How to Hope When All Seems Hopeless

Jonah 3:9 NKJV Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?

Howard Hendricks, “Discouragement is the anesthetic the devil uses on a person just before he reaches in and carves out his heart.” When people lose hope, they lose their ability to dream for the future. Despair replaces joy. Fear replaces faith. Anxiety replaces prayer. Insecurity replaces confidence. Tomorrow’s dreams are replaced by nightmares. It’s a lousy way to live.” - The Hope Quotient, 5.

We know that hope is part of the eternal verities with faith and love. Yet many times, we treat hope like a veritable middle child, kinda lost, kinda forgotten, and always on its own while we celebrate the leadership of the first born, faith and the adventure of the last born, love. So, how do you hope when all seems hopeless? Maybe from this passage we can learn principles that will help us hold to immutable hope in the face of intractable hopelessness.

1. You can be Hopeful if You understand God’s Default Disposition towards sinners

However you get there, there is hope if you get a glimpse of God’s default disposition towards sinners. People have different concepts on what framework to use to understand God’s actions in this world. Many are convinced that the only message worth preaching is that this world with all its sin and sinners is set for destruction. Others are ambiguous and have given up on ever coming to any coherence understanding of God’s operating principles. Everything looks random at best and capricious at worst. God may forgive or He may destroy: there’s just no way of knowing which way He will act.

Yet, I believe that if we collate all the episodes discussing God’s justice in scripture, we would find the running theme that God’s default disposition time and again is grace, mercy, and forgiveness towards sinners. This is made embedded in the stories, made explicit in the prophets, illustrated in the parables, and immortalized in other foundational texts. In Adam and Eve hiding from the wrath of God, we learn that God visits to address sin not to annihilate the sinner. Whatever Adam and Eve thought “You shall surely die” meant, they experienced nothing save redemption from the hand of God that day. Maybe we too need to stop running from God because we broke his favorite law and start engaging his redemptive services. Ezekiel 3:16-19 explicitly states that the purpose of preaching is to save the lives of sinners. God has not appointed us to be pathologists: we are here to teach men and women how to live not simply report on how they died. The parables illustrate that nicely in showing how hope shows up in a prodigal’s pig sty, when the wayward son finally understood something of the basic character of his father. How many would return home to their heavenly father if they could get the right picture of his justice being an expression of his love for even the least among us. Finally, John 3:16 anchors us securely into the bedrock of our eternal hope. God’s default disposition towards sinners is salvivic, not destructive.

Now this sounds great, yet it seems that God and the church have a strange way of communicating this base message. I mean, if God doesn’t have any pleasure in the death of the ungodly (Ezekiel 33:11) then why use these images that scare our children? Why speak in tones that give fuel to the falsehood that somehow the misery of man adds to God’s glory? Well, because even in the preaching of destruction, the purpose of God still remains stuck in a salvivic default. The truth is that the spark for our greatest transformation can be found sometimes in the ashes of our most depressing prospects. What I am saying is that Hope whispers into our ears that even God’s bad news is still good news in that even God’s bad news has salvivic intent.

But why would bad news have such great redemptive value? Could it be that some prophets are only willing to preach destruction because some people will only listen when destruction is imminent?

2. You can be Hopeful if You understand the purpose of God’s warnings

And this is why God’s default encompasses a new appreciation for the utility of a warning. Most people waste their warnings because they lose hope as they face a hopeless situation. Even though we know intellectually that we will all die, save we are translated at His coming, something happens when the fluidity that comes with life’s uncertainties is reduced by the finality of 40 days then death. When your life gets shrunk into measurable time, every moment becomes precious. When you look at the box of your life and can clearly see the USE BY DATE, when you know the expiration date for your mortality approaches, there is a deep soul searching that is automatically triggered as you review your life, weigh your actions, your thoughts, your regrets on the scales of eternity.

But there is hope in every warning when we understand the purpose of each warning. The purpose of these types of warnings is not for us to live dead, but rather for us to set about using whatever time we have left either for life transformation or for after life preparation.

So teach us to number our days, That we may gain a heart of wisdom. - The New King James Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982), Ps 90:12.

All along, you never knew how precious life was until you almost lost it. But that scare serves a higher purpose than simply living scared, steering at your expiration date and squandering your warning. Use whatever little time you have left to wisely plan for a comeback either in this life or in the life to come. If you only had 40 days to live, how would you use your time? How would your health change? What changes would you make in your relationships? What difference would it make for your service? What adjustments would you make in your finances? How would your evangelism be impacted? Your ethics are revealed clearly when you are faced with the finality of your mortality and you begin to understand that time is for focusing on what is eternally profitable and forgetting what is ultimately transitory.

