Hope for the Best!
June 30, 2002
Your word is a lamp to my feet
And a light to my path.
I have sworn an oath and confirmed it,
To observe your righteous ordinances.
I am severely afflicted;
Give me life, O Lord, according to your word.
Accept my offerings of praise, O Lord,
And teach me your ordinances.
I hold my life in my hand continually,
But I do not forget your law.
The wicked have laid a snare for me,
But I do not stray from your precepts.
Your decrees are my heritage forever;
They are the joy of my heart
I incline my heart to perform your statutes
Forever, to the end.
I hate the double-minded,
But I love your law.
You are my hiding place and my shield;
I hope in your word.
Go away from me, you evildoers,
That I may keep the commandments of my God.
Uphold me according to your promise, that I may live;
And let me not be ashamed of my hope.
Reading from Swedenborg
Temptations involve feelings of doubt about the Lord's presence, mercy, and salvation. . . . But good spirits and angels . . . sustain hope in us, and an affirmative outlook. (Arcana Coelestia #2338)
Let me not be ashamed of my hope. (Psalm 119:116)
his fragment of a verse from the longest of the psalms is a prayer so simple, so uncluttered, that we may fail at first to sense the profound thought it contains. It is not found in the midst of some striking incident of Biblical history to give it a context in our minds. There is nothing abstruse about it to cause us to wonder about the meaning of the words. And I suppose for these very reasons one might easily pass over this little prayer without giving it due consideration.
However, the very format of the 119th Psalm should alert us to be on the watch for the unusual. Unfortunately, much of the force of its arrangement is lost in translation; for in the original Hebrew this is the most complex of the so-called abecedarian or alphabet acrostic psalms. It has twenty-two verses, as does the Hebrew alphabet, and the first letter in each line of the first verse is aleph, the equivalent of our letter A; of the second, beth, the equivalent of our B, and so on through the alphabet.
Within this structure, we find the Psalm to be the inspired song of one who has held steadfast to the law of the Lord through bitterness and temptation. The little prayer of our text is only one of many it contains.
Yet I believe only a deeply earnest person could pray such a prayer as this: "Let me not be ashamed of my hope." Put in other words it says, "I pray, O Lord, that the aim in life that I cherish deep in my heart may be sufficiently worthy that if I attain it, I will not be ashamed that I did not seek a loftier goal."
This thought can also be applied to the many transitory or intermediate goals that make up the substance of life. I would venture to suggest that all of us have from time to time struggled desperately for a given object, or pleasure, or place of honor, only to find that instead of experiencing joy and exhilaration when we attained it, we felt disappointment or even a burning shame at the unworthiness of the object of our quest.
In your life and mine, never does a day go by that we are not seeking, consciously or subconsciously, one or more goals. And it is of these that the fiber of our larger goal, our ultimate goal, our "hope" in its truest sense, our real purpose in life, is formed. How often do we stop to examine these aspirations, these goals, in the light of the teachings of our Christian faith? Have we ever stopped to evaluate the things we strive for in the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
Students, for example, may find that they are more interested in good grades or a college degree than in gaining a better education so that they can be of the greatest service to humanity. Manufacturers may find that their hopes are simply for larger profits, without any feeling of obligation to put out a better or more useful product. Office workers may end up admitting that their main concern is to try to look busy without doing too much work until the quitting bell rings. Teachers might be led to realize that they are content to follow the same old routines year after year without any desire to improve the content or presentation of their subjects. Salespeople may find that they sell certain products not because they are convinced of their usefulness, but simply because they are easy to sell at a high profit. The list could be extended almost indefinitely.
All of these people--and others that may come to your mind--may feel perfectly sure that their ideals in life, their ultimate hope, is one that could not possibly ever cause them to feel ashamed. They see no relationship between the little goals that they seek daily in their work, and what they imagine to be their ultimate goal.
Yet our Lord taught that our daily goals are a true indicator of our character when he said, "By their fruits shall you know them" (Matthew 7:16, 20). Here is a law of life that applies equally to all planes of our lives, including the level of our aspirations. This commonsense doctrine teaches that, much as we might wish it to be otherwise, or even think it to be otherwise, we cannot possibly be striving for a worthy life goal if the preponderance of our everyday striving is for basically unworthy goals.
Life today is perhaps more intense than ever before in history. There is the craze to make money, the craze to "succeed," to "get ahead in the world," to fill our lives with comforts and pleasures of every kind. And sometimes these cravings get out of hand.
Now, I have no quarrel with the fact that everyone wants an attractive home, good clothes, pleasant surroundings, interesting friends, and natural amenities of every kind. Our faith has no quarrel with these desires. I'm sure that the good Lord would be pleased if all his children had enough wealth never to be anxious, and ample opportunity for wholesome recreation. But his intention for us is that the pleasures, entertainment, luxuries, gadgets, and status symbols should be secondary goals, not primary ones. Jesus said, "Seek first God's kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well" (Matthew 6:33).
If the hope of a nation, or of any individual, is wholly or mainly concerned with material interests--if larger income, larger inventories, larger investments are viewed as goals in themselves rather than as means to be of greater service and usefulness to our neighbor--should not that nation or person pray fervently and soul-searchingly, "Lord, let me not be ashamed of my hope"?
We live in a material world, and therefore we may feel that it is natural to be materialistic. Comforts, riches, learning, skills, honors--these things are more easily seen than spiritual blessings, and more easily acquired. And no one would deny that they bring with them a degree of satisfaction and pleasure. But it is easy to become so engrossed in pursuing them that little or no time is given to higher things. Recall the parable of the rich man whose land brought forth so plentifully that he had no more space to store his grain; of how he decided to build larger barns and then sit back at his ease, eating, drinking, and making merry. Such a course would have led to the impoverishment of his soul--and it drew forth the judgment, "Thou fool!" (Luke 12:20).
