Intelligent Despair, the Foundation of Hope

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When Jesus said that He came for the sick, not the healthy, one of the great implications of His gospel is that it is a gospel of hope. The healthy tend to take it all for granted. As it was yesterday, so it will be tomorrow, and so, as far as their condition is concerned, they hope for nothing. As Paul put it in another context, who hopes for what he already has?

But the sick usually fall into one of two categories – they are either hopeful of recovery or they despair. If the disease is a minor ailment the tendency is to be hopeful without thinking. And if it is more serious, we almost have to be battered into accepting that the disease is terminal. Our natural tendency is always in the direction of hope. We want to be hopeful whether we have grounds for that hope or not.

The human condition being what it is, the nature of the case requires intelligent despair. Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward. The trouble is not imposed on us from without; we were all of us conceived in sin. And so when Jesus said He came for the sick, He was not trying to flatter us in our natural tendency to groundless hope. However, He did intend for those who called upon Him to move from despair to hope. But in order for this to happen, first they must move from groundless hope to despair.

Jesus taught us that the one who is forgiven little loves little. The one who is forgiven much loves much. We may apply the same principle to hope. The one who has a little sickness can only hope for a little recovery. But the law of God is a battery of diagnostic tests that tells us how awful our condition actually is. Imagine going into a hospital for the soul and inviting them to run every test imaginable – spiritual blood work, MRIs, x-rays, the works. Imagine further that omni-competent angelic technicians are running the show – recalling that the law was delivered to us through angels. This is what the law of God does. It detects everything – the slightest stirring of lust, the first few cancer cells of envy, the leprosy of vainglory, the pustules of pride, which we like to think are beauty marks. And the report always comes back to us in the words of God to Abimelech, “Behold, thou art but a dead man” (Gen. 20:3).

Whenever a man has a terminal disease, he wants to know naturally if there is a remedy. But this is where our case varies from the illustration. In the physical world, we can understand a man refusing treatment if it would cost too much, and bankrupt his heirs, or if the process of treatment would be just too painful. But what would we make of a man who had a terminal disease, and refused to take the medicine because he did not like the taste or smell of it? This would be just another way for him to maintain that he really was not sick to the point of death. Scripture teaches us that the gospel is the aroma of life to those who are being saved, but it is the aroma of death to those who are perishing.

This gives us two categories of men – those who are perishing and those who are perishing. In the first category, they are being saved from perishing. In the second, they are simply perishing, and the medicine smells foul to them. This illustrates why God is not seeking for any volunteers to take the medicine – no one would ever volunteer. To extend the illustration, the medicine is really a life-long course of treatments, and the first treatment is necessary in order to make us willing for any of the rest of it. So God makes the decision to begin the treatments, apart from us, and makes us willing in the day of His power. Before the process of salvation began, we signed no permission forms. It is not of him who wills or of him who runs to the pharmacy.

Once God begins the treatment, three things are born in the heart of the patient – faith, hope and love. The greatest is of course love, but Paul did not mean for us to consider the other two as insignificant. Hope is born in us, and the hope is that we will one day be fully conformed to the image of the Lord Jesus. God is in the process of building up a new man out of the ruins of the old Adam. This new man is the Lord Jesus, and we are being built up into Him, the true image of God.

Wonderfully, our hope in this final goal is one of the instruments that God uses to accomplish it. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as Christ is pure. This hope does not disappoint us – we are predestined to be conformed to the image of God’s God. In love He predestined us to health, and complete recovery.

But hope, like the others, requires an object. We do not see this process happening by trying to inculcate a vague, undirected feeling of hopefulness. Hope is directed to the object of hope, the resurrection of all the faithful in Jesus Christ, and the more it is directed there, the more the hope grows. The more it grows, the more clearly it can see the object of hope. This is why hope is so clear-sighted, in both directions. Despair has a sense of the size and power of our spiritual affliction, but only hope understands its nature. Presumption knows that the resurrection is good, but only hope understands the depth of the glory. And this is why hope knows what we have been delivered from, and hope understands where we are being taken.

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