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Reasons for Hope

By John Punshon

If you were to ask me about what I hope for, I guess I would give you a fairly random set of answers. I hope to see my grandchildren graduate. I hope to visit Hamburg once more before I die. I hope the weather improves before I go on holiday. I hope a cure for Alzheimer’s is found, I hope there isn’t a hold up on the trains when I go to York next week. I hope that one day, one day, the Cincinnati Reds will win another World Series.

Above all, I hope, that when the time is right, I shall depart this life and be with Jesus.

All these different things are linked by the word hope. One has to be a bit careful interpreting each, because hope is not used in the same sense in each case. Dictionaries simply say that hope is a combination of a personal desire and a conjectural future state of affairs. There are various links between the two, but if we really want to get at the heart of hope, we have to pay attention to these links, because they come in various shapes and sizes.

In my examples, the probabilities range from certain to remote. One of the examples depends entirely on my wishes, a couple depend on chance and one is a pretty educated guess at the state of scientific progress. So, how confident am I in each? I can make a guess at each of the earthly possibilities, but what of my final hope? If hope is simply a combination of personal desire and possible future states of affairs, it is hard to see how my dreams of heaven are different from my dreams of cheering the Reds home to a World Series victory.

If hope were just the combination of what I want and what might happen, it would be an interesting psychological phenomenon, but not much else. Indeed, if I were a secularist or a humanist, I think I would argue that this is all there is to it. Hoping is a bit like laying bets: you wager on what you want to happen. There is essentially no difference between my dreams of heaven and my dreams of another Mean Red Machine carrying all before it.

The difference, the missing element, as it were, is faith, which is why hope, in a religious sense, is fundamentally different from hope in the ordinary, workaday sense, the point of my personal examples. As Hebrews 11:1 tells us, if we have faith, then we will discover that what we hope for is actually a reality and not a dream.

This implies two things. First, there is the nature of what scripture calls the realities we do not see. It means, simply, the truth. We do not see the truth, but we have the ability to recognize and understand it. Second, there is the state of our own souls. When we turn to God, we open ourselves to all kinds of possibilities we never knew were there, and we learn how to do things we never thought of before.

These are the coordinates of Christian hope, and they are what distinguishes my hope of heaven from all the other things for which I hope. One can go further and say that we are dealing with a spiritual reality. It obviously has a psychological basis, because it originates in the mind, and we all have different minds and personalities. At the same time it goes well beyond that, because hope is not therapy; it is what leads us into unity with one another and brings us together into the presence of God. It is why we worship.

I am delighted Quaker Life has decided to feature my book Reasons for Hope because it was written, I suppose, to take these things I have just been talking about which are common to all Christians, to see how they look in a Quaker context. I tend to see the different denominations as variations on a single theme, because each one takes the common music of the faith and sees deeply into one aspect of it. That includes us. We have our own integrity to which we have been called by God, and it is up to us to witness to it.

Our tradition does not witness to things by talking about them, which is why some people think “Quaker theology” is a contradiction in terms. It isn’t, of course, though we tend to prefer questions to answers. This not because of diffidence or uncertainty, but to encourage others to discover for themselves the hope that, often unrecognized, lives within them. That, we think, is the way to enter the Kingdom and, in Paul’s words, to rejoice in our hope. There is faith and there is love. What joins them together, let us never forget, is hope.

John Punshon is a retired Professor Quaker Studies Professor from Earlham College and Earlham School of Religion. He is a recorded minister in Indiana Yearly Meeting and lives in the United Kingdom with his wife, Veronica.

  • Mariellen Gilpin

    I am a recovering mental patient. My story is recorded in a Pendle Hill pamphlet (#394), “God’s Healing Grace: Reflections on a Journey with Mental and Spiritual Illness.” A dear Friend in my meeting commented recently that reading it was like “looking through a keyhole into hell.” So, having lived in hell and found a way out is the resume that leads me to comment on your words, John Punshon, on hope and faith. My personal definition of faith is this: “choosing to do the least-worst thing in spite of pain and fear.”

