Promises change things – they give us hope.

Today is January 1st and at the start of a new year you may be hoping that 2023 will be better than 2022. But if the last few years are anything to go by, simply hoping that next year will be better because it couldn’t possibly be worse, is no guarantee of anything. Even so, many of us 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 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’. I think he is saying that 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 controlling the future in such a way that a change for the better can be guaranteed is something beyond mere mortals, including those who can wield a pen and a prescription pad. Whilst doctors may be able to help us overcome an irritating chest infection, we need more pressing 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’. That is, we all want to avoid death, but it would seem that the best we can hope for is to merely postpone it. Perhaps it is little wonder then that Friedrich Nietzche’s asserted that ‘Hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.’

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’.

Of course 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 short lived joy we can muster in the present or struggle to find an antidote to despair by hoping in something that really can guarantee a genuinely better future.

For Nietzsche there was no hope, for him there was no end to our torment, because, whilst there is much that medicine and politics and social action can do, the reality remains that these things can not bring about the changes we want most and need. Ultimately then, our hope needs to be in something else, because hoping in what can’t deliver is a hope misplaced, 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, 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 can be made by mere doctors, politicians and social media influencers.

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, the truth is that even our best efforts are often insufficient. We need a God, one who truly forgives, who nullifies our past and releases us to start again. We need a God 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 really can be solved.

And that is exactly the kind of God we do have. Nietzsche belief that we consigned to a life of perpetual torment was a direct consequence of his belief in a godless reality, the inevitable result of his denying the existence of the only one who can give us hope. But Nietzche was wrong – God is not dead, on the contrary, he is very much alive.

God is a God who makes promises, promises he keeps. He’s been making them from the early chapters of Genesis. Amazing promises – all of which 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.

Promises of forgiveness – change our past.
Promises believed – change our present.
Promises of a brighter tomorrow – change our future.

Because Nietzche’s view of reality was one in which there was no God, his assertion that hoping in reality prolongs our torment was wrong. The truth is that we live surrounded by promises made by a faithful God who will not renege on what he has said. Hoping in this reality, rather than prolonging our torments, sustains us through them, until such time as those promises are fulfilled and all our tears are washed away and death is gone forever.

Promises like these change things – at the start of a new year they give us hope, a certain hope, the hope we all need. Therefore

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. Romans 15:13

‘For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him’ Psalm 62:5

Happy New Year.

Related posts:

To read ‘A Merry and Resilient Christmas’ click here

To read ‘Rest Assured’, click here

To read ‘Advent 2022. Part One: Hope‘, click here

To read ‘Good Friday 2022’, click here

To read “Easter Sunday – 2021”, click here

To read “Suffering- A Personal View”, click here.

To read “Why do bad things happen to good people – a tentative suggestion”, click here

To read “Luther and the global pandemic – on becoming a theologian of the cross”, click here

To read ‘Covid -19. Does it suggest we really did have the experience but miss the meaning?’, click here. This is a slightly adapted version of “T.S. Eliot, Jesus and the Paradox of the Christian Life’.

To read ‘I’ll miss this when I’m gone’, click here

To read, ‘But this I know’, click here

To read ‘The “Already” and the “Not Yet”’, click here

To read ‘On being confronted by the law’, click here

To read ‘Real Power’, click here

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