Last week, I had the privilege of speaking on the virtue of hope at the student chapel at Grove City College, a Christian liberal arts school in Western Pennsylvania. My niece and nephew are seniors at Grove, which made the experience especially meaningful for me. In fact, they picked the topic for this message when we were together over Christmas.
I can’t think of a virtue more needed in the church today than hope. So often, those of us over 40 lament what seems to be a lack of holiness among Millenials. But, I’m convinced the root of the problem is despair. Young people simply have lost hope that God will transform them and rescue them from their sin patterns. But, as I shared with the students, the gospel promises to transform us!
Jonathan, thank you so much. Let me just say it is an honor and a privilege to be at Grove City College. I have long admired this school — one, for its refusal of federal funding, but also for some of the commentaries that come out of your Center for Vision and Values. They’re absolutely outstanding. So again, just an honor and a privilege to be here.
About 29 years ago, I was in a very similar situation that you are today. I was a senior in college at a leading evangelical school. I remember being in chapel and wanting to just stand up and ask this question out loud, as extremely uncomfortable as it would be. What I wanted to say was, “Do any of you ever wonder if any of this is actually true?” You see, that question was born out of about four years of an intense struggle with depression. In fact, at the height of my depression, I would find myself four and five times a day ducking into a bathroom to cry. You see, I was so ashamed of being depressed that I would go into a bathroom stall, I would cry for about ten minutes, and then I’d try to straighten up and come out like nothing had ever happened.
I think there were a lot of factors leading into my depression. I think some of them were just being in a new location away from home. The biggest one by far, though, was spiritual. You see, my senior year of high school, I had been a part of a really vibrant youth ministry. I had seen a number of my friends come to the Lord. And, I had had this experience where some friends laid hands on me to be filled with the Holy Spirit. And, I had in spoken tongues, the whole nine yards, and then I went to Wheaton College, where at the time, I don’t think this is true anymore, but at the time charismatic was a dirty word. So, I pushed down that part of my religious experience and I began to approach God and pursue him in the way that I thought was respectable. That was by studying the Word of God. The Word of God, which is alive and breathing, became like a dry, stale text book. And, I found that my brain got bigger and bigger and bigger and my heart got smaller and smaller and smaller.
By my senior year, I remember going to an Urbana Missions Conference and I remember being there with tens of thousands of other college students and they were all worshiping the Lord. I could tell by looking on their faces that they were having that sort of euphoric experience that you have when you feel like you’re one with the Lord. And, I felt absolutely nothing. I felt dead inside. I began to wonder what I had experienced in high school, was that just sort of teenage infatuation? Was that real? Is any of this actually real?
I say that because I know in a room this size, there are some of you who are exactly where I was my senior year of college. In fact, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, there is an epidemic of anguish on our college campuses. Some studies say as many as one in three students say they’ve had prolonged periods of depression. One in four say they’ve had suicidal thoughts or feelings. It’s gotten so bad on some college campuses that they’ve had to put what they call mental health kiosks, sort of like an ATM where you can get screening for bipolar or anxiety or depression.
I know this morning there probably are some of you that are struggling with that. There probably are some that are struggling with some addictions. There probably are some who are dealing with a pornography addiction. Studies say that Christians deal with that at the same rate as the national average. In fact, if you’re a male age 18 to 30, 79% of you report that you’ve seen pornography in the past month and you feel horrible about it. You feel so guilt-ridden and yet you feel absolutely stuck. Some of you, your sexual issues may be different. Some of you may be attracted to the same sex and you’re wondering, “Am I stuck with this the rest of my life? What’s my future like?” Some of you have food addictions. Some of you have low self-esteem that you’re struggling with. Some of you just came out of a broken relationship and you feel devastated and you’re wondering, “Will I ever be okay?”