When you understand that God’s default is salvation and the purpose behind God’s warnings is to give you time for transformation or for preparation, you can have hope even when all seems hopeless.

3. You can be Hopeful if You understand the power of Repentance

Read in the light of this theology, hope is present in the most hopeless situation because we understand that the eyes, clouded as they are by our troubles, often dismiss from our minds ever present, ever powerful hope. People respond differently to God’s merciful warnings. Sometimes those who don’t know God, rebel against God. Like the Egyptian Pharoah they ask, Who is this God that we should obey him? The message is rejected out right. They are confirmed in their rebellion. They are committed to their path, no U-turns allowed. They reject any attempt to interfere in their lives as they perceive this as restricting their sacred freedom to do whatever they are pleased to do. In the face of such intractable rebellion, God’s warnings are stripped of any redemptive value. Their punitive nature occupies center stage. God’s long suffering, his attempts at reconciliation are long forgotten for now we only see punishment. Many times God’s warnings go unheeded by those who don’t know Him.

But what about those who do know God? How do they handle their own hopeless situations? I find a more troubling response among God’s people. Sadly, though “the heathen” may respond in active rebellion, God’s people’s preferred response to God’s warnings seem to be passive resignation. Sometimes, God’s people can be so impressed with defending God’s foreknowledge and prophetic acumen that we lose sight of humanity’s responsibility to respond with repentance. Jonah is a prime example of this phenomena but he is not alone. Scripture speaks of others. Eli is another example of God’s people resigning to God’s warning rather than repenting at God’s word.

How does Eli respond to his hopeless situation. Let’s examine 1 Samuel 3:11-14 and then verse 18.

Then the Lord said to Samuel: “Behold, I will do something in Israel at which both ears of everyone who hears it will tingle. 12 In that day I will perform against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13 For I have told him that I will judge his house forever for the iniquity which he knows, because his sons made themselves vile, and he did not restrain them. 14 And therefore I have sworn to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering forever.” - The New King James Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982), 1 Sa 3:11–14.

This is Eli’s weighed in the balance and found wanting moment. If you study the text, there is no hope here. There is no out here. God has spoken. God has declared. God has decreed. And it will be total destruction for Eli and his family. This is not simply a bump in the middle of the road situation; this is an extinction level event. All emergency alarms should have been at full blast because not only was Eli’s life in jeopardy, but his entire family’s legacy hung in the balance of God’s unrelenting wrath.

And what does Eli do? Does Eli call for a national fast? Does Eli strip his sons of their positions in the service of the sanctuary for the pollution they dumped into their place of purity? Does Eli offer up himself in place of the ignorant? Does Eli pursue God and plead for the lives of his grandchildren and for the generation still to come who have done nothing to deserve the destruction metted out in response to his dereliction of duty? Does Eli do an Abrahamic intercession, begging God not to destroy the innocents because of Eli’s own guilt?

If you read 1 Samuel 3:18, you would have missed something significant if you evaluated Eli’s response as anything other than pathetic.

Then Samuel told him everything, and hid nothing from him. And he said, “It is the Lord. Let Him do what seems good to Him.” - The New King James Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982), 1 Sa 3:18.

This is not piety: this is pathetic. This is Eli resigning to God’s fierce wrath rather than repenting. This is Eli signing the death warrants for an entire generation rather than confronting his favored sons with God’s message and setting the example of the power of repentance as the ultimate hope rejuvenator given to humanity. Jonah practically does the same thing and I am troubled when I see God’s people infected by the disease of resignation rather than stirred by the promise of repentance. I could tell you that David did more than Eli or Jonah when faced with the unrelenting wrath of God’s anger, but even more shameful is what heathen sailors and a hostile King did in comparison.

When God rails at Jonah’s rebellion in a storm, Jonah is found sleeping. This is not the sleep of faith but of resignation because his only solution to the storm is to be swallowed up by the storm. To still the storm, Jonah offers up no penitent prayers: throw me overboard, he tells the sailors in Jonah 1:12. Yet look at the struggle that the sailors engage in, first to save themselves but then, after they learn that the cause of their calamity is Jonah, then to save Jonah. Let that sink in for a minute. Jonah doesn’t lift a finger or a prayer to save himself. But the heathen are willing to struggle with God for the salvation of a rebellious prophet.

