matters resolved. In particular, we can strive all we like to live in the moment but, as temporal creatures, we cannot escape the future. Not least, we cannot deny that we are cognisant of our own mortality. Death is a problem we all have to face and one which medicine, despite its best efforts, will never solve.
To quote Moltmann once more, “The pain of despair surely lies in the fact that a hope is there – but no way opens up towards its fulfilment”. What then can we do when faced with the problem of death. Must we, if we are to carry on at all, agree with L.M. Montgomery that ‘life is a perfect graveyard of buried hopes’? Should we, with Dylan Thomas, “rage, rage against the dying of the light” or comfort ourselves with mere mindfulness as we “go gentle into that good night”.
Death is not the only future problem we face that medicine cannot solve. Many people have lost hope of things ever being better – the future is something only to be feared. We live in an increasingly anxiety ridden society. Henry Thoreau wrote “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them.” But Thoreau was wrong – the desperation is deafening.
Many of us will know what it is to have a difficulty which appears beyond us, which wears us down and threatens both our present happiness and the happiness we desire for tomorrow. If then we are to solve the problem of the future, we must either limit its’ importance and be content to be satisfied by the joy we can muster in the present, or struggle to find the antidote to despair that is the hope of something better. There is much that medicine can do but ultimately our hope would be better placed elsewhere – after all, a misplaced hope is a false hope, and a false hope is no hope at all.
We need to be directed towards a real hope that can lift us above the suffering of the here and now, something we can look forward to and which, despite everything, will keep us going; something which, even if it can’t immediately get us to the top of the mountain we face, manages to draw us up a little higher and puts us in a place where we are able to at least imagine what the view from the top might look like.
When life is hard, whether at work or elsewhere, we all want things to be better – it’s then, more than ever, that we need a hope for the future to keep us keeping on. And for that we need someone who can make, and keep, bigger promises than a mere doctors assurance that a rash will clear up.
Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was a German born philosopher best known for ‘The Human Condition’ (1958) She identified two key behaviours for bringing about change – those of forgiveness and the making and keeping of promises. Forgiveness, she said, is the behaviour by which it is possible to nullify past actions, releasing others from what they have done and enabling them to change their minds and start again. ‘Forgiveness’, she writes, ‘is the key to action and freedom’ and ‘the only way to reverse the irreversible flow of history’. In contrast, the ability to make and keep promises is the key to make the future different from the past. ‘Promises are the…way of ordering the future, making it predictable and reliable’.
I think Arendt was right, but though she would have felt that these behaviours were possible for humans, in truth our efforts are often insufficient. We need a God who truly forgives, completely, and who can make and keep promises big enough to change our future in ways in which we can not. Promises that can assure us that our biggest problems can be solved. And that is exactly the kind of God we do have.
God is a God who makes promises, promises he keeps. He’s been making them from the early chapters of Genesis. Amazing promises – that he kept. And he has made amazing promises to us too, namely that, in Christ we are forgiven and our future is with him. And he will keep those promises too. Believe that and we will not lose hope, no matter our current circumstances.
Promised forgiveness – changes our past.
Promises believed – change our present
Promises made – change our future .
Nietzsche was wrong. Because, in reality, hope does not prolong the torments of man, rather it sustains us through them.
Promises change things – they give us hope. And all the more so when, based on promises we can absolutely trust, our hope is absolutely certain.
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