This article originally appeared in the April edition of Melbourne Catholic Magazine.
How is it possible to be hopeful in our time? How is it possible to be hopeful, as St Paul says, amidst ‘anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or the sword’ (Rom 8:35)?
Or, if we may put it in contemporary Australian terms, even amidst the sexual abuse crisis and harm caused to victims, popular disdain for religion and Catholicism, falling church attendance, failed church and political leadership, growing levels of personal anxiety and loneliness, job insecurity and poverty, family breakdown, domestic abuse, sickness and aging, climate change, addiction, war and terrorism, and so on?
It is no easy task to be hopeful— either personally or as a Church. Yet hope has always been one of the distinctive markers of Christian life. St Paul identified it as such: ‘So faith, hope, love remain, these three’ (1 Cor 13:13).
Hope is often misunderstood. It is not a form of optimism reliant on material circumstances or good fortune in life. Hope is a habitual outlook on life that is built on faith and trust in God’s love. It does not bring perfect knowledge, but it does provide a kind of certainty. Hope is fundamentally a gift: a gift of love that assures us we are known and wanted at the deepest level—and that this embrace will extend into eternity.
In other words, God knows and wants me for who I am and is always seeking my good—so that I can live my fullest life with God. This is why the Father sent the Son: the Father wanted to show us how much he wants to share our life, and his life with us, in the bliss of love. God even gives us this love now in the very Spirit of love shared between the Father and the Son.
This gift of the Spirit gives Christians the deepest reassurance, the surest faith and the most certain hope. In this gift of absolute love, my life expands out as an adventure and journey into life in and with God.
Moreover, nothing can stand in the way of that love, not even hardship and death:
What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? … What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we are being slain all the day; we are looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord. (Rom 8:31, 35–39).
What Christians like St Paul discovered in the light of Jesus’ death and Resurrection was that God loves us in a comprehensive way and that this love allows us to face the forces of evil and death. Even when we look like sheep to the slaughter, we are conquerors in love: with God we can never be defeated.
Yet, we may have doubts: can we really confront evil with love? And how can we have hope or faith in God who allows such evils as child abuse, violence and death?
In Jesus, we can know that God doesn’t cause evil; he too was persecuted and a victim of evil. God confronts this evil with love. In Jesus, God’s power is shown in love, not coercion. God will not manipulate our lives so as to diminish our freedom or integrity. We all must confront evil and sin, otherwise we lose our freedom.
But God can be with us to defeat evil and transform it. God relates with us, so as to give us the courage, strength and reassurance to see through evils that seek to constrict our vision of life and dominate us.
In my study of East Timor during the Indonesian occupation (1975–1999), I came across many stories of suffering and violence, which were confronted with Christian faith. During these years, the East Timorese people lost up to a third of their people due to violence, war and famine.
For example, I spoke with a torture victim who came to regard his sufferings in the context of his relationship with Christ. He told me that he didn’t suffer alone, but with and alongside Christ. Further, he understood that God’s grace was enabling him to go on; to resist being broken; to confront his experience, and even to be able to forgive and give of himself to others who were suffering.
Another Timorese woman remarked: ‘We have nothing left to lose. We are human beings and they have treated us like insects. We will never accept them here. Even if we have to die resisting, we will resist. We have our dignity and our own identity. And God is with us.’
It is possible to resist evil; but only through a gift of love with which we are called to cooperate. In this way, Christian hope has a real-life effect. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical on hope, Spes salvi:
Can our encounter with the God who in Christ has shown us his face and opened his heart be for us too not just ‘informative’ but ‘performative’— that is to say, can it change our lives, so that we know we are redeemed through the hope that it expresses?
This question is now posed to us again. Can God’s love in Christ give us hope despite evil?
There is much pain in our society, including that caused by the Church itself. The Church in Australia has provoked much disappointment of late, with the sexual abuse crisis continuing to show the depth of evil that was present in the Church and the deep pain caused to victims.
Yet, even in the midst of all this, we can know God is with us—who has himself suffered before us in Jesus and still reaches out to us in forgiveness and love.
We are called to focus on that out-reached hand of God—to trust that it will guide us through difficult times, make all things new, and bring all of us to completion. We are called to draw closer to Jesus, who loves us in an overwhelming way and is in solidarity with us in our pain.
In Christ’s love, we can find an anchor and direction. In it, we can live with Christian hope, grounded in faith and trust, that assures us of God’s closeness to us and the horizon of God’s own vision for us into eternity.
Dr Joel Hodge is Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at the Australian Catholic University (Melbourne) and National Course Coordinator for Undergraduate Theology Degrees and Short Courses.