My first lessons in hope came from my mother, and for years I completely misunderstood them. When life got hard, Mom would say, “Tomorrow is another day.” She said it when other kids bullied me at school because of my speech impediment, when we were broke and on the run from her abusive husband, and when we were living in a car and begging for food. I assumed that she meant that tomorrow—or some other future date—would bring a happy ending. Things would eventually look up. Our circumstances might be lousy right now, but what we were going through would lead us to a better place. Once we got there, all our struggles would have been worthwhile. This sounded like baseless, wishful thinking to me. I could not have been more mistaken.
My mother learned about hope in a place designed to drive people to despair. At the age of fifteen, she entered Mauthausen-Gusen Concentration Camp, and hope was the key to her survival in the face of the systematic brutality, humiliation, and deprivation of that place. Hope did not protect her from starvation, disease, torture, or execution. Hope is what kept her going each day.
As far as my mother could tell, prisoners left that camp only as corpses. There was no reliable news of an approaching Allied army. Everybody worked long, arduous hours on a diet of five hundred calories a day. People frequently collapsed from hunger, exhaustion, and disease. Each succeeding sunrise brought greater misery. Wishful thinking of escape or liberation was extinguished in Mauthausen.
It wasn’t until I visited the camp and stood on those grounds myself that it finally dawned on me what Mom was getting at by telling me that tomorrow is another day. She had meant something like this: “Today is the day that you’ve been given. This is the life you have. And that life is worth living. Keep going. Don’t give up. Do the good that you can here and now.” She wasn’t much of a Bible reader, but I think she was echoing Jesus: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matthew 6:34).
Yes, I believe hope is knowing in your gut, in your very bones, that this life is worth living. To be hopeful is to have a “why” that enables you not merely to endure all manner of hardship and suffering, heartache and disappointment, but to resist, to overcome, and even to thrive. Hope is not a head thing. It is a heart thing. My mother [had to struggle to find a why], and she learned to draw hope from within the present because that is where God showed up. I believe that is where God shows up for us, too.
You can profess the Christian faith without having … an encounter with the felt presence of God—an encounter that leaves you breathless, turns you upside down, or makes you weep with joy or laugh like a toddler. But that kind of faith, which is grounded on religious principle and doctrine alone, is a social order rather than a soul-stretching, life-shaping friendship with the risen Christ.
On the night before Roman authorities murdered him on the cross, Jesus explicitly told his friends that he would not abandon them. His teachings about the Holy Spirit say, in essence, that God is perpetually in, around, and between us. God is right here. Right now. Always. Reaching out to be an essential part of our lives ( John 14:18; 15:5-7). The problem is that we struggle to be aware of God’s presence. As Christian Wiman puts it, “We can’t perceive, and we miss the God who misses—as in longs for—us.”
The spiritual challenge, then, is to become aware of God’s presence— especially in messy places—with such vulnerability, humility, and yearning that God’s love for us transforms who we are. That love shapes our habitual way of being in this world into the way of love: Love of God. Love of neighbor. Love that makes life worth living. Love that leads us to hope.
This is an excerpt from my latest book Looking for God in Messy Places: A Book about Hope. Click here to learn more or grab a copy.
A Study and Reflection Guide is included at the back of the book. Here’s a question for Chapter One that I invite you to spend some time with:
“We are hardwired to yearn for a reason to live.” What are your “whys”—your reasons to live? How do you rank them? How, if at all, have they shifted or changed over time?