28 February 2008

Oh, Torment!

It was interesting to hear Rush Limbaugh last week (19 February). He was offering a criticism of the whole “hope” business in the Barak Obama campaign. Limbaugh really doesn’t care much for Senator Obama’s refrains of “hope.” Neither do I. The word seems to be used with little effort to clarify the sense in which it is being used. Offering hope is very little good without some explanation of the grounds for the hope. Our hope, when we go to sleep at night, that the sun will rise in the morning is not groundless. We expect (i.e., hope) that the sun will rise; and our grounds for the expectation is the fact that the sun has risen for as long as we can remember. Now, we can’t prove that the sun will rise tomorrow, so hope is the only possible posture for us. Indeed, hope is the only possible posture respecting the future, for anyone. But this posture must have some grounding. But I digress.

Limbaugh irritated at least one caller (end of 1st hour) by quoting Neitzsche on hope: “Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torments of man.” (Taken from an aphorism which appears in Nietzsche's Human, All Too Human.) Rush later (top of 2nd hour) summed up his view of hope: Hope is an excuse for doing nothing.

The caller severely chastised Limbaugh for relying upon Neitzsche for a definition of hope. The caller, a Christian, was angry with Limbaugh for summarily dismissing “hope”, on the grounds that “hope” is a Biblical term, which does not mean doing nothing and expecting things to happen (as Limbaugh wanted to characterize it). Rather, hope, to the caller, is doing all that can be done and then waiting for God to do the rest.

Of course, Limbaugh responded (rightly, I think) by linking this man’s view of hope with the Obama campaign. There is a messianic view of Obama, Limbaugh went on to explain, and this man’s view really did not correct anyone who wanted to use the word in relation to the senator. After people have done all that they can humanly do, they can then wait for the government (in the role of God) to do the rest. This only resulted in the caller becoming even angrier with Rush for allowing Obama and his ilk to hijack the word “hope”. (Never mind that Limbaugh changed his tactic, showing the caller that the Obamanistas can still use the word hope as he, the caller defined it, simply making government, for all practical purposes, God, in which case, Rush was saying, there is still a problem with hope. It still means, at some point, doing nothing and expecting something to happen. It may be that hope is doing all one can do and then letting God take over. The point is that, in this drama, the part of God is to be played by Obama.)

The caller can have his problem. But I wonder about his definition of hope. He says it is a Biblical concept, which it is. But it is not a concept found only in the Bible. Like most words, the meaning is subject to some variation. The question is not whether hope is a biblical concept but whether his definition (doing all that you can and then letting God do the rest) squares with the Biblical conception. It’s one thing to claim that a concept is biblical. It is quite another to give an accurate (or even simply adequate) explanation of the concept. In this case, I don’t think the caller comes close to an adequate explanation.

Keep in mind his explanation: Hope is doing all that can be done and then waiting for God to do the rest. I don’t have time for an exhaustive study, but I don’t think even a cursory study will justify this claim. The Bible doesn’t know this definition.

All of the words (including the Hebrew) translated as hope in Scripture connote expectation, not doing all one can do and then waiting for God to finish the job. Some of the Hebrew words translated hope can also be rendered as refuge or confidence. The idea is not possibility or even probability, but rather (like the word faith) a form of certainty, not uncertainty. This used to be the connotation of the English word hope. Presently it expresses simple desire, mixed with some uncertainty about results, not an expectation. One says, “I hope he wins” and entertains uncertainty about it. When there is a real expectation of winning, what one now says is something like, “I bet you he wins it,” very little uncertainty, if any. But since this is a position with respect to the future it is properly a hope. That is the biblical conception of hope, or at least the quick and dirty guide.

“But James,” you say, “when this man talks about doing all one can do and then waiting for God, that waiting is waiting in expectation that God will act, just like those Old Testament saints.”

Firstly, when stripped of its pious-sounding language this conception doesn’t involve letting God take over. It involves cessation of activity. In order for it properly to involve letting God take over an important element must be present. Biblical hope – the hope the caller was talking about – has grounds. If one is going to act and then let God take over, one ought to have some grounds for expecting that God will take over. If one is going to do all that one can do and then let God take over, one should have some grounds for expecting that God will take over. If not, then one is testing God (see Matt. 4.5-7).

Secondly, those Old Testament saints, if you read the passages closely, expected God to act in the same way they expected the sun to rise. And they expected Him to act because He had promised to do so. (Depending on the action they were expecting, of course.) But He didn’t promise to be their cosmic pooper-scooper, gladly cleaning up when they made a mess of things. His promises were promises of covenant faithfulness. When Israel trusted in God in the face of their enemies they did so because He had committed Himself to them. In vindicating them before their enemies He vindicated Himself and His holy name; their vindication, you might say, was simply the residue of His vindication of Himself.

But His covenant faithfulness was conditional upon their own covenant faithfulness. When the Israelites were defeated at Ai, there was weeping and throwing of dust upon heads (see Joshua 7). They went into battle expecting a victory as at Jericho, a larger city than Ai. Instead, they were roundly defeated at Ai. Why? As it turned out, there was disobedience in the camp: Achan had violated the ban. Israel, in disobedience, had no grounds for their expectation. And here, another important element is introduced. In a sense, one could say that Israel did have grounds for their expectation of victory: their deliverance from Egypt, provision in the wilderness, the victory at Jericho. But this expectation also involved some ignorance. Had they known about Achan’s sin, they might not have entertained much hope of victory at Ai.

The book of Judges provides a resume of Israel’s failures at covenant faithfulness. It’s a circular resume. Israel transitions into apostasy; and God leaves Israel to her enemies. Israel cries out – in hope – to God for help; and God, in fidelity to His covenant, delivers Israel from subjection to her enemies. I don’t think a review of the narrative in Judges will support a claim that Israel’s hope was demonstrated by their doing all they could do and then stopping to let God take over. The fact of the matter is that Israel could, quite clearly, do nothing in the face of her enemies. In the end, however, God ceased coming to Israel’s aid, sending them into captivity for their covenant infidelity. But even as they entered this captivity, they had hope. Why? Because they knew they could do all they could do and then wait for God to take over? No. He had made promises through the prophets. They maintained hope only because He had promised.

It also deserves mention that this man’s conception of hope, when applied, requires us to fix our hopes on this world. Think about it. Where is the action taking place that this man is talking about when he says hope is doing all that we can do and then letting God take over? Here in this world. This vision of hope fixes itself on the things of this world. And let’s face it: What we’re really talking about in this vision of hope is deliverance. After we have done all that we can do, God is going to deliver us from whatever circumstances we are working through. Are we really promised such deliverance, in this world? (It was this vision of hope which Neitzsche, rightly, took pleasure in lambasting.)

All this is important because, among other important reasons (like just understanding your Bible in the first place) if one is going to yell at a man (and this man was yelling at Limbaugh at the top of his lungs) for his incorrect understanding of hope, one should at least see to it that one’s own conception of hope squares, at least in part, with the text. This man probably believes that the Scriptures teach that God helps those who help themselves. After all, his vision of hope squares very well with that silly notion.

The real important question, then, is not whether Obamanistas have hijacked the word hope. There are really three questions. First: what does Senator Obama mean by the word hope when he uses it? Second: What is the object of this hope (i.e., what we are to be hoping for)? Third: What are our grounds for entertaining this hope?

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James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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