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Against the Odds

These days Anne Lamott may be an accomplished skier, but a few years ago she would warm up with the beginners for a while and then stick with the easiest intermediate slope. 

Once, after several goes on her usual course, she hopped on the chairlift for yet another run and grew momentarily confused. The jump-off looked unfamiliar, and before she realized that it was indeed the correct one, Anne found herself five or so feet above the ground, heading toward a more difficult trail. 

She dove from the moving chair. Not with a confident, James Bond–like leap. It was more of a tumble that ended with a crash landing. Most of her fellow skiers pretended not to have seen what happened. 

She waved off the few sympathetic witnesses who offered to help, acting as if this is just the sort of quirky thing she does. And then the nausea hit. On the verge of passing out, she asked Jesus for help. She writes:

“I don’t know how long I stood there with my hand clamped to my mouth, only my poles and a frayed, consignment-store faith to support me. All I knew was that help is always on the way, a hundred percent of the time. . . . I know that when I call out, God will be near, and hear, and help eventually. Of course, it is the “eventually” that throws one into despair.” (Grace (Eventually)), pp. 17-18)

Today I’m writing especially to those of us who are feeling the weight of that “eventually.” For those whose struggles have been long and for those who are growing weary from heavy burdens. 

For those facing an unforeseen crisis or for those enduring a slow personal train wreck. For those whose throats have grown raw from crying for justice and for those whose wounds have gone unhealed. 

This is an essay about hope, and I have written it especially for those who refuse to yield to discouragement and despair. 

I follow Jesus, so anything I say about hope ends up pointing in his direction in some unexpected ways. So let me admit from the start that many of the typical reasons Christians give for having hope don’t work for me—something I explore in greater detail in Looking for God in Messy Places

Some of us derive our hope from the doctrines of the Resurrection and the Second Coming. In the next life, we will be free from the sorrow, pain, and strife of this one. We will be reunited with those we love and reconciled to everyone. God will set all things right. The wolf will lie down with the lamb. There will be perfect justice and perpetual peace. 

Claude Monet, “Misty Morning on the Seine, Sunrise” (1897)

I believe in life after life—in the resurrection of the body, and I believe that God is at work restoring the entire creation to a wholeness that exceeds even my wildest imaginings. Yet, my assent to these doctrines is not what gives me hope. 

Hope is something more, something deeper and more abiding. Hope is what keeps us going when the odds just don’t seem to be in our favor. The setbacks are piling up, but still we get out of bed morning after morning. That’s hope. 

We keep swimming even though the tide is against us. Hope tells us, “It’s worth it.” Doctrines don’t do this, at least not for me. But God does, and I don’t mean my idea of God. 

I mean my awareness of God at work in all the messy places of my life, my awareness of God raising me to a new life through forgiveness and self-acceptance, my awareness of God mending relationships, changing hearts, and healing wounds. This is God’s love made real in the particulars of my life. 

My experience of the relentless power of God’s love in these ways gives me the sense that this life—the one I am actually living in all its sweetness and frustration, joy and pain—is worth living. 

Hope is knowing in your gut, in the center of your being, that your life is worth living even when you have grown bone weary with struggle, sorrow, anxiety, and grief. You have felt the weight of that “eventually” while waiting on God’s promises. You have had what I call an “Ecclesiastes Moment.” 

The author of Ecclesiastes wrote, “I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:11). 

In other words, life is pointless. A chasing after wind. We all wind up in the same place: six feet under. 

John William Waterhouse, “Miranda” (1916)

This is what I mean by an Ecclesiastes Moment: being drawn up short by the soul-numbing thought that maybe all your sweat, tender devotion, giddy joy, and costly sacrifice amount in the end to nothing. 

Some might respond quickly to this by saying, “This life is all about getting into heaven in the next life. What happens here on planet Earth is not supposed to give you hope. Of course we die. But if you believe in Jesus, you’ll go to heaven.” 

While I, too, put my trust in the resurrection, I do not think that anticipating a continued existence in the hereafter makes my life worth living now. For that matter, I think that such an understanding of eternal life is not found in the Scriptures. 

Though the point of the resurrection is often considered to be getting into the Good Place, where we will enjoy doing fun things and being with beloved people forever, Scripture teaches us that the resurrection is about being transformed by an intimate union with God. To use Paul’s language, our relationship with God in Christ makes us a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). 

While our relationship with Christ stretches beyond the grave into eternity, it begins in all the ordinary days, embarrassing spectacles, tight spots, dark corners, and tender moments that are our life on planet Earth. Dying and rising—growing from a bundle of divinely-given potential, toxic family hangovers, and ill-fitting cultural hand-me-downs toward our true self—takes place right now in Christ. 

Our hope does not rest on the anticipation of the next life. Instead, our assurance that this life is worth living comes from noticing that God keeps showing up in the midst of it. 

Responding to God’s loving presence in the here and now stretches us toward the persons we are meant to be. Being loved and giving love empower us to endure hardship, to overcome adversity, and to resist injustice. 

My central premise is that hope comes from our awareness of God’s love for us and our response to that love as we extend it to each other in the present, especially in life’s chaotic, puzzling, exhausting, and heartrending places. 

Laura Knight, “A Dark Pool” (1918)

God is present even when we feel shattered or soul-weary. When we struggle to carry on or feel insignificant. When we are overwhelmed by our ordinary busyness or frozen in place by loss or regret. 

I am responding to a raw, honest question: How do we carry on when we realize that this existence is so fragile that it will be broken again and again and that it moves toward death with each breath? This is the question lurking in our Ecclesiastes Moments. 

We need a “why” to keep going. And the abysmal truth is that this “why” is never merely a given. We have to choose it, or assent to it, or be chosen by it. 

Hope is how we inhabit this world with a vital “why.” We trust in our marrow that this beautiful, horrifying, joyful, heartrending life is worth living as it actually is. 

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. 

Andrew Wyeth, “Christina Olson”

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 her own Ecclesiastes Moment, 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 Ecclesiastes Moment that leads to 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.” (My Bright Abyss, p. 86)

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 essay is adapted from the Introduction to my latest book Looking for God in Messy Places: A Book about Hope. To learn more or to grab a copy click here.

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