Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance , character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)
In Romans 5, Paul tells us that the antecedent to hope is suffering, patience (perseverance), and character. Hope does not land in our laps. It is not a set of virtual reality goggles we pull over our eyes to convince ourselves that circumstances are better than they actually are. Nor is hope the optimistic outlook of the privileged. As an individual with every privilege in our society, I have come to realize that I have misnamed circumstantial optimism as hope more than once. This year in particular, I have learned from black and brown voices what Paul tells the Romans: that true hope is borne out of suffering, patience, and character.
In this way, hope is like fruit. Before it appears, buds and flowers forecast its arrival. Hope, like fruit, does not simply spring forth out of nowhere. We are quick to talk about hope. We are slow to talk about the suffering, patience, and character that bear it. This year, Advent offers us a unique opportunity not to move past them so quickly.
Advent reminds us that we live in an already-not yet reality. The first Sunday of Advent, in particular, focuses on the second Advent (arrival) of Christ. Christ has come, and yet Christians claim citizenship in a reign that has not been fully actualized. Christ is already King. But has Christ’s kingdom arrived in its fullness? Surely, not yet.
It has been a “not-yet” year. Preaching about hope has felt a bit like wringing out an already-dried towel. Something about commending hope to my congregation feels disingenuous, like telling a marathoner they’re almost finished at mile 13. It is easy to wax poetic about a cheap sort of hope, but we have to admit that what comes easily to our tongues is not what people are experiencing. Paul’s words about hope to the Romans are not disingenuous. Paul does not dismiss the suffering in their community nor patronize them by suggesting things are honky-dory. Paul is simultaneously sobering and encouraging. Eventually, he suggests a hope that never disappoints will be the fruit of your suffering. But for now, be patient. Glory in your trials. Persevere. Let these trials produce character!
“Be patient” is an uninspiring message, but patience precedes hope.
Be patient in how you gather. Be patient in your suffering. Be patient in your mask-wearing. Be patient as you listen to the losses of others. Persevere, endure, count it as joy to do the right thing! Take delight in the ways you can sacrifice in order to love God and love neighbor! Be patient as you grieve. Be patient and let your patience manifest character. Be patient now, hope comes with the morning!
We are not a patient people. We balk at enduring inconvenience. Glory in our suffering? We are a people of action, and patience feels too complacent.
Henri Nouwen describes the embodied patience we need this year:
True patience means to enter actively into the thick of life and to fully bear the suffering within and around us. Patience is the capacity to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell as fully as possible the inner and outer events of our lives. It is to enter our lives with open eyes, ears, and hands so that we really know what is happening. Patience is an extremely difficult discipline precisely because it counteracts our unreflective impulse to flee or to fight.
I wonder, this year, if a more realistic word of encouragement to the church and to the world is simply: be patient. If you are not overflowing with hope in this moment, that is okay. If withstanding the thick of life is all you can muster right now, then do just that.
As I write, I find it hard to be hopeful. Like many, I have family members cloistered away in medical facilities spending what could be their final days alone. I lament when I hear the grief of people who will only experience family during the holidays through a screen. I share the anxiety of our collective political life. We light the first Advent candle this year with a sense of desperation.
Desperation is exactly the place where hope begins to grow. May the God of all hope give you the endurance to be truly patient in the midst of what may have been a lonely year.
Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer (Romans 12:12)