I spend a good deal of my energy avoiding disappointment or distracting myself from it (cue subtle nod to Netflix, Instagram, etc.). We live an age of cynicism, and the world is not friendly to dreamers and idealists. We may all love Ted Lasso, but we know that type of hope is reserved for sitcoms. And yet, hope is supposed to be a distinctive marker of followers of Jesus. How is this possible in the terrifying world we find ourselves?
We humans are narrative creatures. We try to make sense of people and events by plugging them into some cohesive story. But we’re not just content to know the story of the past or present. We have an insatiable desire to know the end of the story.
On a grand scale, Christians know the end of the story. Our hope is ultimately secure in the concrete future of Jesus returning to make all things new. But what do we do with the smaller stories of our lives? What do we do with the stories of our families, friends, InterVarsity communities, and jobs with their textured beauties and tragedies?
I tend to consider three options for organizing the narratives of our lives:
Triumphalism focuses on the stories with happy endings. We remember lives transformed, relationships mended, and injustices addressed. We trumpet these stories and conveniently stop talking about them when a new chapter of brokenness emerges. We simplify the narratives and avoid unnecessary details that might complicate these stories of triumph. Any stories that remain unresolved are either ignored or defiantly assumed to be trending toward resolution.
Most ministry leaders have learned that spiritual optimism is invaluable for galvanizing a community. Every baptism story ends with a sense of “happily ever after.” Every testimony points to the “from-now-on” surrender of certain sin struggles. These are the stories — and the assumed ending to these stories — that motivate people to sacrifice for a mission.
What you won’t hear from leaders in these contexts are the stories of converts who gave up, promising youth who turned aside, and student leaders who began to struggle again with sins they thought were behind them. You won’t hear much about the slow and circuitous spiritual journeys that make up the vast majority of the Church.
This optimistic approach may last for a while — even a lifetime for some — but cracks in the façade are all but certain to lead to despair eventually. This is the second option for how we make sense of the stories around us.
Despair drops both of its own shoes to avoid the pain of waiting for disappointment. It keeps track of every relationship that has gone sideways and every brokenness that has persisted. It closes the book on anyone who takes a wrong turn. The despairing Christian knows we should have hope in Christ but is too “wise” to imagine that could apply to one’s everyday life.
When I think about long-time friends who still don’t know Jesus or friends who have cut off communication, my tendency is to gravitate to despair. It feels like their stories and my involvement with them are already over. I know better than to shift back into triumphalism (though I sometimes still do when there are glimmers of “hope”) only to be let down again.
In the end, despair is a self-defeating approach to life. If change is impossible, then it won’t be sought after. If transformation blossoms, it can only be assumed to be a mirage on the way to more disappointment.
While triumphalism and despair may sound like bitter enemies, they’re actually two sides of the same coin. Both claim to know the end of the story. Both seek to write an ending where one does not yet exist. Both are desperate attempts to find some semblance or illusion of control in lives that are more fragile than we want to admit. Both are the way of pride as protection.
There is a third, rarely chosen option. With the backdrop of secure hope in Jesus, we can humbly admit that we don’t know the end of these other stories. We can trust in God’s capacity to bring salvation today while accepting the mystery that things might not improve on this side of eternity. We can long and pray for positive outcomes while admitting that God may have a better handle on the story than we do.
When I am tempted toward triumphalism or despair, I remember Jesus’ final words on the cross: “It is finished” (Jn 19:30). I wonder what Mary made of these words. Theologians look back and write tomes on justification and the defeat of sin, death, and the devil. But Mary had no awareness of these things. She knew only that the life of her son — the one promised to rescue her people from darkness — had itself been extinguished.
We now know that his death and the promise of restoration were inseparable, but only God himself could have written that ending from a story that began with a cross. In this I am reminded that God alone has the authority to declare, “It is finished.” Both triumphalism and despair seek ownership over these divine words. But in humility, we can have hope knowing that God is a much more trustworthy author than us. Humility frees us from the shackles of triumphalism and rescues us from the pit of despair so that our feet might be planted firmly on Christ, our solid rock of hope.
Adam Salloum wants to establish multi-ethnic witnessing communities on every campus in South Carolina where he serves as an Area Director. You can support his ministry at donate.intervarsity.org/donate#15266.