This morning, what I want to talk to you about is the virtue of hope because you will not make it in the Christian life without hope. It’s one of the great three virtues. These three remain: faith, hope, and love. Hebrews 11 says, “Now, faith is confidence in what we hope for. It is assurance of what we do not see. You can not have faith without hope.” In fact, author and pastor John Piper says that hope is actually a subset of faith. That’s why so often in scripture we see those two terms used interchangeably. Faith is hope, hope is faith. Let me ask you this morning: Do you have hope that you will overcome anxiety? Do you see a future when you’re no longer in bondage to your sexual desires? Do you expect that someday you will experience so much fulfillment in Jesus Christ that you won’t try to satisfy your loneliness with a hot fudge Sunday? Are you living in despair?
One of my favorite stories from childhood and maybe some of you have read the book or seen the PBS series. It’s Anne of Green Gables. It talks about this little orphan girl, Anne, who goes to live with this spinster named Marilla and her brother, Matthew. When she first arrives, Marilla and Matthew aren’t sure that they are going to keep Anne. You see, they had asked for a boy from the orphanage and they got a girl. Anne is absolutely distraught when she finds out that she might be sent back to the orphanage. She wanted so badly to be adopted. She says to Marilla, “Oh, Marilla, I am in the depths of despair.” Marilla doesn’t respond the way that Anne expects and so Anne says, “But Marilla, haven’t you ever been in the depths of despair?” You’re fully expecting at this point that Marilla will indulge this poor girl. I mean, look at what she’s been through, but Marilla turns around and she says to Anne, “No. I have not. To despair is to turn your back on God.” To despair is to turn your back on God. Is that a biblical message? Psalm 43:5 says, “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why disturbed within me? Put your hope in God. Put your hope in God.” The Psalmist is actually preaching to himself. Throughout Scriptures, we see God say, “Put your hope in me.”
I will say that after three decades of ministry experience and my own life, I have seen hope be so critical in our lives because what I have found is that people don’t generally fall away from the Lord. They despair away from the Lord. What is Christian hope? You might say, “Well, it’s the hope of Heaven.” You would be correct. Hebrews 11, that great faith hall of fame where you have Noah and Moses and Abraham. It says, “If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country, a heavenly one.” They were longing for Heaven, where we’ll be delivered from all of our troubles. My question is: Is that it? Quite frankly, you guys have a lot of life ahead of you.
I have a friend, Alex, who thinks that is it. In fact, he wrote an article called The Myth of Christian Hope. He writes, “One of the biggest lies that churches have led people to believe, intentionally or not, is that when they trust in Jesus, their lives will suddenly become better. All the pain and sorrow of their unsaved days will be washed away with their sins and a beautiful mountaintop experience awaits them where the honeymoon never ends. Of course, it only takes a few years before a lost job, a broken relationship, or the death of a loved one quickly dispels this myth. Some people will never get those mountaintop experiences. Of course, some people will be born into abusive homes only to marry an abusive spouse and to die a victim but never a victor. My life may never be peaceful or prosperous for victorious and rewarding.” But hey, that just may be my purpose and my purpose may stink. Is that the truth? Life stinks and then you die? But hey, you get Heaven so it’s all okay.
You know, there’s some truth in what Alex said. When you become a believer, there is no guarantee your circumstances will get better. In fact, they may get worse. If you’ve been watching the news, you know that halfway around the world, Christians are losing their heads because of their faith. Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life and that you might have it more abundantly.” What is Alex missing? Certainly, he must be missing something. You see, what he’s missing is that our hope as believers is not just Heaven, it’s not just in a better future destination. Our hope as believers is in a better future state of being. It’s in transformation.
In his book On Hope, Josef Pieper writes that to be a Christian means to be a pilgrim or as the ancients referred to it, a Christian is someone who is “status viator.” Viator means one who is on the way. So status viator means the state or the condition of being on the way. As Christians, we are on our way towards something. What is it? Well, of course, we’re on our way towards Heaven. But, listen again to the verses that we just heard before I came up here.
