Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but wed also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Hope is one of those things in short supply in our present society. We are living in a state of fear, being driven by concerns about political power, coronavirus, the climate, the economy, racial tensions. Each of these things individually would be something to be concerned about, but for those who have a conscious awareness of them altogether, it can lead people down a spiral to radicalism, where pervasive and trenchant fear and anxiety lead some to the conclusion that the only solution is a radical upheaval and replacement. To the degree that such people do hope, it is to the degree that they believe they have the power to change the circumstances. In such a world, hope is tightly connected to a high degree of agency over the important processes and outcomes that borders on the need to control. In the end, such a hope is connected to a specific type of trust, trust in people like me and those who I identify with and think like me to address the challenges we are facing. There is a link between trust and hope, and that link runs through power and control.
With that in mind, the picture that Paul provides of faith and hope in Romans 5.1-5 seems to be similar on the surface. Because one has faith, there is a line of formative events and virtues that lead to the emergence of hope. However, there is something profoundly different between the two connections between faith and hope. For Paul, it is ultimately grounded in the loving power of God demonstrated and made known through the pouring of the Holy Spirit. This power, however, is not a power that gives one control and mastery over the world. Even as Christians saw the injustices and abuses littered throughout Roman society, they were powerless to be able to address them directly, head on, as they were a minority culture under Roman imperial power. Instead, the loving power of the God in the Spirit was connected to something different in the people’s lives: to face hardships and difficulties without being overcome. In the midst of this movement from faith to hope, there is a transformation that occurs in the faithful believer: that in the facing of sufferings that they could not control, they would learn endurance, and through the endurance, they would have the basic virtue necessary to grow and develop character.
What is going on here? How does this transformation take place? Is it that suffering is necessary to become holy in Paul’s eyes? Or is it that suffering is one place where believers have an opportunity to learn the type of character that makes people produce the fine fruit of love in their lives? I would suggest the latter, as it is my conviction that Paul’s purpose in Romans is to direct a Jewish Christian community in Rome to not fall into a Maccabean-like zeal against the Roman powers due to the way that Jews were often times derisively stereotyped, treated, and disregarded in Roman society, even if they did technically have legal protections Instead, of going down the route of revolutionary zeal, Paul encourages them to face this trial as an opportunity where the suffering from being treated as second-class citizens would lead them towards a better way in becoming those people whose lives are lead by the Holy Spirit. However, even though Paul certainly recognizes his own intimacy with sufferings and encourages believers to face these trials, nowhere we do see a “martyr complex” where the only way to be faithful is to be persecuted. In fact, Paul hopes and prays that Christians can live in peace (1 Tim. 2.1-3).
If that case, Paul does not see suffering as necessary to grow, but it is a sufficient opportunity. If that is the case, what then is the connection between faith, character, and hope? How can we grow deeply in Christ without having to seek suffering? I would put forward this: the connect between Christian faith and hope is grounded upon the expectant imagination of the believer that colors the daily events of their lives.
Imagine a person who has the opportunity to interview for their dream career. The interview went very well and they were confident but there would be a period of a few weeks before they would hear back. In those moments between the interview and hearing back, they might start to think about all that the career would entail. They might imagine their relationship with their new colleagues, they might imagine the business trips they take, they may consider all the people they will help. In the midst of their time, they would begin to dream of what is to come based upon the confidence they have from the interview team and what is known about the job. The (relative) faith that the person has in obtaining this specific job, and not just some generic trust that somewhere along the lines something will work out, is the seed of imagination. In the midst of the imagination, they begin to think to themselves how they themselves are to address the various parts of their responsibilities. All the meanwhile, without their awareness, their imagination is impacted the way they will work in their hopeful vocation if the opportunity does come. Meanwhile, the more they imagine the future, the more hopeful they get about it. The processes of the expectant imagination both forms the person’s outlook and potential approach to the job and inculcates a deeper sense of optimism for the future. What is key in this formative process is that they person has a reason for their faith and confidence. Even though they have not obtained the job yet, it is their expectations that color the time between the interview and hearing back on the job.
Consider another example in the realm of marriage. A couple who has been dating for a while have gotten engaged and there is the excitement about the wedding. Their time together has made them trust one another so that they begin to imagine what life will be life living together. As the wedding day approaches, their expectant imaginations may begin to form the way they themselves prepare to live in marriage as to how to be a good husband or wife, which may even lead to some formal work such as premarital counseling. The more they consider this through the course of events, the more hopeful they become about their future together.
Of course, it needs to be said that the expectant imagination doesn’t always come true. The job might fall through or it might not be what they expected. There might be an unexpected breaking up of the relationship that prevents the marriage or the marriage might not be all that it is cracked up to be. In fact, the expectant imagination often leads to unrealistic expectations, as people rarely have a clear enough picture of the future. Nevertheless, the point is this: our positive expectations for the future based upon the confidence is a basis for changing the type of person we are and the source by which we begin to experience a deeper sense of optimism and hope for the future.
So it is with the Gospel. The faith that comes through belief in the resurrected Messiah brings forth the confident expectation of God’s promises given to Israel. Just as Abraham received the promise from God, so too can God’s people expect to see God’s faithfulness, even in the midst of trials and hardships. This frees the people to be able to face the challenges of life differently. Rather than take to revolutionary zeal in the face of persecution, they can trust that God will be faithful to them because God did not withhold His own Son. They can imagine life differently, no longer living according to the mindset of the flesh that is preoccupied by death that gets triggered when they face denigration, but instead live by the leading of the Spirit who directs believers towards life and shalom, with the hope that God is bringing about His promises. In the midst of this, the expectant imagination dramatically alters how they face life events. Meanwhile, because they can face the difficulties with confidence in the hearts, this gives birth to a deepening hope and optimism that isn’t conditioned to their having entire control of the outcomes of social and political life.
What is different, however, from the dream career and the engagement is this: the optimism that believers have is to simply based upon some past event In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ or some past words and promises from God. This optimism is because they know that God is actively at work in them at the present time through the Holy Spirit, the down-payment for God’s promises to be realized in the future. It is this leading of the Spirit who both forms them to be genuinely prepared for the future and is the continuing grounds for confidence in God’s promises. Because the Spirit has been given, the Christian hope in God’s faithfulness to His promises is not an unrealistic one, even if it might seem unrealistic to a world that requires confident knowledge of the whens and hows in order to have a confidence that begets hope. While the power that seeks control needs knowledge to have confidence, the power rooted in giving and receiving love needs only the evidential assurance of the beloved’s on-going intentions in order to generate and strengthen hope.
So, faith begets hopes, whether we have a uniquely Christian faith and hope or not. However, what makes the Christian faith and the Christian hope particular is that it is grounded upon the manfiestion of God’s loving power through Jesus Christ and in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that grounds faith and cements hope. And it is this difference that makes all the difference in the world between various forms of faith and hope. The shape of Jesus’ life and His words and the specific desires and purposes that the Spirit leads shapes the nature of Christian faith, character, and hope that makes it unique from other types of faith, character, and hope.