When Hope is Counterintuitive
In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan gives a chilling speech after his expulsion from heaven when he approached Paradise. Although he had rallied his rebellious angels, he wrestled with self-doubt:
All hope excluded thus, behold, instead
Of us, outcast, exiled, his new delight,
Mankind, created, and for him this world!
So farewell hope, and, with hope, farewell fear,
Farewell remorse! All good to me is lost;
Evil, be thou my Good: by thee at least
Divided empire with Heaven’s King I hold,
By thee, and more than half perhaps will reign;
As man ere long, and this new world, shall know. (4.105-113)
Satan’s hope rested on a narcissistic faith in himself and he had failed. While Satan did not give up but tried another course of action (the seduction of humanity), his hope was solely in his own power, a power that he doubted after defeat.
A passage in Paul offers a direct counter to Satan’s despair over his inability to challenge God successfully. In a counterintuitive statement Paul suggests that our struggles serve to generate our hope rather than to banish it. He wrote: “Let us boast in hope of God’s glory and not only that, let us boast in our trials knowing that trials produce endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope, and this hope is not ashamed because the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom 5:3-5).
This short explanation of how hope is generated is striking in multiple ways. Paul opens with a call to boast – an uncharacteristic move for an Apostle who routinely forbade boasting. He wrote to the Romans, “What is the place of boasting? It is excluded” (Rom 3:27). Why? Boasting is a form of self-aggrandizement that elevates the individual. However, in this text Paul reversed the prohibition by reorienting boasting, placing our boasting in “hope of God’s glory.” But how? How can we boast in hope? Paul explained through a series of four steps.
The Apostle opens with a repetition of his call to boasting, only this time he changes the object: “And not only this, but we also boast in our trials.” Paul has said this before. In contrast to a group of individuals who boasted of their credentials as delegates of the Jerusalem church that had ties extending back to Jesus, Paul wrote: “Most happily then I will boast in my weaknesses so that the power of Christ may reside in me” (2 Cor 12:9). The word that he used for “trials” means being squeezed, as if we were placed in a vise with the walls of life collapsing on us.
Paul traveled approximately 10,000 miles. This does not sound like much to us. But we have to remember Paul walked – perhaps rode a horse or donkey at times – or sailed in a wooden boat for those 10,000 miles. These were not easy miles.
The statement does not call for us to deny our suffering as if suffering were insignificant. Paul is not a Stoic who considered suffering what they called an “indifferent” because it had no impact on our moral formation. Plutarch summarized the Stoic attitude: the wise Stoic “is not impeded when confined, and under no compulsion when thrown down a precipice, and not in torture when on the rack, and not injured when mutilated, and is invincible when thrown in wrestling, and is not blockaded under siege, and is uncaptured while his enemies are selling him into slavery.” Nor is Paul encouraging the self-pity that accompanies victimization. The Apostle is not asking for others to feel sorry for him, much less engaging in self-sorrow. Nor is he condoning or overlooking oppression or injustice in the name of universal suffering. He never addresses these in this text.
Rather he is pointing out that our trials reveal our weakness and our dependence on God. Paul made this point repeatedly in the six hardship lists that he gave. He recognized the foolishness of listing his trials, but believed that God’s power became evident in them. As he wrote in one of his hardship lists: he suffered “so that the life of Jesus might be disclosed in our bodies” (2 Cor 4:10). The first step towards hope is to recognize that everything is not in our power: God’s power is made evident in our weakness. For this reason, we boast in our limits.
Paul suggests that our trial produces endurance. Endurance is resisting contrary pressure. It can be translated by endurance, perseverance, or patience. In the Greco-Roman world, endurance was a virtue. Plato described a soldier who in spite of difficult circumstances is willing “to persevere and endure.” Perhaps we can think of it as holding the line at all costs.
Paul is himself a model of endurance. If we use the journeys outlined in Acts (Paul’s letters do not mention the first journey explicitly), Paul traveled approximately 10,000 miles. This does not sound like much to us – if you drive an auto 10,000 miles a year you are well below the national average. But we have to remember that Paul walked – perhaps rode a horse or donkey at times – or sailed in a wooden boat for those 10,000 miles. These were not easy miles. Some 30 years ago Edward Schillebeeckx and Erich Lessing published a small book on Paul. Lessing decided to drive around Turkey following Paul’s journeys and went through three automobiles in the process! Paul’s hardship lists give us an idea of what he had to endure in his treks around the Mediterranean world.
