The first thing to go was the trip she’d earned to Boston. Then it was her summer internship at the local theater company, followed by the business course she wanted to take for college credit. Eighteen months of disappointments finally spilled over last week as my 17-year-old and I were discussing a potential graduation trip. “Mom,” she interrupted, her voice quavering ever so slightly, “I can’t talk about this. I can’t handle getting excited. It just hurts too much when things get canceled.”
My daughter’s comments reminded me of the pandemic’s collateral damage: the ability to dream, plan, and hope for the future.
As Christians, we believe hope is an important part of our shared faith as well as our personal walk. But Scripture suggests something more radical: Hope is not the privilege of the naturally optimistic; it is the responsibility of all who believe. Hope is the means by which we align not simply our plans but also ourselves with God. It is how we move toward the future he is preparing for us in order to join him there.
Perhaps the most-often quoted (and most misunderstood) passage about looking to the future with hope is Jeremiah 29:11, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”
Christians often interpret this as a blanket promise that “good things are right around the corner.” If we just keep a positive mental outlook, we can know that God has #blessings in store.
But contextually, this promise is given to the Jews recently exiled to Babylon. The faithful remnant had heeded Jeremiah’s warnings to submit to the coming judgment, and now in Babylon, they receive a letter from him telling them to settle down there. In the wake of uncertainty and loss, they’re asked to make long-term commitments like marrying, building houses, and planting gardens.
Imagine how hard it would be to build a house when each stone reminds you of the ones you’ve lost. How difficult to put seeds in the ground, knowing the time they take to mature and knowing that you might still be in Babylon when they do. How difficult to create marriages and families, to bring new life into the world when your loved ones have just been taken from it.
God’s promise is no refrigerator magnet. It’s a call to the hard work of hope. This labor of expectation, as we might call it, carries us forward in multiple ways.
At the very least, it teaches us to trust a Person and not our plans. As James puts it, we have to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that” (4:15). It means leaning into the truth that “humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps” (Prov. 16:9).
But trusting God with the future does not mean denying our present difficulties or ceasing to plan for the future ourselves. Just as we must avoid shallow positivity, we must also avoid fatalism, especially when clothed in spiritual language.
During a recent press conference, for example, Mississippi governor Tate Reeves suggested that Southerners were less scared of COVID-19 because they believed in heaven. “When you believe in eternal life—when you believe that living on this earth is but a blip on the screen,” he said, “then you don't have to be so scared of things.”
While our hope in God is an eternal hope, it does not bypass our present life as a “blip on the screen.” It is as relevant to our current experiences as it is to the future, precisely because our earthly lives hold their own expectations and promise: growing old to see grandchildren, completing a passion project, or establishing a legacy for those who come after you. Hope does the hard work of wanting these things, even as we entrust them to God.
Here is something even more astounding. Ecclesiastes chapter 11 suggests that surrendering to God’s plans actually leads to more planning, more expectation, and a widening sense of possibility in this present life. Rather than leaving you helpless, putting your trust in God gives you what you need to keep working and hoping.
“Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap,” writes the Preacher. “[But] as you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things” (Ecc. 11:4–5).
Those who are waiting for “just the right time”—when everything is perfect and there’s no threat of loss—will never plan or plant anything. But the fact that we don’t know what the future holds also means we don’t know which good things God is planning. So, the Preacher concludes, “sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let your hands not be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well” (v. 6).
It’s precisely because we don’t know God’s specific plans that we must get busy imagining a hundred different ways that he could possibly be at work. Because while some (even many) of our plans are bound to fail, God’s won’t. And with that in mind, we can step out in hope and expectation.
As Andy Crouch recently notes, “The antidote for so many of our anxieties … is paradoxically to enter a more spacious landscape of risk, where anxiety will be lower because our trust, our obedience, and ultimately our maturity are higher.”
By ceding control of the future to God, we guarantee that we will have a future. It may not be the one we anticipate or even the one we would choose, but we’re emboldened knowing that his plans cannot be thwarted.
That’s the surprising nature of Christian hope. It is a hope that passes through suffering and loss because it knows that God establishes our steps. It is the same hope that Jesus displayed when “for the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).
Ultimately, the Jewish exiles could make long-term commitments like marrying, building homes, and planting gardens not because they’d given up hope of returning to Israel but because they put their hope in God. They trusted that, one day, he would fulfill his promises to them when and how he saw fit. And in the meantime, they could move forward with the lives he’d given them. They could plan with expectation because they trusted that God plans with expectation.
So too, “people who believe in the resurrection, in God making a whole new world in which everything will be set right at last,” says N. T. Wright in Surprised by Hope, “are unstoppably motivated to work for that new world in the present.”
This doesn’t lessen the grief of scuttled plans or missed opportunities. It means our trust in God grows. As it does, and as he proves himself faithful, our ability to hope will emerge once again. By entrusting the future to him, we find our vistas of possibility expanded and our dreams renewed. We find ourselves able to return to the work he’s given us, believing that those who “sow with tears will reap with songs of joy” (Ps. 126:5).
Hannah Anderson is the author of Made for More, All That’s Good, and Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul.