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When hope hurts: faith and despair in a pandemic

As we draw near to the end of a challenging year, Tearfund’s Gideon Heugh reflects on what it means to be a people of hope when hope can seem hard to find.

Written by Tearfund | 30 Oct 2020

As we draw near to the end of a challenging year, Tearfund’s Gideon Heugh reflects on what it means to be a people of hope when hope can seem hard to find.

Hope can hurt. Many of us will bear its wounds at some point in our lives.

You long for something to happen. You hope with all your strength that it will. You choose to believe, in spite of the facts. You pray and you fast and you wage every kind of spiritual warfare… and then things don’t work out. 

And then it happens again. And again.

What do we do with that? How are we meant to respond?

When the ground gives way

When lockdown first began in the UK, despite the uncertainty, there were glimmers of light we could cling to. Though the ground beneath us seemed to be giving way, many of us saw the looming darkness as an opportunity for the church to shine brightly. We saw a chance for society to reassess what was important. Lockdown would put the brakes on a culture that seemed to be hurtling out of control into the future.

Then the death toll started to climb. And continued to climb. And lockdown went on and on and on. It became harder to stay optimistic.

But eventually, towards the end of the summer, the restrictions began to ease. We drew closer to some sense of normality. People dared to hope again. We dreamt of a Christmas with family and friends gathered around the table.

Now? It feels as though we’re heading back to where we started: new lockdowns, rising death rates and more uncertainty. Winter is approaching in the UK and the nights are drawing in, adding to a sense of weariness. When will all of this end?

And of course, the coronavirus pandemic is just one of several global crises that we are facing. Not to mention whatever personal challenges we may be dealing with. All of these things will be weighing heavily on us, whether consciously or not. 

‘‘To be a people of hope doesn’t mean we turn away from the brokenness; it means we stride into it.’’

Authentic hope

Life can be crushing. It’s important – vital, even – to acknowledge that. Hope is not the same as wishful thinking or blind optimism. Hope’s eyes are open to the very real brokenness around us. 

It’s normal to be experiencing negative thoughts and feelings during times like these. It’s okay to weep. It’s okay to be unhappy. It's okay to have moments of frustration and even anger. Suppressing these natural responses to difficult circumstances can be damaging. This is when we need community: churches should be safe spaces for people to be vulnerable – where we can let our grief be grief; our weariness be weariness; our anguish be anguish. 

The last thing that hope does is say ‘cheer up, things aren’t so bad’. Because sometimes things really are so bad. To be a people of hope doesn’t mean we turn away from the brokenness; it means we stride into it. 

A healthy faith cannot ignore doubt and difficulty. It acknowledges them, accepts them, and gives them the space they need. Then it rolls up its sleeves and gets to work. Hope doesn’t ignore the darkness; it swallows it up, using it as fuel that we might shine all the brighter.

Reigniting belief

This is why so much of Tearfund’s work involves addressing the mental and spiritual aspects of poverty as much as the material. 

I saw this with my own eyes when visiting Malawi at the beginning of this year (before anyone was worried about coronavirus – remember what that was like?). 

I was there to find out how the climate emergency is affecting people’s lives. I spent time in a village where the community was facing months of hunger because the nearby river had burst its banks, ruining their crops. We were told that the river never used to flood, but now it does so every year. The rainy seasons are more ferocious; while in the dry season the droughts are longer and more damaging. We are seeing this pattern repeated around the world.

One of the effects of food shortages in Malawi is that children can’t go to school. They need to work instead, so that they can help their families buy food. Education is a way out of poverty, but their route has been cut off. 

Perhaps the most difficult thing to see was the resignation in people’s eyes. One of the first things that poverty takes away is the belief that things can change. 

That’s where the church comes in. Tearfund’s local church partners are working with these communities to reignite their belief that a better future is not only possible, but that our actions can help bring it into being. Because hope is not passive. It gets its hands dirty.

‘‘We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.’’
(2 Corinthians 4:8-9)

The wounded God

This is part of what it means to be a Christian: to not only imagine that things can be better, but to actively help create that reality. To be God’s hands and feet in the world.

All of this finds its ultimate manifestation in Christ. The incarnation – God becoming flesh and blood – was a declaration that God is here in the midst of the brokenness. God does not float above the mess; through Jesus he entered into it – even becoming it on the cross – in order to transform it.

In our pain, Jesus draws close; in our doubts, the Holy Spirit is near. 

Look at this passage from one of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians:

‘We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.’ (2 Corinthians 4:8-9)

We are hard pressed; we are perplexed; we are persecuted; we are struck down. There’s no blind optimism here, no ‘don’t worry, be happy’ kind of thinking. Paul is clear about the severity of the situation. It’s only by naming this that he can get to the ‘..but not crushed… but not in despair… but not abandoned… but not destroyed.’

Whatever we are feeling, we must allow ourselves to feel it. Even if that feeling is one of helplessness. Feeling helpless is not the same as being hopeless. Our hope does not depend upon our circumstances, but upon our Saviour. It is not bound up in our feelings, but in our faith.

It is that faith that will bring us through. So yes, hope can hurt – but we’re going to keep on hoping anyway. 

Please pray

If you feel comfortable doing so, take a few moments to reflect on the challenges you’ve been faced with this year. Think about the frustrations, the disappointments, the fears. Create space within yourself for those things to exist. Then invite God into that space. Invite Christ to infuse those difficult feelings with his presence. Then say, ‘I acknowledge these thoughts and feelings. I accept them for what they are. I know that they are temporary. I know that things can change, and I believe in God’s power to change them.’ Then, do the same for a world crisis that has been concerning you: be that the coronavirus pandemic, the climate emergency or extreme poverty.

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Written by  Tearfund

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