Hope against hope
It’s the hope you have when there is no hope.
Abraham was 99 years old and Sarah 90 when they were promised a miracle child (Isaac). As Genesis 18:11 put it: “Abraham and Sarah were old and well stricken in age; and it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.” Nonetheless, the promise came from the LORD: “Sarah thy wife shall have a son.”
That’s not just difficult, it’s impossible. So what do you do when faced with the LORD’s word on one hand and human impossibility on the other? You hope against hope:
“18 Abraham, against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations, according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be. 19 And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sara’s womb: 20 He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; 21 And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform. 22 And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness.” (Romans 4:18-22)
What does saving faith look like? Abraham’s “hope against hope” is Paul’s example. He is in the middle of a magisterial study of the gospel, showing how salvation comes not through our goodness but God’s grace, not through our faithfulness but Christ’s, not through our power but the Spirit’s. Salvation is God’s thing. It’s not our thing. We simply receive a salvation that we could never earn.
And so Paul chooses an example of faith which is a true case of ‘hope against hope.’ Abraham is completely ‘out of the driver’s seat’ when the Lord comes to him. He not only does not meet the Lord half way, he cannot. All he can do is rest in the Lord’s promise and say, “Amen, let it be so.”
This is faith: the promise of new life comes and faith says “Nothing in my circumstances and nothing in my power can make this happen but, Lord, I know You can!” The promised seed is held out and faith says “I cannot produce the Messiah, indeed I am incapable of even receiving the Messiah, yet Lord, you say He is given to me, so I will trust You.”
The context for faith is a dark and barren space. There is no possibility for life and yet exactly here the Lord promises it. Whether it’s Sarah’s barren womb, Mary’s virgin womb, or Christ’s virgin tomb – we’re confronted with the deepest human weakness and the greatest divine strength. Faith here is a ‘hope against hope’, because faith is the opposite of sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). The circumstances look hopeless, yet faith is trusting the Lord’s word and not our capacities. And actually, when we despair of our earthly hopes, that’s when a true hope can arise.
If our hope was only as good as our own resources, we would be on shaky ground indeed. Imagine a faith in human power to triumph over the dark and barren space of the tomb! No, we trust God’s power to do the impossible. That is far more solid ground. We thank God that He makes our hope more certain than any earthly possibilities. He wants our faith to rest on His power not ours.
It’s a hope against hope that is a truly hopeful hope. At that point we rest our faith not in ourselves but in Christ, the God of Resurrection and the Lord of the Impossible.
No-one sums up this up better than John Calvin:
“Everything by which we are surrounded conflicts with the promise of God. He promises us immortality, but we are encompassed with mortality and corruption. He pronounces that we are righteous in His sight, but we are engulfed in sin. He declares His favour and goodwill towards us, but we are threatened by the tokens of his wrath. What can we do? It is His will that we should shut our eyes to what we are and have, in order that nothing may impede or even check our faith in Him.”