Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Transforming Despair to Hope

Charles Durhig’s book, The Power of Habit, tells of a woman named Lisa Allen who is a thirty-four year old graphic designer who doesn’t smoke or drink. She is a runner, debt free, and has recently finished her master’s degree.

A few years before, her life was a mess. She was sixty pounds overweight, a chain smoker, and a heavy drinker. She could not hold down a job or finish school. She was a failure in every area of life. Now she stands before researchers at the National Institute of Health, who are desperate to learn how this woman changed from a failure to a success.

It started when her husband left her.  Without a job and hopeless, she made a rash decision to visit Egypt on her charge card for one last holiday.

She had no goals, no hopes, and no motivation. She was desperate to do something, but did not know what to do. While riding a bus to the pyramids a thought struck her. Could she walk this trip, instead of taking a bus? There was no particular thought behind it—it just came to her, and she resolved to do it. She realized that if she tried now, it would probably kill her. She decided to come back in a year’s time and make the walk. 

First, she gave up cigarettes. It was hard, but she did it. Then she decided to take up walking around town, and eventually jogging, then running. Her life changed, one habit at a time. Every time she changed one habit, she got the courage to change another. With each victory, she gave herself a precious gift—hope. 

Hope transforms us. With it, we can do anything, sustain any action and endure any suffering. Without it, all we do is an exercise in futility. If our hope returns, then our life begins anew.

Paul says in Thessalonians, “I do not want you to suffer as those who have no hope.” Many of us suffer without hope. We may have hope for heaven, but we have no hope for today or tomorrow. We’ve been handed a fortune cookie that says, “This is as good as it’s going to get,” and we believe it.  We are miserable because we have no hope.

Christianity is all about hope. In fact, it is about three hopes. Our first hope is for heaven –we will be with Jesus when we die and live forever. Our second hope is in a better world--Christ’s eventual victory in the end times over darkness, a new heaven and new earth. Our third hope is to become more like Christ here while we live. Romans 8:29 says, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” In this life we are becoming like Jesus in His love, passion, and joy.

The first two hopes are important, but in our daily lives it is this third hope that gets us through this life. If we are dying, or facing terrible persecutions, then we really need those first two hopes. But while all Christians have hope for heaven, many have no personal hope.  

Can we blame them?  If our faith is just an insurance policy against hell, then why should we pay attention to it? Do you read your life insurance or fire insurance policies, and rejoice in your deliverance from future disasters? Does it bring you daily joy to know you’re covered against collision, or do you take it for granted? If all Jesus does is give us a future in heaven, then why should we come here week after week and remember it?  If that’s all the hope we have, then our faith provides nothing in this life, but freedom from worry about the next life. Hope doesn’t help us daily unless it is personal, practical, and daily. 

Jesus came to give us hope not just for heaven, but for this life as well. Many Christians believe that they are stuck in their sins, problems, depression and fear. But if we believe in the transformative power of Christ, then there is nothing in our lives that cannot change. 

Let’s look at a passage about hope in this world. Mark 9: 31-40.

This story happened after Jesus, Peter, James, and John had been on the Mount of Transfiguration. When they returned, they found the other nine disciples losing an arguing with the local scribes. It started when a local man took his son to them to be delivered from a demon who got hold of him, and threw him into fire and water. The disciples couldn’t cast it out. The Pharisees used it as proof that Jesus was a fraud. The townspeople were coming to their side. 

Isn’t this happening today? We say that Jesus is a savior, healer, and deliverer. But where’s the evidence? When we show them our own lives, do they see victory? Why should an unbeliever look at the average churchman and think there is anything special about our message?

Jesus immediately recognizes the problem as unbelief. There was not enough belief in this town, or in the disciples. Because there was not healing the first time, they assumed they never would be, and turned on the disciples and the message. They prayed for the boy, and nothing happened, so they assumed that nothing would happen. 

Jesus says the whole generation refuses to believe!

Is our generation any better?  Listen to how we talk about prayer. We talk about holiness, but never get any better. Many Christians are filled with unbelief and don’t even know it. When our lives are filled with anxiety and worry, what do we do but doubt?  When we show courage and hopefulness in hard times we are demonstrating hopefulness. 

