With the first Sunday after Thanksgiving, many Christian denominations observe the Advent season, a period of four weeks in which they prepare themselves for the celebration of Jesus’ birth (His “advent”). The commemoration of Advent involves lighting four candles (one per Sunday) that are arranged around a wreath of evergreens and then lighting a fifth candle, positioned in the center of the wreath, either on Christmas Eve or the first Sunday after Christmas Day. The candles associated with an Advent wreath can have different meanings. In one tradition the four candles around the wreath represent elements of the nativity story (the prophecy candle, the Bethlehem candle, the shepherd’s candle, and the angels’ candle)—and the fifth candle, the “Christ candle,” represents Jesus himself. In another tradition, the four candles around the wreath represent four key virtues that grow out of the gospel (hope, peace, love, and joy)—and the fifth candle represents Jesus.
In this series of blogs we will explore the value—and necessity—of hope, peace, love, and joy for Christian living. Without them we are at a clear disadvantage in dealing with trials and in demonstrating the reality of the gospel in our lives.
Part 1: The Hope Assessments
In March of 1995 my wife and I married in suburban St. Louis. In May we moved from St. Louis to the northwest suburbs of Chicago, so I could start a new ministry position. In addition to the stress of moving and starting a new life together, my wife went through a devastating tragedy that summer: her grandfather, who had been an anchor for her family, died. His funeral was in Arkansas. Unfortunately, my sister-in-law, living in Texas, could not attend the funeral because she was expecting the arrival of her third baby. I had to return to Chicago for work, but my wife asked if I’d mind her going to Texas to help out her sister, because my brother-in-law had to be out of town on business. I agreed.
While in Texas, my wife hurt her back and was laid up in bed for a few days. When we talked about her return trip to Chicago, we decided that it would be wise for her to stop in Arkansas so she could check on her Mom and grandmother and also give her back a rest from driving.
Around this same time I received a call from one of our close friends in St. Louis. She was told by her boyfriend that he wanted to end their relationship, which was heart-wrenching for her. During one of our many phone conversations, I relayed this message to my wife. She later called me to ask what I thought of her stopping in St. Louis on her trip back to Chicago so she could minister to our friend. I agreed.
Eventually, my wife did make it back to the Chicago area, but unfortunately she came down with a severe cold that laid her up in bed for a few days!
This tidal wave of trials during the first summer of our marriage were extremely challenging for my wife. She faced a critical question that any of us would face in such a situation: “How do I deal with this kind of turmoil, tragedy, and uncertainty in life?” Through these trials, the Lord taught us that we would be overwhelmed without hope to anchor our souls. We begin our “Advent Attitude Assessment” with our hope in Christ.
To get a better idea of what our hope in Christ involves, one of the best places to go is the book of Romans. In fact, there are more references to hope in Romans than in any other book of the New Testament. For example, in Romans 4:18-21 Paul writes about Abraham and his hope, which should characterize all his spiritual “descendants.” Paul says:
Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead … and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but grew strong in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.
Although Abraham and Sarah were well beyond normal child-bearing years, God had promised they would have a son. Abraham faced a daunting dilemma: Would he accept the word of God, or would he allow his own natural limitations to dictate what he expected for his future? In order for Abraham to receive this promise, he had to hope “against all hope”—that is, trust God against all reasonable human expectations. There was nothing any human being could do to ensure Abraham and Sarah would have a child. The thought of these two elderly people having a child by natural means was ludicrous!
Yet “Abraham in hope believed”; his hope was based on what he believed about God. Abraham was fully persuaded that God could—and would—deliver on his promise of an heir. Here, then, is the first part of a biblical definition of “hope”: Hope is a confident expectation about the future based on the promises and the power of God. In our next blog, we will continue to mine Romans for understanding our hope in Christ better. But before we go further, we can pause for some assessment questions.
The First “Hope” Assessment
The first assessment for hope has to do with how your (or your counselee’s) thoughts are anchored. Are they tied only to the reality of human limitations? Or are they tied to the trustworthy promises of God backed by his “incomparably great power for us who believe” (Ephesians 1:19)?
Furthermore, if your (or your counselee’s) thoughts are anchored only to natural human limitations, what can be expected as an outcome? What will likely show up in your (or your counselee’s) emotional reactions and behaviors? If such logical consequences are present, what is gained?
However, if your (or your counselee’s) thoughts are anchored to God’s promises and power, what can be expected as an outcome? What will likely show up in your (or your counselee’s) emotional reactions and behaviors? If these consequences are present, what is gained? From this point forward, plan how you (or your counselee) might act on a trust in God’s promises and power. Doing so will nurture the type of hope Abraham had that allowed him to “grow strong in his faith.”
Join the Conversation
What alternative, hopeless responses to trials do you typically observe in yourself or your counselees? What makes hopelessness seem more real than hope in Christ?