Let me skim over Jonah chapter 1 to show you what the sailor’s did. vs 5. - they prayed to their gods and threw away good cargo. vs 6. - they force Jonah to wake up and pray to his God (no prayer recorded). vs 7, 8. - they investigate the cause of their imminent calamity. vs 13. - when faced with the magnitude of Jonah’s rebellion and his recommendation, they choose to fight against God’s decree for the salvation of a rebellious prophet. vs 14. - this is the first time you hear them resigning to God’s will and even then, they only throw Jonah overboard after they pray for forgiveness for what they were about to do. They could have tossed Jonah from vs 7, or 8 but they fought for his physically and spiritually. Even after they threw him overboard, they were still praying (vs 16).

In all this episode, Jonah, like Eli, never prays for himself. He accepts the unbreakable nature of God’s prophetic word but he has missed the purpose of God’s prophetic word - it is to bring us all to repentance. Who knows if Jonah wasn’t saved by the prayers of heathen sailors for we certainly don’t see him praying for himself. Many times we cut ourselves off from hope because we are confirmed in rebellion and would rather resign to God’s punishment than experience the power of repentance.

4. There is Hope even when you are swallowed up in your Hopeless situation

The only time that Jonah prayed was when he was swallowed up in his situation. For many of us, the warning doesn’t wake us up. It’s only when we are trapped, boxed in, and caged that our mouths open in prayer to God. Like Jonah, we slept through the storm and now we find ourselves thrown overboard, damp, drowning, and swallowed whole in a series of unfortunate events that would be comical where they not so tragic.

What makes matters worse is that, I get the suspicion that Jonah still doesn’t pray when he is swallowed up. At first, sits and silently stews. I know he didn’t pray on the ship, I suspect he didn’t pray when he hit the sea, and it seems he didn’t pray when he was immediately swallowed up. You know you have to be really upset with God to sleep through his warnings and to be completely silent when swallowed up by terrifying situations that you wouldn’t even ask for help. It might have taken 3 days and 3 nights, but finally, the prophet prays.

I went down to the moorings of the mountains; The earth with its bars closed behind me forever; Yet You have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord, my God. 7 “When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord; And my prayer went up to You, Into Your holy temple. - The New King James Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982), Jon 2:6–7.

He had to go all the way down, before he would lift his eyes up to God. No wonder Jesus used the story of Jonah as a paradigm for the ministry of the Son of Man. This story proves God’s power to resurrect us from the depths of depression. More importantly, it encourages us that even when faced with the darkest news, when your allotted time has passed, God has power to resurrect us to an experience of new life, and new purpose. The fish was there not to kill him but to refocus his attention on spreading God’s message on others who like him, needed a resurrection if they would have a chance of salvation.

Confused, humiliated, and unable to understand God’s purpose in sparing Nineveh, Jonah nevertheless had fulfilled the commission given him to warn that great city; and though the event predicted did not come to pass, yet the message of warning was nonetheless from God. And it accomplished the purpose God designed it should. The glory of His grace was revealed among the heathen. - Ellen Gould White, The Story of Prophets and Kings as Illustrated in the Capitvity and Restoration of Israel, vol. 2, Conflict of the Ages Series (Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1917), 272–273.

RAY JOHNSTON, wrote a powerful book entitled, The Hope Quotient: Measure it. Raise it. You’ll Never Be the Same. On the first page, in the first sentence, powerlift of hope. Johnston writes, “Tough circumstances are no match for the kind of inner strength fueled by hope.” Then with a few quick strokes, Johnston lists a few individuals who should have crumbled, but were sustained triumphantly by hope.

-  Lock him in a prison cell, beat him, and shipwreck him, and you have the apostle Paul

-  Deafen him, and you have a Ludwig van Beethoven

-  Cripple him, and you have a brilliant novelist and poet - Sir Walter Scott

-  Raise him in abject poverty, and you have an Abraham Lincoln

-  Burn him so severely that doctors say he’ll never walk again, and you have a Glenn Cunningham - the man who set the world’s first one-mile record in 1934

-  Strike him down with infantile paralysis, and he becomes a Franklin D. Roosevelt

-  Call him a slow learner, label him “retarded,” and write him off as uneducable, and you have an Albert Einstein

-  Have her born black in a society filled with racial discrimination, and you have a Rosa Parks

-  Subject him to torture in a Japanese prison camp for more than three years, and you have a Louis Zamperini

How can you hope when all seems hopeless? Understand that God’s default is salvation, that even bad news from God is Good News, that what God wants is not resignation to death but repentance that leads to life, and that even when time is up, if you can breath a prayer, you can experience God’s resurrecting power.

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