2 Corinthians 3:18, “And we, who with unveiled faces, contemplate the Lord, are being transformed into his image with ever increasing glory.” Philippians 1:6, “For I am confident of this very thing that he who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” 2 Corinthians 5:17, my favorite verse, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone, behold, the new has come.” We are new creations. We are being transformed into the very image of Jesus Christ. So let me ask you this question: Is Christ gripped with anxiety? Is Christ enslaved to his sexual desires? Is Christ addicted to alcohol or food? Of course not! Let me ask you this question: Do you live with the constant expectation that you will be in bondage to your sin for the rest of your life or do you live with the expectation that you will experience increasing freedom and liberation? You see, the Scriptures promise that God will work a transformation in us. If we do not believe that, then we are believing in a fraudulent gospel! That is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I have a friend, Ita Fischer. Ita is a wife and mother of preteen and teen kids. But, about 25 years ago, she lived as a lesbian. The Lord convicted her that that was not pleasing to him. She decided to leave that lifestyle and start on the road towards transformation. She said, “Julie, that is the hardest road I have ever traveled. It was way harder than I thought.” But, she said it was far more rewarding than anybody could have ever told me. She said, “What’s so amazing is that God just hasn’t changed my behavior. He’s conformed my thoughts to him. He’s changing my desires to his desires.” She said, “This may seem like a really small thing to you, but it’s not to me. Just this past year,” she said, “I’m starting to wear scarves. I’ve never worn scarves. You see, I always felt like they were too feminine for me and they just didn’t fit. All of a sudden, they fit now. I’ve become such a different person.”
When I was struggling with my depression for four years, I got close to giving up hope. I’m not proud of the way that I handled my depression. I’m not proud of everything I did when I was in that depression, but I know that I never lost that mustard seed of hope. One, I never went headlong into sin. That is the biggest temptation. When you are in a lot of pain, and some of you know this, the biggest temptation is to do whatever you can to escape that pain, even if you know it’s for a short while. I knew if I went down that road, I would end up more stuck in the end. I knew my hope was in the Lord. I know I never gave hope because when the Lord met me in amazing way, I was in church.
You see, that’s what’s so bad about despair. When you give into despair, you give in to sloth. You don’t go to church; you don’t go to Bible study; you don’t go to anything because it doesn’t matter because you’ve given up.
I will never forget, it was a Wednesday night. I was in a mega church in Chicago. I was way up in the balcony. We were singing Great is Thy Faithfulness. All of a sudden, the Spirit of God descended on me in such a powerful way. I knew that I knew that I knew in that moment that what I had felt when I was in high school, that was not teenage infatuation. That was the real and living presence of God and I knew it because I recognized it when it came. I don’t know why God let me go for four years struggling with that depression, but I do know that in that moment, I was changed. I knew that it was him.
I know a lot of you are probably thinking, “Well, that would be great, Julie. I wish God would come, that he would come right now and just deliver me in an instant from the issue that I’m dealing with.” I can’t promise you that that will happen. It probably won’t. That’s the only time it’s ever happened to me. Most of my transformation has been slow and it’s been a process. But, please don’t hear me saying that that was the end of my transformation. That was just the beginning. Quite frankly, after four years of depression, my mind was a complete battlefield. I had so much doubt and so much confusion and it took literally years for me to not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of my mind. I would listen to all these preaching tapes. I remember I would study Scripture. I went to every Bible study that I could. I was so hungry and I was so happy to be in the Lord.
Tonight, I’m going to talk, if you come back, I’m going to talk about the renewing of our mind, specifically when it comes to gender and sexuality, because I believe that’s such an area of profound confusion in the church.
I want to just leave you with a powerful metaphor of transformation that C.S. Lewis penned in Mere Christianity. He says, “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild the house. At first, perhaps you can understand what He’s doing. He’s getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on. You knew those jobs needed doing and so you’re not surprised. Presently, He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and doesn’t seem to make any sense. What on earth is he up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one that you thought of, throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage, but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.” Friends, God wants to transform you into something glorious. He will if you allow him. He will do it, but you must hold on to hope.