This is an excerpt from my new book Looking for God in Messy Places: A Book about Hope.
Joy and I had been stunned to learn that our daughter, Meredith, had a hole in her heart. She was an energetic, happy baby. During a routine healthy-baby visit, our pediatrician had heard what might be a murmur. He told us that it was probably nothing. Her development was very robust. But to be safe, he referred us to a specialist. Believing that the visit would be nothing more than a formality, Joy took Meredith to the specialist alone, and I went to work as usual. I will never forget the sound of Joy’s voice when she called from our church’s office following the visit to the cardiologist. Fighting back tears, she told me that Meredith was facing open-heart surgery.
Plenty of people sought to comfort and reassure us with prayers, kind words, and casseroles. I remained calm and told everyone, including Joy, that I was confident in a positive outcome. God would get us all through this ordeal. Meredith was going to be fine. We simply had to keep the faith and remain fervent in prayer. God wouldn’t let us down. Even as I said these things, I knew that I was a big, fat phony. From the moment we got the news about Meredith’s heart through the days and weeks leading up to the surgery, Joy and I nearly suffocated with dread. Time crawled. Each routine task took immense effort. Joy lost a startling amount of weight. I quickly found every ounce she had shed. When Joy is worried, she cannot eat. By contrast, anxiousness drives me to scarf down everything in sight, and I was doing nothing to soothe my troubled heart. Instead, over and over, my imagination leapt to worst-case scenarios. Images of the surgeon cracking Meredith’s little sternum would come uninvited into my mind’s eye. My blood pressure would spike, my mouth would go dry, and I would feel my heart pounding in my chest. I feared that she wouldn’t make it off the table. Sure, my lips were saying all sorts of pious-sounding things. But just under the skin I was a terrified mess.
You might be thinking that I put up a strong front because I had learned that showing emotion makes you look weak. I confess that I grew up in the John Wayne/Clint Eastwood era, and my father wanted me to be a stoic man’s man. But honestly, I was a miserable disappointment to him. According to the Meyers-Briggs Type Inventory, I’m an NF: an intuitive-feeler. Oh sure, I’ve got grit. I’m no quitter or shrinking violet. But, man, my feelings make themselves known, and I can’t help but intuit the emotional temperature of any room I enter. So, no, I wasn’t suffering from low emotional intelligence. Believe it or not, I was sincerely trying to be hopeful. Because, well, that’s what people of faith do. Right?
The apostle Paul said that faith, hope, and love are the foundations of the Christian life (1 Corinthians 13:13). So, the thinking often goes that if you’re a person of faith, you’re supposed to be certain that God will work things out for you. We learn that’s what it means to hope. People often express the idea to me, that, “You have to trust that God has a plan. Everything happens for a reason. Everybody faces challenges and disappointments, but God makes even the hardest life worth living. That’s because God uses everything that happens in life to bring you to a better place, a place of true happiness. (Well, at least God does this for those who keep the faith.) So, if you want God to grant you your heart’s desire, you need to push your doubts aside.”
I was ashamed to admit that I was struggling with this popular understanding of hope. I kept trying to force myself to believe that God was in complete control and that my faith would somehow result in a successful surgery and a complete recovery, but I never genuinely embraced that sort of hope. To be perfectly honest, I don’t even call that spiritual posture hope anymore. It’s more accurately described as wishful thinking. In wishful thinking, the prospect of getting what we want—a healed daughter, a soul mate, eternal bliss in paradise—is what keeps us going in this world. God serves merely as the guarantor that we will eventually get our heart’s desire. But leveraging God to give us the outcome we desire is not hope. Being hopeful is the sense that this life—no matter how untidy or harrowing—is inherently worth living.
Don’t get me wrong. Our relationship with God is the source of hope. That’s because God is with us and for us in this world. We live this life to the fullest by loving. And when we love, we encounter the God who loves us. Hope is how we lean into this world as God’s beloved children. It is what keeps us going, no matter what. But it’s far more than wishful thinking.