The Cruelest Virtue

Michael Metzger

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.

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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.

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8 thoughts on “The Cruelest Virtue”

  1. With most of the journey of thought, but presently sense that if we loved our neighbours as we are encouraged not to love ourselves we would not be choosing the right path of love. If our desires are His then we will love Him, love ourselves with the same love and in turn show it to each other. It is in knowing who we are in Him that we can serve each other, as we can give space we know grace has prepared for another. As we are shaped individually and corporately we grow in

    Hebrews 11:1
    Amplified Bible (AMP)
    11 Now faith is the assurance (the confirmation, [a]the title deed) of the things [we] hope for, being the proof of things [we] do not see and the conviction of their reality [faith perceiving as real fact what is not revealed to the senses].

    Hebrews 11:1
    The Message (MSG)
    Faith in What We Don’t See

    11 1-2 The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd.

  2. 1 John 4:16
    Amplified Bible (AMP)
    16 And we know (understand, recognize, are conscious of, by observation and by experience) and believe (adhere to and put faith in and rely on) the love God cherishes for us. God is love, and he who dwells and continues in love dwells and continues in God, and God dwells and continues in him.

    1 John 4:16
    The Message (MSG)
    13-16 This is how we know we’re living steadily and deeply in him, and he in us: He’s given us life from his life, from his very own Spirit. Also, we’ve seen for ourselves and continue to state openly that the Father sent his Son as Savior of the world. Everyone who confesses that Jesus is God’s Son participates continuously in an intimate relationship with God. We know it so well, we’ve embraced it heart and soul, this love that comes from God.

  3. “All these people earned a good reputation because of their faith, yet none of them received all that God had promised. For God had something better in mind for us, so that they would not reach perfection without us.” (Hebrews 11:39-40, Hebrews 11:36
    The Message (MSG)
    32-38 I could go on and on, but I’ve run out of time. There are so many more—Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, the prophets. . . . Through acts of faith, they toppled kingdoms, made justice work, took the promises for themselves. They were protected from lions, fires, and sword thrusts, turned disadvantage to advantage, won battles, routed alien armies. Women received their loved ones back from the dead. There were those who, under torture, refused to give in and go free, preferring something better: resurrection. Others braved abuse and whips, and, yes, chains and dungeons. We have stories of those who were stoned, sawed in two, murdered in cold blood; stories of vagrants wandering the earth in animal skins, homeless, friendless, powerless—the world didn’t deserve them!—making their way as best they could on the cruel edges of the world.

    Hebrews 11:39 And all of these, though they won divine approval by [means of] their faith, did not receive the fulfillment of what was promised,
    40 Because God had us in mind and had something better and greater in view for us, so that they [these heroes and heroines of faith] should not come to perfection apart from us [before we could join them].

  4. Good grief, Mike. This blog is one of your most compelling pieces I have seen. And I find most of them compelling. Thanks so much for your work put into writing!

  5. Thanks for this article, it helped me a lot. My life was ripped out when I was 23 as a conscientious objector. My worst enemies were not the military family I grew up in, rather it was the church and my now ex-wife. I am now 66, and many times I feel that the hope delayed has been a problem for me. I have fought against becoming a cynic. There has been a lot of recovery in my life, but it has not been total. I long for the days when I was 22-23, but realize that I only thought I knew how my life would be. It took a drastic different course as a health care professional.
    I just want to live out the time I have left loving my wife and seeking to serve God and others daily.
    Blessings to you, Gary

  6. Just read this

    Bonhoeffer had to differentiate between the nature and power of authentic grace, as compared to its counterfeit – what he called “cheap” grace, which was grace devoid of repentance – there is a need to talk of “cheap faith.”
     
    Cheap faith is faith without sacrifice, without suffering, without deprivation, without selflessness.  Authentic faith is faith that has little to do with what you get out of it, and everything to do with how God is glorified through it.

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