This father of the boy expressed his sense of helplessness in verses 21-22.

Jesus asked his father, "How long has this been happening to him?" And he said, "From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us."

The father implies that the boy’s whole life was a failure from childhood. We are all born with flaws and handicaps. But none of us are so broken that we cannot be better. God can help us overcome even our flaws from birth. 

He also indicates that they could do nothing about it. “It often casts him into fire and water, to destroy him.” If this were your child, would you let him near fire or water? They had all but given up on helping him. Unbelief does not just rob us of a cure—it robs us from trying to find a cure. What’s the point of wasting time and money trying to solve an unsolvable problem? Fortunately, they were still looking for help from Jesus. 

Finally he says to Jesus, “If you can do anything.”  The doctors and religious leaders could do nothing. Now he had come to Jesus’ disciples and they could do nothing. He must have thought he had been abandoned by God Himself.

Jesus’ responded. “If you can! All things are possible for he who believes.”  Not only is something possible—everything is possible! 

Here we must stop and ask an important question. Does Jesus mean all things are possible for those who believe in general, or for those who believe in God?  Is it belief itself or belief in God that makes all things possible? Belief in anything has great power, as we often hear in our culture. Positive thinking works, up to a point. But it has two serious flaws.

First, positive thinking is often pushed too far, making it into a kind of magic. Whenever I hear someone say, “You can achieve anything if you just believe hard enough,” I want to scream, “Okay then--fly!” We all have limitations.

The second problem with positive thinking is that it does work, but for the wrong goals. It is only by God’s mercy that we do not achieve our dreams.  People can succeed, but at the cost of their souls. Legendary blues guitarist Robert Johnson is said to have literally sold his soul to the Devil for the power to play the blues. Entertainers such as James Dean, Tupac Shakur, Amy Winehouse, Heath Ledger, and many others gained their dreams and destroyed their lives. Be careful what you hope for, because it can destroy you. But when we believe in God, and we hope in His glory He grants us the desires of our heart. 

At this point, the father cried, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”

Belief is not the total absence of doubt, nor is doubt the total absence of belief. We do both all the time. Our brains are like congress—there’s always a vocal minority. But we choose to act upon faith rather than doubt.

Hope is choosing to act upon belief, not doubt. If we don’t think we can lose weight we won’t seriously diet. If we don’t think prayer will work we won’t pray. If we never try, we won’t succeed. But if we trust God and keep trusting, He will come through.

Jesus healed the boy, but the disciples were still perplexed. How come Jesus could do it, but they could not?  Jesus answered that this kind of demon comes out only with much prayer.

Why does it make a difference how long you pray?  I confess I do not always know the answer, but there are some things that must be true before we can realize our hopes.

First, we must know what we want.
What we really want is not always obvious. Sometimes the things we think we want are the very things that stand in the way of our ultimate happiness. 

Second, we give up what we don’t need.  
We’re double-minded—wanting too many things at once. When people asked to be His disciples, Jesus told them to leave their families, sell everything, and neglect everything else. They were not willing to take Jesus over other good things. We need to consider the implications of what we want before Jesus gives it.

Third, we must do whatever it takes. 
Jesus gave specific instructions to those He healed. If they did not do it, they did not get the healing. God doesn’t heal us all the same way. Sometimes it takes surgery. Other times, we just have to ask for help. It usually begins with admitting that you have a problem. If we aren’t willing to do what it takes, we won’t be healed.

All this requires much prayer time. Prayer is simply a conversation with God, where we sort out our real reasons and motivations, what healing will require, and whether we are willing to pay the price.  Real prayer is a battle, not a cake walk.  In this battle, the most dangerous opponent is our own unwillingness to believe.

Hope is patience.  The two Hebrew words that are translated “hope” in the Bible. One--yachal--literally means “to wait.” The other—tiqvah--literally means a rope--something we hold while we are waiting for God to pull us up. It’s easy to have hope if wait just a moment, but it’s hard to hold on when the day grows long and our hands get tired. That’s when hope is all important. God’s blessings require holding on. He will give us what we ask, but we must keep holding on. There are greater blessings for you than you can possibly imagine, but you must have hope. Don’t give up. Hope for something greater, and you can have it. 

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