Paul is not the only Christian we can think of who personified endurance. The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. are a fitting commentary on Paul’s statement and tribute to his own life: “The measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy …”
Endurance produces character. Paul’s Letter to the Romans is the first time in all of Greek literature that the word “character” appears. It is possible that Paul coined the term, although related words were common. The family of terms refer to testing the qualifications of someone through a performance. For example, the Jewish historian Josephus tells us that at Qumran among the Essenes who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, a novice was not admitted as a full member of the community until “his character was tested” for two years (War 2.138). Paul used terms of character to defend himself to the Corinthians who had been persuaded by the spurious “super-apostles” that Paul was not who he claimed to be – “since you desire proof that Christ is speaking in me,” Paul declares (2 Cor 13:3).
Endurance produces a character that is capable of more than someone who has never had to resist. This strength of character is not as much about us as it is about our reliance on God as proven in our trials. The Stoics could say things that were very similar to what Paul says here. Epictetus wrote, “It is the difficulties that show what humans are” (1.24.1). Paul would agree with this, but not with how the Stoics understood character. Their understanding was memorably captured in the 1875 poem by William Ernest Henley, Invictus. The first and fourth stanzas articulate the heart of the poem:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
This is not what Paul meant. William Cowper captured Paul’s understanding in a couplet that stands in stark contrast to the poem of Henley:
Man’s wisdom is to seek his strength in God alone;
And even an angel would be weak who trusted in his own.
It is now that Paul says we have hope: “character produces hope.” I confess that the first time that I read this text carefully, I was surprised. I would have changed the order and written something like: “trial produces hope and hope produces endurance and endurance produces character.” Have you ever watched an athletic contest in which a weaker team “hangs around” for much of the game and keeps it close. As long as they have hope, they endure. When their hope is gone, the game is over even if there is still time on the clock. But this is not the order that Paul gives. He places hope last.
Why? The hope that we have is not hope in ourselves, but hope in God. It is only when we realize that we cannot do everything ourselves and are shaped by these experiences that we fully understand the power and the strength of God in our lives. If I may once again cite Dr. King: “In the midst of outer dangers I have felt an inner calm and known resources of strength that only God could give. In many instances I have felt the power of God transforming the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope.”
Paul explained it this way: “hope does not shame (disappoint) us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5:5). Paul is confident in God. Like the Psalmist who looked to Israel’s ancestors and said, they “cried to you and were saved; they hoped in you and were not put to shame” (Ps 22:5), we have a hope that will not disappoint. Why not? Because we have God’s love in our hearts and know this through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Our hope is not simply our future hope of life with God, but our present life in which we experience God’s love. We have known and experienced God’s love in our inner persons. While we have not faced the suffering or known the same power that Rev. King knew, we have all felt the power of God and the love of God that has sustained us. It is God’s love that gives us confidence in hope.
Standing with Paul
We live in a time when hope is hard to sustain. More than one million people have died from Covid-19. Millions of people have lost their jobs as a result of shutdowns around the world. America’s original sin has been on graphic display for all the world to see. Global warming is no longer a distant threat but a present reality that has engulfed Australia and the American West in flames and brought more tropical storms to the southern US than we had ever imagined.
How do we maintain hope? Our hope is not in human technology, e.g., in a vaccine, an economic plan, a political plan to undo systemic racism, or a scientific breakthrough that will facilitate carbon sequestration on a large scale in an economically feasible way – although we all want these to occur and should support efforts to bring them to realitiy. If we hope solely in ourselves, we run the risk of standing with Satan in Paradise Lost and saying: “So farewell hope, and, with hope, farewell fear,/Farewell remorse! All good to me is lost.” Rather we need to stand with Paul and put our hope in God. Why? Our hope is grounded in our experience of God’s love in our hearts. It is in knowing that no matter what may happen, I rest secure in God’s love. I may question many things, but God’s love should never be one of them.
Gregory E. Sterling is The Reverend Henry L. Slack Dean and Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament at Yale Divinity School. Concentrating his research in Hellenistic Judaism, the writings of Philo of Alexandria, Josephus, and Luke-Acts, he is the author or editor of eight books and more than 100 scholarly articles and chapters.
Plutarch, The Stoics Talk More Paradoxically Than the Poets, Stoic. Rep. 1057E.
Rom 8:35; 1 Cor 4:9-13; 2 Cor 4:8-9; 6:4-5; 11:23-29; 12:10).
Plato, Lach. 193A.
Edward Schillebeeckx and Erich Lessing, Paulus Der Völkerapostel: Bibliographie mit 72 Farbtafeln (Herder, 1982), p. 6.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Strength to Love (Harper & Row, 1963), p. 35.
William Ernest Henley, Book of Verses (David Nutt, 1888). The poem is available at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51642/invictus
Martin Luther King, Jr., “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” Christian Century 77.15 (April 13, 1960), p. 441.