January 10, 2024 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — 1 Peter 3:15-16 (NIV)
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. . .
Hope does not depend on circumstances nor it is the same as optimism. True hope is rooted in the person of Jesus Christ, and should be evident to the world, prompting those around us to ask for reasons. Christian hope lived out even when circumstances give little reason for optimism may be one of the most powerful witnesses a Christian has.
In his first letter to the Christian church, Peter calls believers to “be prepared to give an answer” to those who ask for reasons for their hope. The Greek word translated “give an answer” is the word from which we get the modern English word apologetics. The NRSV translates the word with the phrase, “make your defense.” It implies a sort of reasoned argument for belief. This idea comes out again in Paul’s next phrase which references giving “reasons for the hope that you have.” To whom is such an apologetics defense to be made? To those who ask for reasons for our hope.
What I find interesting today as I look again at this passage is Peter’s underlying assumption that followers of Christ will indeed have such a hope to begin with, and moreover that our hope will be evident to those who know us: who see our lives and hear our words.
Hope is a precious thing. Like its companions faith and love, it can also be difficult to practice, in part because we often confuse hope with optimism. I think of optimism as a way of looking at circumstances. The proverbial optimist sees the glass as half full. She might even look at a mostly empty glass and still see it as half full, or perhaps assume that since there is at least some water in the glass there is a high likelihood of finding more. Those who put their faith in technology are often optimists; they believe that humanity is slowly getting better, and that future technologies will save the world.
The pessimist not only sees the glass as half empty, but might even look at a mostly full glass of water and note that it won’t be enough to last the morning, there likely isn’t any more around once it runs out, and it probably contains lead. Pessimists see the world in decline. They see a future with war and suffering and violence, and they see the failures of human political systems, economics, laws, and technologies to solve these problems.
Although on the surface, hope might look similar to optimism, it is something quite different. Hope—and in particular the Christian hope—isn’t a way of viewing circumstances at all. Hope is rooted in a person. And because it is rooted in a person, it is also rooted in the character and the promises of that person. In short, a Christian hope is hope in Christ.
The optimist who assumes circumstances will all turn out in their favor, and that humankind will slowly improve our situation, might not even think they need hope. Pessimists are often the ones who are most truly hopeful, because they most deeply see the need for hope, and most firmly cling to it. (C.S. Lewis illustrates this strange dichotomy beautifully in his character Puddleglum from The Silver Chair, whom my friend Benjamin Myers recently wrote about in an essay on Advent in Oklahoma.)
Hope tells us that even when circumstances continue to spiral downward, Christ will never abandon us, and his plans transcend the doom of history’s trajectory. Hope tells us that it isn’t meaningless to care for the poor and marginalized, to nourish and steward creation, to work for peace, and to labor against injustice, even when some of those labors appear not to bear fruit and circumstances devolve further. It was certainly in one of the darkest times in the history of Israel that the Messiah was born in a manger in Bethlehem, and hope entered into the world. It is also true that the circumstances of the average Jew in Palestine didn’t change in any noticeable way when Christ was born. And yet Christ and his followers changed the world.
And this brings me back full circle to Peter’s admonition to be prepared to give an answer for our hope, and his underlying assumption that our hope will be evident. For many in the world today, circumstances are not encouraging. And they seem to be getting worse. Among many at the college where I work, I sense a malaise of despair. Yet it is in such darkness that light is most visible. It is in the midst of circumstances most likely to lead to pessimism that hope is most compelling.
I am submitting this reflection on the eve of Epiphany and it will be published shortly after Epiphany Sunday, when we celebrate Christ revealed to the Gentiles. One of the most important ways Christ is revealed to the world today is through his followers. What if in the midst of the hopelessness around us, our Christian hope—not surface-level optimism, but hope that acknowledges loss, violence, sadness, war, poverty, and injustice, and yet still points to Christ, still trusts that Christ is at work, and still labors for God’s kingdom—was so evident among Christians that folks asked for the reasons for that hope?
Do circumstances give you reason for optimism or pessimism?
What reasons do you have for hope? How does Christian hope impact how you live? How might your hope be evident to those around you?
Write down the reasons for your hope. Share those reasons with somebody—perhaps somebody in church as a word of encouragement, or somebody you work with as a word of witness.
Lord, there are lots of circumstances around me that seem to be growing worse: wars, violence and crime, injustice, and no shortage of disasters including floods and fires and earthquakes. Thank you that I have hope in Jesus Christ that transcends all worldly circumstances. I know I will not be abandoned, and I know that my labors for your kingdom are not in vain. Help me to live daily with that hope, and let my hope be evident to those around me. Amen.
Banner image by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project’s online commentary. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Suffering Under the World’s Authorities (1 Peter 2:13–4:19).
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Matthew Dickerson’s books include works of spiritual theology and Christian apologetics as well as historical fiction, fantasy literature, explorations of the writings of C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien, and books about trout fishing, fly fishing, rivers, and ecology. His recent books include: Disciple Making in a Culture of Power, Comfort, and Fear and The Voices of Rivers: Reflections on Places Wild and Almost Wild. He was a 2017 artist-in-residence at Glacier National Park. He lives in Vermont with his wife, dog, and cat, not far from three married sons, and is an active member of Memorial Baptist Church. Matthew is also a professor of computer science at Middlebury College in Vermont.