But what can prevent us from cherishing some hope, from pursuing some goal of which we will ultimately be ashamed? How can we choose some purpose that is worthy of our best efforts? We can find at least a partial answer to these questions if we consider first this thought: how do we come to form or acquire any or all of our aims in life, good or bad? What are the mental processes that lead to the forming of goals or purposes or aspirations?
We are twofold beings. We have a spiritual side to our makeup, and a natural side. In every human being there is a force that acts, and another that reacts. For the Christian, the active force of life is the spiritual part of the mind, and the positive impulses that flow into it are spiritual or heavenly in nature. Conversely, the force in us that reacts is negative and infernal in nature, and finds lodging in the natural or worldly side of our being. The impulses received and transmitted from here are, because of their origin, materialistic and self-centered.
When heavenly thoughts and feelings flow into the spiritual part of our minds and seek expression in our actions, a psychological law is set into motion: the worldly side of us, because of its content, reacts and resists. Now, just because we tend to resist expressing noble thoughts and feelings does not indicate that we are therefore naturally depraved; for both a higher nature and a lower nature are essential in every human being. The thing that can help us make the proper or wise choices is whether or not we are aware of the true source of all our powers.
When Jesus stood bound and humiliated in front of Pilate, he spoke a timeless truth when he said, "You would have no power . . . unless it had been given you from above" (John 19:11). This is true of each one of us. But in our day-to-day life, we are not conscious of the active life force that flows into us from the Lord. Our consciousness centers on the reactive force of our lower natures. Even if we intellectually accept the truth that all power is from God, this still does not make us conscious of the actual inflowing of the power, because the illusion that we act in our own strength alone is so compelling. And the Lord allows us to cherish this illusion in order to preserve our status as beings of free will. If we decide in favor of the Lord's way, it must be a free, unforced decision.
Samuel Butler summed up the negative aspect of this truth when he wrote:
He that complies against his will,
Is of his own opinion still.
It must be of our own free will that we make the love and wisdom that flow into the spiritual part of our minds the basis of the ruling purpose or hope of our lives. But if we do not, we will surely choose the reactionary desires and thoughts of the natural part of our minds.
If we make the former choice, permitting the spiritual forces to act on our worldly and self-centered ideas and desires, gradually changing and molding them to conform to divine order, we will in time have a hope of which we need never be ashamed. We will then become a part of that great harmonious structure that is the kingdom of heaven. We will become increasingly aware that true power and direction come from above, and that our part is to use this power to try to perform the greatest use for the good of all humankind.
To offer an imperfect illustration, it will be something like becoming part of a well run and harmonious corporation, in which each person understands the overall purpose, and contentedly performs his or her particular subordinate use for the good of the whole. This is in sharp contrast to the enterprise governed solely by greed and self-interest, in which these evils are either mirrored or rebelled against all the way down the line.
If people persist in choosing to follow the impulses of the lower, natural part of their minds, stubbornly reacting to and resisting the heavenly influences that flow in from above, in time they close the door of the spiritual part of their minds. When this tragic turn of events takes place, material things take on increasing importance to them, leading them into many forms of falsity and evil. Any acknowledgment of God and the spiritual way of life that they may continue to make becomes more and more a matter of the lips only, while at heart they become mere materialists.
This is one very real reason, apart from any sentimentality or emotionalism, why we all need a faith in God and a religion to turn to for instruction. For whether we like it or not, the inflowing of God's life into our souls, and the reaction to it of our lower natures, is going on day after day. So it does matter--and matter very much--whether or not we stop now and then and ponder the goals we are seeking.
We do well to ask: To what are we devoting the days and years of our lives? What are we working for day after day? What are our minds set on as our supreme desire? Is it something so small, so transitory that when we have gained it we shall ask ourselves with shame, "Is this what I have been struggling for all these years? Does this express my highest aim, my deepest satisfaction?" Or is it perhaps possible that we have formed no definite ideals at all? Is it possible that we are so wrapped up with worldly cares that we haven't yet gotten around to establishing a worthy hope?
Is it unreasonable to suggest that each one of us take the time and make the effort to take at least a preliminary step in the direction of wisdom? Have we as yet willingly and humbly acknowledged that in God "we live, and move, and have our being"? (Acts 17:28). If we have, or if we are prepared to do so, we can welcome with gladness the teaching of this day, and set our hearts from this day forth to seek and accept the divine impulses, determining to do our level best to bring our minds and lives into conformity with God's way--the way of positive action--instead of multiplying our selfish and foolish reactions.
This will make certain requirements of us. It will require that we spend more time diligently meditating on the Word of God. It will mean putting more effort into putting the truths of the Bible to work in our lives. And it will mean showing a greater degree of contentment with the dispensations of God's providence.
But it will also mean that we shall be well on the way toward praying with sincerity those simple yet profound words of the Psalmist: "Let me not be ashamed of my hope." Amen.
O God who sees our inmost being, and knows all our deepest thoughts and aspirations, plant within our souls a hope of which we will never be ashamed. Water it with your truth, and warm it with your love. Weed out one by one the lesser goals that seem so important to us, so that the true and deep hope you have planted within us may have room to grow fuller and stronger. And when all our lesser hopes have spent their energy and left us empty and disappointed, show us the greater hope you have planted in our souls, so that we, too, may cultivate its beauty and delight. Amen.
Rev. William Woofenden