The One Question We Have to Answer

bridge.jpgThe past few weeks have been notably reflective both for me personally and for us as a collective, internet-using community. There’s been much talk and many posts about the past year and our resolutions for the new one. I’m not much for resolutions. I prefer to think in terms of goals, both short- and long-term, because to “resolve” seems more permanent and I know myself too well for that.

You could argue the difference is just semantics and you might be right. But what the two have in common is the desire to change, to be different in some way than we currently are, and the belief that that difference will be better.

This is driven by a unique kind of hope. A hopefulness for a brighter future or a better version of yourself. Hope that your current experience will improve in whatever way you’ve decided it needs to. But it also seems to be driven by a unique, feverish kind of fear. A fear that things won’t change or improve unless you do something. A fear that you’ll get to the end of this year and be just the same as you’ve always been. A fear that if you don’t change these things now you’ll never become the version of yourself you want to be.

Emily Dickinson said that “hope inspires the good to reveal itself.” Our resolutions seem to hinge on this. We hope that through these changes we commit to our real self will finally be revealed – the healthier me, the thinner me, the more budget-minded me, the me that calls my grandma more often.

So then the fear driver is that the opposite will happen. Instead of good, we’ll just reveal disappointment or stagnation. It’ll just be me again, still. Not any healthier, not any thinner, not any more attentive to my grandma or my finances, just the same me I’ve always known and wish would change.

I find that hope and fear sit together in so much of my life these days. In things much bigger than resolutions. There’s a lot ahead for me this year: I’m getting married, moving to New York City, starting a new life in a new place with new people. And I’m so hopeful for the change and the excitement and the privilege those things bring. And am in equal parts terrified of the newness and the loss and the unknown.

It’s a strange pairing, hope and fear. And yet they seem so closely intertwined so often. Like some bizarre Venn diagram. I’ve seen this in the lives of my friends and family, too. In moving, having kids, singleness, job transitions, retirement even. Fear and hope take each of your hands and beg to be the one to lead you to what’s next.

One of my favorite writers, Anne Lammot, said that “the opposite of faith is not doubt: it is certainty.” I’ll extend that to say that the opposite of both hope and fear is certainty, too. Neither exist without uncertainty. Both swim in the sea of the unknown, and sit there firmly next to you, each asking the same question but offering different answers:

Who do you believe is in control?

I know the right answer, I could say it in my sleep. And yet I still find myself afraid, so much of the time. What if I’m a terrible wife? What if I don’t make any friends? What if moving across the country is horrible? What if my single friends don’t think I’m relatable any more? What if I miss my mom?

When my answer is “God is in control, but what if…”, my answer is that God is not in control. My answer is that the world is, chaos is, or, worse, I am. I’m saying the right answer, but believing the other. I’m claiming hope, but pledging allegiance to fear.

Let me pause. Oversimplification can be damaging and unfair. I don’t believe the world is fundamentally binary and I want to leave room here for blurred edges and grey matter. Not everything is black and white. But I also don’t want to make excuses or concessions for the choice this question presents. So let me aknowledge the limitations of simplification but pursue the absoluteness of this question. Because if I choose to believe in God’s supreme authority, bolstered by a correct understanding of his character, I am drawn out of fear as it loses its power and am led invariably to hope.

I keep typing “it’s a simple choice” and then deleting it. Because simple is not the right word. The decision is difficult, every time, and I don’t want to ignore that part. But it is a straightforward choice. It is absolute. It is a one or the other situation.

My older brother is one of the kindest and most intelligent people I know and is decidedly not religious. We have respectful, meaningful disagreements about Christian theology almost every time we’re together and I cherish each conversation for how they challenge me, teach me, and deepen my understanding of both my faith and the incredible thinker that he is.

One of his chief complaints with today’s Christians is what he would call the convenience of falling back on God’s will. As if phrases like “well, it just wasn’t God’s will” is just an easy, simple-minded way to deal with loss or dissapointment – an escape route rather than a true mark of faith.

This could be said of hope as well. Maria Papova, author of Brain Pickings, puts it this way: “hope without critical thinking is naiveté…believing blindly that everything will work out just fine also produces a kind of resignation…we need to bridge critical thinking with hope.”

But I would argue that this hope I’m talking about is different. That the hope that comes from remembering and trusting in God’s authority is neither convenient nor simple-minded, and it is certainly not blind. Rather, it is emboldened by our understanding of his character, our belief in his word, and our experience of his continued faithfulness to his people.

This hope is not naïve. As Brene Brown says, “hope is not an emotion. Hope is a cognitive, behavioral process that we learn when we experience adversity.” This hope is in the God that I know and trust. It is based on all the moments I have seen the ribbons of his faithfulness, even and especially in hardship. It is personal – swollen with intimacy as he numbers the hairs on my head. But it is broader, too – marked by the understanding that I am a tiny spec in his massive story of redemption. Both of which deepen my hopefulness.

Krista Tippet, whom I quote too often with no plans to stop, summed this up brilliantly in her recent book Becoming Wise.

“I’ve traveled a long way since my early life in Oklahoma – far enough to know that I might be accused of taking this virtue of hope too far. So be it. I am inclined now, more than ever, towards hope. I’m consciously shedding the assumption that a skeptical point of view is the most intellectually credible. Intellect does not function in opposition to mystery; tolerance is not more pragmatic than love; and cynicism is not more reasonable than hope. Unlike almost every worthwhile thing in life, cynicism is easy.”

So, too, is fear. It is the easy choice. We are quick to succumb to the chaos around us and resign to its power and pain. But hope is the braver truth. It is the “But God” of our emotional intellect (Ephesians 2:4). Hope is resilience. Not a fall back, not a convenience.

The world is hard and big and scary and painful. Always asking who’s in control – does God really care about your suffering, will this season of waiting ever end, is all of this arbitrary, is anything promised, did God really say you can’t eat of this apple (Genesis 3:3)?

And yet amidst the chaos and unknown we answer again and again that the Lord reigns and that he alone is in control. Uncertainties are certain, but by believing in God’s authority and his boundless love for his people, our hope will inspire the good to reveal itself. “In whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind” (Job 12:10).

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