    Notice, I did not say the “right” thing. The “least-worst” choice is my way of expressing what is often involved in my decisions leading to greater emotional health. For instance, one of my gifts is the gift of compassion; one of my mis-uses of that gift is misguided compassion. My desire to relieve others’ suffering is soul-deep, but I also learned to survive childhood by taking care of people who weren’t making honest efforts to take care of themselves. In an addictive family, one person may decide she’s been “good” because she’s fed and clothed and housed the person who’s just fed their addictions rather than themselves — or their children. This misguided compassion, in codependency parlance, enables the addict never to learn that his or her actions have consequences. Yet the way out of this cycle of enabling an addict to stay addicted is not simply to move out, for instance. The opposite of any evil is all too often the opposite evil. From enablement to abandonment is not a good trade — not if I am to be true to the spiritual gift of a deep desire to be compassionate. But how am I to be truly compassionate, that is to say, both compassionate and also require the addict to face the truth of his condition? Misguided compassion is a salve for the deep family wounding which comes from the acting-out of the thwarted addict. Prevented from receiving his or her accustomed drug, be it sex, drugs, food, poker, violence (or all of the above), creates greater danger, greater chaos, for everyone else in the family. I was the one who was labelled mentally ill, but I was in a truly crazy-making situation.

    Family members work for their own survival in lots of different ways; my learned solution to anxieties caused by the addict was/is to take care of/placate/practice misguided compassion for the addict’s plight. I was/am a Fixer. Un-learning to be a Fixer causes huge anxiety, not only because I don’t know what true compassion looks like or how it’s done, but also because I am gut-level scared. But the only way out of the self-destructive cycle I am in, the only hope for a permanently healthier family, is to stop placating/humoring the addict. To change my ways is like being hip-deep in mud and a mile from dry land. To get to dry land can only be done one step at a time, in fear and trembling, when “dryness/health” is an abstraction rather than lived experience.

    What allowed me to make the decision for health (over and over again) was to come to understand it was what Love required of me. What would true compassion, true love for the addict have me do? Aiding the addict to continue to be an addict was not loving him or her as a child of God, capable of better choices. I had to stop controlling the level of chaos by controlling the addict’s acting-out, and work on controlling me. I had a choice between doing what was comfortable and familiar (“good”) in the short run and horrible in the longer term, or choosing to move beyond pain and fear and inexperience to work for a healthier me. My job was to change my responses to the same-old same-old, and leave it to God and the addict to decide what, or whether, to respond differently when I responded differently. Stepping out in faith — what Love required of me — was a matter of choosing short-term pain and fear and un-knowing in the service of a long-term good — a matter of choosing to do the least-worst thing.

    I’ve been sitting here trying to think of a brief example, John Punshon! My mother was addicted to having her own way, especially when she was anxious. Someone who needs her own way gets herself into all kinds of pickles, which creates additional anxiety. A kid in the house was a safe target — I was too little to take care of myself. She was too good a Christian to beat me, so she shamed me instead. I remember the time she chose a clashing color seam binding for my home made dress for the piano recital. “It won’t show. It’ll do.” It was my fault that I sat on the piano bench so that the seam binding showed. Shame is familiar; I expect to be ashamed. A Friend has defined shame as Should Have Already Mastered Everything. I go through life knowing that people who love me will be glad to explain how I am responsible for their own faulty choices. How am I to be both loving and also change my habitual enablement of continued shaming? Recently I made a very minor request of a loved one, and was shamed. I said lovingly and matter-of-factly, “What was it about the request that made shaming me necessary?” My truly-loving friend apologized instantly and has thought since how to respond in a healthier way. This is a relatively minor example of choosing not to enable, coming after many years of moving beyond pain and fear to truly loving the other. But, I wanted brevity, and I expect you did, too!

    • Helene Pollock

      After reading John Punshon’s and Mariellen Gilpin’s comments on *hope*, it strikes me that we are fortunate if we grow experientially through life’s lessons so that our hope can be increasingly “built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” The impulse to hope that another person — however dear to us — may change is certainly understandable, but life can teach us how to temper that hope with something deeper, fuller and more Christ-like. Mariellen testifies that life has taught her how to become less of a fixer or an enabler, less of a passive person desperately clinging to a thin strand of
      “hope,” and more of a person who not only trusts God in all things but also addresses real problems head-on. Whether we’re successful in the world’s terms or not, each life-lesson can lead to another. The twin realities of joy and pain can make us wiser as the years go by (I write as a 66-year-old). I never cease to be amazed at the wonderous ways God keeps teaching me! And as I join with John in the fondest hope of all — eternity with Christ — my soul is awestruck with an ever-clearer sense, in my own experience, that (as Jesus said) “The Kingdom of God is within/among you!” So we who follow Him are certainly people of HOPE!