Hope, like the word ‘love’, gets used in many different ways, so how do we understand what biblical hope is?
“A fellow from the cannery came running down to the wharf shouting that the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor,” Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston wrote. “Mama yelled at him, ‘What is Pearl Harbor?’”
Jeanne and her nine siblings’ lives were all about to drastically change as they were forced into the internment camp Manzanar while World War II raged somewhere out beyond the gray-blue waves of the Pacific Ocean. This was all coming for them like a stormfront as she recalled, “That night Papa burned the flag he had brought with him from Hiroshima thirty-five years earlier. It was such a beautiful piece of material, I couldn’t believe he was doing that. He burned a lot of papers too, documents, anything that might suggest he still had some connection with Japan. These precautions didn’t do him any good.
“…The next morning two FBI men in fedora hats and trench coats — like out of a thirties movie — knocked…and when they left, Papa was between them. He didn’t struggle. There was no point to it. He had become a man without a country. The land of his birth was at war with America; yet after thirty-five years here he was still prevented by law from becoming an American citizen. He was suddenly a man with no rights who looked exactly like the enemy. About all he had left at this point was his tremendous dignity.”
When the family was forced to move to Manzanar, Jeanne’s parents’ response was “Shikata ga nai.”
There is no good translation for this into English. Some people roughly translate it as “What can you do?”, but the true spirit of the word is lost in this translation. The phrase reflects a mentality that life is difficult, coincidences can be brutally unkind, and most people simply must make sacrifices in order to endure.
The historic American mentality has seemed diametrically opposed to the spirit of “Shikata ga nai” with one reporter for the Wall Street Journal going so far as to write that after 2020, “The world needs American idealism again.”
These waves a hand to the famous phrase ‘the American dream’ which was coined by historian James Truslow Adams in his book Epic of America where he described, “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” There’s enormous idealism in this description. If only our world actually reflected those high ideals. Perhaps this is part of why the humdrum, everyday news is so depressing.
The contrast between idealism’s vision and realities’ landscape is what drives people to constantly hunt for something better, a more fulfilling romantic relationship, a job that recognizes their talents, a way to fix their troubled child.
“Hopelessness often gets masked behind idealism,” wrote Sara Hagerty. It was the first time I had ever heard someone say such a thing, and yet it immediately resonated. How many of my associates and coworkers at the university had been immense idealists? Gentrification and racism and misogyny were going to be cured if we all went to more rallies, signed more petitions, joined movements, started movements and really impressed the importance of these topics on the next generation. The world could change for the better, if only we worked hard enough!
Underneath the idealistic saying, “We can make the world a better place” lies the far more grim insistence “We must make the world better. If we fail, a broken world will consume us.” The hope of Hallmark cards will inevitably crumple because it’s based on dreams and plans that do not take into account the warp and weft of sinful, fragile people.
Comedian, social critic and foxhole agnostic George Carlin noted, “They say if you scratch a cynic, you will find a disappointed idealist, and I would admit that underneath all this—” he pointed to his own chest, “—there’s a little flicker of a flame of idealism that would love to see it all change.”
The problem with idealism is that it presents itself as hope but has actually lost sight of what hope really is and where the spring of it may be found. The dictionary defines ‘hope’ as “ to cherish a desire with anticipation : to want something to happen or be true”, but I can desire and anticipate all kinds of things that are not going to happen or may not even be good for me. When those ‘hopes’ don’t come through, I can collapse into cynicism. As Gary Wilkerson pointed out his podcast, “Hopelessness is borne out of an incorrect view of God and that’s where Satan comes to kill and destroy our view of God being good…”
What then does the Bible say hope is? How do we define a hope that avoids self-gratifying desires and also honestly acknowledges reality?
The Bible says, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! …I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope” (Psalm 130:1,5, ESV). We’re told to hope in one thing: God’s Word.
Now, God is pretty frank about the state of most of our dreams and desires. “People will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:2-4). By this token, humanity has made a brutal, wrecked place of the world; and we can’t save ourselves or mend the brokenness.
Into the desperate cycle of pain, though, Christ intervened, and that intervention gives us hope that one day the wrongs will be righted, justice will be done and forgiveness will heal. “For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” (Galatians 5:5).
This is not hope that “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone.” Nowhere does the Bible guarantee that our lives will be better or richer in any material sense. This hope is not based on our own efforts, the state of our lives or future aspirations. Biblical hope is that God sees every act and motivation; he will grant justice and mercy; his strength will redeem and transform; his path and plans for our lives will ultimately be the most fulfilling because that’s where we will most clearly experience his presence.
John Piper put it this way, “If I am put down, I look to the emotional reservoir of hope for the strength to return good for evil. Without hope, I have no power to absorb the wrong and walk in love, and I sink into self-pity or self-justification. …If I face a temptation to be dishonest, to steal, to lie, or to lust, I look to the emotional reservoir of hope for the strength to hold fast to the way of righteousness, and deny myself some brief, unsatisfying pleasure.”
This is how biblical hope is intertwined with our faith (see Hebrews 11:1). In that same chapter of Hebrews, Abel is commended for his faith, which we might also read as hope. He was herdsman, not exactly an illustrious career. As far as we know, he never married, never had children and was murdered by his own brother at a young age. Nevertheless, we’re told, “Through his faith, though he died, he still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4). Our hope in God doesn’t guarantee success, relationships, legacy or long life.
Rather biblical hope pins itself on God’s purpose for us and how he will glorify himself through our lives, however that looks.
This is what allowed Paul, despite all of his ordeals with persecution from secular powers and problems thanks to disgruntled church members, to write, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).
In his podcast episode on combatting hopelessness, Gary Wilkerson noted, “There's this arrow from the Holy Spirit that penetrates all those walls of self interest and building up self. It breaks through that and says, ‘That's not what your heart was built for. You weren't built for yourself. You were built for others; you were built for God. You were built for his kingdom.’ No one is happy unless they come to that place of realizing ‘I’m not meant to live for me.’”
Biblical hope is not the passive tolerance or self-generated dignity of “Shikata ga nai,” although it does encompass the truth that there are many aspects of our lives that we cannot change in our own power. Biblical hope is not the individualistic self-indulgence of the American dream either, although it does embrace the eager eye toward the future.
Our hope is a trust in our good Father who has made a way for us to know him. No better words may conclude these thoughts than those of scripture. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13).