Are there times in your life when you’ve been so overwhelmed by a situation that you just did nothing? Maybe it was something big like renovations or house repair. Maybe it was something deep like confessing an old sin to an old friend and asking forgiveness. Maybe the size of the task of sharing your faith with all the people around you who don’t know Jesus overwhelmed you. Or maybe it was something as little as a homework assignment, paperwork for your job, or cleaning an out-of-control kitchen mess. We’ve all been there. I’m there often these days as I adjust to my new home, new community, new friends, new language, new market, new… you get the picture.
Those everyday moments of life are when we need hope the most—not just some floaty type of hope for the hereafter, but a real, everyday hope with dirt between its toes and scars to prove its strength and usefulness.
I’ll be perfectly honest when I tell you that I’ve always had a harder time understanding when the New Testament explains about hope. I sort of get what it’s saying, and there are sometimes days that are so hard I have to hold on to my hope in heaven and remember that, no matter what’s going on, it’ll all work out in the wash and I’ll get an eternity with Jesus to praise him for somehow turning those impossibly hard things around into something good.
But, honestly, it’s been some of my favorite stories that have helped me understand the everyday type of hope and, in the end, they have made our New Testament hope feel incredibly real and near. So… strap yourself in, because I’m about to go full nerd on you.
“Is everything sad going to come untrue?” — Samwise Gamgee
Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings stories have always been really hopeful ones for me, which is odd, because those stories tell about a lot of death, a lot of grief and loss, and a lot of change, not entirely for the better. But somehow the brave hobbits and wise wizard and shrewd king-to-be find hope to carry on in the midst of overwhelming odds. That kind of hope is inspiring in more ways than one. It plods on when “you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy… when so much bad had happened?”
Tolkien was undoubtedly a believer. He knew of our eternal hope. But unlike his friend C. S. Lewis, Tolkien didn’t write his stories to take place in our world, where the Bible is true and Jesus has come to re-write history. Tolkien’s stories were inspired by a worldview of faith, but totally devoid of faith by that name.
What Tolkien wrote about can be called “pagan hope.” It’s in a lot of stories (like Harry Potter, or Star Wars, but we’ll get there in a second), and it’s a hope totally without substance. I don’t mean that it’s useless, but that it isn’t based in eternal reality. It’s pure, beautiful, fiction.
This kind of hope refuses to give in to despair even when there is no chance things will turn out well—when the odds are too great that the common, garden-variety “hero” with no training will get caught by the bad guys, or fail his mission, or when the villain is too impossibly wicked to be redeemed.
This kind of hope looks like the suicide mission in Star Wars to steal weapon plans so hopefully someone will pick up a transmission and maybe, just maybe, use them to save the galaxy. It’s not a hope that says not to worry about the flag of evil flying overhead because “It’s not a problem if you don’t look up.” It’s a faith in some possibility of a brighter day purely because “Rebellions are built on hope.” It’s a faith that answers, “Do you think anyone’s listening?” with, “I do. Someone’s out there.”
This kind of hope looks like “All our hopes now lie with two little hobbits, somewhere in the wilderness.” It looks like a final suicide march into enemy territory with, “certainty of death, small chance of success? What are we waiting for?!” It’s the kind of hope that sees the mission through with no rations for the return journey, relying blindly on others to carry things through to the end of the war.
This hope is powerful. It puts fire in your veins and helps your trials seem like small momentary afflictions. It’s a hope that says without any real reason to believe it, “in the end, this Shadow was only a small and passing thing.”
But the wonderful, beautiful, redeeming quality about this hope is that it feels imperfect. Incomplete. Unreliable. It just about fills us up, but leaves us craving more. It points us to a real hope. A solid one. One that is robust and whole, unchangeable and steadier than the rising sun.
It points us to our God.
The pagan hope in these stories leaves us itching for something half as good, and in the end points us to a hope far beyond all we could ever ask or imagine (Eph 3:20). When we read in stories how a fictional hope looks in everyday life, how “it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay,” we learn just a small fraction of what our real hope looks like in action.
These stories haven’t taught me that Obi-Wan Kenobi is my only hope. They’ve pointed me to the truth that without my hope in Christ, I should be pitied above all men. They haven’t convinced me that repeating “I am one with the Force and the Force is with me” is enough motivation to pass through a hail of bullets to complete the mission. They’ve taught me that on the rock of our confession of Christ as Lord, God has built his Church and nothing will prevail against it. Those stories haven’t moved me to stagger across a volcanic wasteland to do my part to destroy evil, even if no one ever knows what I’ve done or if it makes no difference in the end. They’ve convinced me, with all of my heart, that my real hope is worth sharing, toiling over, even giving my life—even if there are consequences, even if no one remembers my name, even if the mission isn’t completed for me to see in my lifetime. Pagan hope reveals to me the complete sufficiency of my hope in God that will not be disappointed and will not put me to shame.
So in my moments of everyday desperation, frustration, loss of hope—when I may not have hit rock bottom but I am only one step away, at apathetic inaction—I know now. People in these stories were holding on to something. But what are we holding on to?
We hope in a savior who bears our burdens. We hope in a redeemer who lives. We hope in a God who lifts our faces, who turns our mourning into laughter. We hope in a God who invites us to boldly come before his throne. He was and is and is to come. He rescues us from our brokenness and slavery to our disobedience. He came to earth to live as one of us, to take on his own suicide mission to pay the price of our abundant life with his death.
That, my friends, is the hope we have. It can carry us from the smallest inconveniences through the darkest days of our lives. It’s a hope that propels us out to make disciples as we were discipled, to leave no place or people untouched on our march of hope. It is our sacred hope, and it comes with an unwavering, sweet promise: “I am with you. Always.”
Yes. I did write this after a Star Wars marathon. Deal with it. 😉 Am I slightly ashamed of how many of those quotes and references I knew by heart? Not remotely. I also wrote this on notebook paper, the old fashioned way, because I’ve had no power for the last 4 days and all my electronics besides my flashlight were dead. I even squished a couple of ants, that have become my thorn in the flesh, as they skittered across my pages. But from these super annoying inconveniences to the sobering reality of the many truly hopeless refugees around me daily, this hope I wrote about has been getting its exercise, flexing its muscles. And I can assure you that it is up to the job.