The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
January 19, 2020
Trouble and pain stalk us. Yet, when they ambush us, we can still know happiness by believing in God. If we have hope by trusting in God’s steadfast love and faithfulness, we endure the hard times with uplifted hearts until we enjoy the better times we count on.
But who can hope that much?
No one hopes as much as those who put their trust in the God of the Bible – but even they struggle with maintaining hope. For hope can be treacherous. If we’re not careful, hope sets us up for disappointment, the disappointment that leads to disillusionment.
Seminary professor Lewis Smedes used to speak of how, for the first decade of his marriage, his wife Doris and he hoped passionately for a child. They wanted a baby more than anything else in the world. For ten long years they hoped, waited and prayed. Finally, when they were about to abandon hope, Doris at last got pregnant. They thanked God and drank a toast to hope.
Then, one evening, about six months into the pregnancy, something went wrong. Doris’ labor started early, and the doctor urged Smedes to drive her to the ER right away, with the promise he’d meet them there. Then he added, “I have to tell you something I should’ve told you before. Your baby is going to be deformed. You have to let Doris know on the way to the hospital.” He did. But the two of them decided they weren’t going to give up hope. No matter what the doctor said, they’d still hope in God. They kept on hoping all through the night.
At six o’clock the next morning, the doctor approached Smedes in the waiting room with an embarrassed look and an ear-to-ear grin. “Congratulations!” he announced. “You have a perfect baby boy. Come, see.”
I now quote Smedes: “There my son was, yelling his head off, looking just like me – a perfect man-child. Praise God!, Doris and I thought. It’s true. Never give up hope. Never, ever give up hope.
“But two days later our baby died.
“Hope can break your heart.”
And sometimes we get so hurt by hope we resolve never to risk its disappointments again.
Smedes struggled long and hard with the temptation to play it safe from then on and to give up on hoping; but he eventually mustered the courage to hope again, despite the vulnerability it creates.
Over time, Smedes gained wisdom and the daring it brings. He came to see how fervent wishes do not always amount to justified hopes; and how many hopes are only reasonable when justified by a scriptural promise, a clear word from the Spirit, and an accurate grasp of who God is and how He works. Smedes came to see how in His wisdom God may, for love’s sake, allow in our lives what He hates to bring about what He loves.
There is a distinction between having a faith expectation and having a faith expectancy. An expectation is an anticipation of a specific outcome. An expectancy is a generalized, humble and open-minded trust that somehow, maybe in no way we can see, God will do what is right in the “steadfast love” and “faithfulness” of which David sings in today’s psalm. To have an expectancy of faith is to realize that even our disappointed expectations have a place in the wise and loving plans of a God who works in all things, even bad things, for good.
To have a specific expectation about what God will do, without a specific assurance from Him to justify it, is to instill a sense of entitlement that sets us up for disillusionment. To have a generalized expectancy based on how awesomely great and mysteriously good God is, is to hold the specifics of our hope with a loose grip and to let a serene happiness establish residency in our hearts whatever happens.
We must fight the presumption that we know what exactly God should do in our particular situation. If we maintain the humility to refrain from telling God how to do His business and to doubt the dogmatism with which we second-guess Him, we can still dream and pray big, but with less exposure to disillusionment.
After speaking honestly, in the three previous psalms, about his struggle to hope in hard times, David in this psalm gives a testimony to God’s trustworthiness and gaciousness so as to encourage others to hope in Him. David bears witness here how he called on the Lord, “waited patiently” for Him to act, and at last received a miraculous deliverance from his danger and distress. God, David says, “drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.” This experience of grace moved David to sing a “new song” of grateful praise and to tell people his story, so that they too would “put their trust in the Lord” and know firsthand, as verse 4 says that, “happy are those who make the Lord their trust.” Whoever hangs all their hope on God and “waits on” God while writing His law on their heart and “delighting” to fulfill it, shall – like David – have joyful cause to commend hope.
But many today cannot trust enough to take the risk of hope.
One of the leading global communications marketing firms, an outfit called Edelman, publishes a yearly “Trust Barometer”. According to the reading of a year ago, trust has plummeted in our country to a historic low, and put America in the bottom quarter of Edelman’s 28-country trust index. Trust across the board has been dropping 10 to 20% a year. The report concluded, “The U.S. is enduring an unprecedented crisis of trust.”
Barna, Gallup and other research firms have at the same time reported an unprecedented crisis of happiness as well – happiness as measured in terms of feelings of well-being, supportive relationships, sense of purpose and connection to one’s community. The two crises are not, I think, unrelated.
Our neighbors need to hear the stories of those of us who have found happiness by believing in God, stories of how trustworthy and gracious God is, even when times are hard, so that they might dare to try hoping in Him.
We must, however, accurately represent what to expect from hoping in God. It doesn’t mean we’ll get what we’ve set our sights on, or be spared from having our dreams disappointed, our hearts broken, or our lives beset by trouble and pain.
The way the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used to put it was, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” He meant, I think, that we have to accept hard times as a passing part of God’s plan for making our lives and the world overall better, that the development of character and conduct of eternal worth matters most in the development of lasting happiness, and that all the short-term pain is a small price to pay for the long-term gain guaranteed to those who believe and obey the Lord.
Let us hold on to hope, delight to do the Lord’s will, and be happy in the God of steadfast love and faithfulness!