T. S. Eliot said April is the cruelest month. Pregnant with the promise of spring, April often seems to stretch out the birth pangs. Hope is a virtue that works in a similar fashion. That’s why it’s the cruelest virtue.
If you were in church this past Sunday – Easter – you likely heard a message about hope. Hope is one of three virtues Paul highlights in I Corinthians. It is virtuous, but in the Book of Proverbs we also discover why hope can be cruel. In the first half of Proverbs 13:12 we read: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” Deferred means delayed, or postponed. When our hopes don’t come to fruition in the way we imagine or in the timetable we expect, our hearts become ill. This explains many mental and emotional illnesses. They are rooted in hope, the cruelest virtue.
The delay is due to design. We’re made in the image of God, wired according to the “four chapter” gospel of creation-fall-redemption-restoration. The last chapter, the final restoration, or fully restored kingdom, is what we hope for. The tension, as Jesus noted, is “the kingdom is at hand.” It’s pregnant with the promise of spring. Aslan is on the move. Winter is losing its grip. But most of the kingdom will not arrive here and now. It’s coming then and there, in eternity. And, as the writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us, even though God has wired eternity into our hearts, “no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (3:11). The timetable is unclear.
This produces three great groans. Creation “groans with the pains of childbirth.” So does the Spirit of God. So do believers (Rom. 8:22-26). We are “longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling” as we feel the kingdom being birthed on the earth (II Cor. 5:2). This is our hope, but most of the time, these hopes are postponed. Deep heartaches result. But that’s not the end of the story.
There’s an old management saying: solve problems, manage conditions. Deferred hope is not a problem to be solved. It is a condition to be managed. We manage it according to the second half of Proverbs 13:12: “Desire realized is a tree of life.” Along with having a fair percentage of our hopes go unrealized in this life, we also require a fair number of desires coming to fruition in this life. The trick is having rightly ordered desires. Otherwise we become discouraged. Or give up. Or in the worst case, become cynics.
People who lose hope often become cynics. Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. These people are hard to restore. Cynicism acts like shellac. It’s the hardened heart – smooth, glossy, and rock hard. The root of the problem isn’t however postponed hopes. It’s disordered desires, or loves. If you love God and then your neighbor, you’re on your way to properly ordered desires. They won’t cancel out the cruelty of hope. But they will help you manage the reality that most of our hopes will go unrealized in this life.
The Apostle Paul recognized this tension. He described hope as not losing heart (II Cor. 4:7-9). That’s noteworthy, given that Paul was frequently imprisoned, savagely beaten times without number, and often in danger of death (II Cor.11: 23-25). That’s a lot of postponed hopes. Paul managed them by imagining his life as an “earthen vessel.” In his day, earthen vessels were fragile clay pots. But Paul said his vessel, while it could be kicked around, could not be crushed. It could be dented but not destroyed. “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” Paul is an example of living with the tension of many hopes being deferred while some desires are realized.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer recognized the same tension. In 1939 he accepted a teaching position at Union Seminary in New York City. Within a few weeks, Bonhoeffer knew he had made a mistake. He wrote to a friend: “I shall have no right to take part in the restoration of Christian life in Germany after the war unless I share the trials of this time with my people.” He returned to Germany to help the Jews flee Nazi persecution.
The war broke out in September. Bonhoeffer returned briefly to New York in 1941. During his brief stay, he was appalled by “Protestantism without the Reformation” and found only in “the Negro churches” the missing piece – what he called “the final hope.”1 Bonhoeffer returned to Germany to work with the resistance. When a plot to assassinate Hitler was uncovered, Bonhoeffer was implicated. He was arrested and sent to notorious concentration camp Flossenbürg.
On April 7th 1945, Bonhoeffer and a group of other prisoners celebrated Easter with a short service. He read from 1 Peter 1:3, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Bonhoeffer was then taken back to Flossenbürg, where on the night of April 8th, he was arraigned, convicted, condemned to death. In the gray dawn of the following morning, April 9th, Bonhoeffer was executed by hanging. In a cruel coincidence of the calendar, the Flossenbürg camp was liberated a few days later.
In his diary, Bonhoeffer wrote that hope is “a way of avoiding disappointment.”2 Disappointment is a myth. No one can see what is appointed to happen in this life. Disappointed people forget that. They think they see which hopes will be realized in this life. When hopes don’t materialize, their hearts are broken. People of hope are different. They recognize hope can be cruel virtue, but they’ve learned to live with the ache by properly ordering their desires.
1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, trans. N. H. Smith (New York: Macmillan, 1978), pp. 279-280.
2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers From Prison (New York: Simon & Schuster, First Touchstone Edition, 1997), p. 15.