Look to Ebenezer: Historical Hope as Advent Ends and Christmas Begins

Look to Ebenezer: Historical Hope as Advent Turns into Christmas

In English the word hope has roots in Christian theology in a way that the somewhat similar word wish does not. Someone who has hope has confidence, not just desire, and this confidence enables him or her to act. Paul demonstrates this meaning when he writes about how tribulations bring perseverance, which brings a proven character that brings a hope that does not disappoint. In contrast, when he writes about marriage, “Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am,” he does not imply that he will actively do anything to make men single like himself. Therefore, people who hope for a better world act differently; they confidently make the world better. Hope gives believers a vision that fuels action, just as an exhausted wanderer travels differently when she recognizes that the comforts of home await. Or as a gardener prepares the soil after the first frost kills his flowers because he knows that spring will come. But someone who merely wishes the world was better may simply stay home and binge Netflix.

So the hope that Providence’s Advent series addresses is not about wild wishes or dreams. It is also more than blind optimism because it does not ignore problems. A Christian with hope should be able to look directly into tragedy, recognize the heartache, weep, but still have confidence that God reigns, that he still turns what was meant for evil to good. Similar to Christian joy, which can paradoxically feel strongest in dark days, Christian hope can occur when no one thinks it should. At these difficult moments, a seemingly irrational, inexplicable hope can offer sustenance and endurance. C.S. Lewis writes that “joy is never in our power and pleasure often is”; likewise, hope is sometimes not within our power to create, while “looking on the bright side” might be. So both joy and hope appear as gracious gifts from God.

While looking directly into the world’s tragedies as those concerned with foreign policy must do, despair is an easy default. To help inoculate readers against this, a number of Providence contributors have given reasons for their hope. Their responses have included devotionals, tales from personal experiences, and recounts of positive news and global trends that journalists often ignore (probably because reporting on gloomy events leads to more clicks and ad revenue). Some also found hope by comparing today’s troubles with past challenges.

This year Providence looked back at the challenges the United States faced 75 years ago and reconsidered articles Christianity and Crisis published in 1946. High school students don’t study this year much as they jump from the end of World War II to the Marshall Plan (signed in 1948) or Berlin Airlift (1948–49). But Americans faced a multitude of crises—starvation in Europe, the prospect of atomic war, the inadequacy of world government and world community, fear of repeating the post-1918 foreign policy mistakes, civil war in China, sudden inflation and food shortages at home, shifts in geopolitical power, and so on. Most of all, Reinhold Niebuhr and the contributors to his journal worried about the Soviet Union. Just as Americans have their divisions today, Americans were divided over whether the Soviets should be allies or foes, or whether the US should align with Britain or return to its isolationism. One of the most popular figures in the Democratic Party, former vice president and Soviet sympathizer Henry Wallace, broke with the Truman administration and publicly denounced its “get tough on Russia” policy and alignment with London.

Yet despite all the turmoil, most of these crises are largely historical footnotes, and almost all were resolved better than many hoped. Though the economy had a rocky post-war start, most remember the late 1940s and 1950s for their economic expansion. Few students can describe Henry Wallace, who proved to be a bad campaigner and came in fourth in the 1948 presidential election with a minuscule share of the vote (he was later a capitalist Republican voter who called the USSR “evil” and whose agriculture business developed hybrid seeds that prevented starvation, accomplishing more as a businessman than he could as a politician). Most notably, the United States and Soviet Union never started the dreaded world-ending nuclear war. Then on December 26, 1991—30 years ago next Sunday—the USSR peacefully ceased to exist. So readers today know how the story ends when they look back at those old Christianity and Crisis articles that worried about how to respond to Moscow and other challenges.

Such historical hindsight can offer some hope for today. Yes, Americans face challenges, but that’s nothing new. China’s threat may be different from the Soviet Union’s, but the Cold War crisis was different from World War II. America has a historically proven ability to address global calamities when necessary.

Of course, hope is not delusion. Christians should not say everything is fine or great while downplaying problems because that would be irresponsible when they must still live in the world. Moreover, telling someone in the middle of a tragedy that everything is great is hurtful and insulting; it also forgets how Christ responded to disaster. Just as the world faced serious problems in 1946 (e.g., the crisis in China turned into the devastating Great Leap Forward and Culture Revolution), it still faces a difficult global environment, perhaps the most difficult within the living memory of many. Yet remembering how people in the past have overcome challenges, whether during the Cold War or another era, can give reasons for hope.

During all these periods, good and bad news happen simultaneously. Oftentimes, when a collapse occurs in one area, a renaissance occurs elsewhere. Consider trends since the 1940s that have led to both positive and negative consequences: atomic bombs can kill millions, but they deterred great powers from war; standardized shipping containers enhanced global trade that displaced American workers, but that trade made Americans more productive and wealthier; the internet helps autocrats target citizens, but it helps citizens expose those rulers; medical research led to addictive drugs that devastate families, but it also led to the COVID-19 vaccines that save lives and allow the economy to reopen safely and recover, giving the impoverished reason to rejoice. Or consider examples from further ago. The end of the Western Roman Empire terrified elites, but for other subjects the consequences were not as horrific: in Britain, evidence shows that the people became healthier once Rome left (and became sicker when Rome conquered them). Later, Mongol conquests led to uncountable and unjustifiable deaths, but the invaders’ future leaders fostered religious freedom across the Middle East and elsewhere in Eurasia when religious tolerance was nonexistent in Europe. Mongol armies helped spread the Black Death, but they also enabled trade and brought technology to Europe that revolutionized world history.

Christians who are sympathetic to amillennialism—which rejects the idea that the world is getting better and better as postmillennialists say, or that the world is getting worse and worse as the premillennialists say—should not be surprised that the world stays more or less the same: historically, improvements coexist with setbacks. This understanding offers a sober realism about the world that rejects both utopianism and despair while embracing hope.

Finding hope from history can be like looking to Samuel’s biblical monument Ebenezer (meaning “stone of help”). After God saved Israel from a Philistine army, the prophet raised this stone and said, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” The Israelites could then look at that monument to find hope, knowing that God helped them then so that he would help them again. Christians can likewise look at not just the Bible but also other past events, whether in history or their lives. They can see that he arrived, or his presence became more obvious, on their darkest days (much as the liturgical calendar celebrates Christ’s arrival around the winter solstice when the nights are longest, after which the days get brighter). God did not abandon them then, and he will not forsake them now, though all hell should endeavor to shake. When they have gone through the deep waters of sorrow or the fiery trials, they should again raise a new Ebenezer and say, “Hither by thy help I come,” so that they can look back at it when new troubles arise. This remembrance after tribulation helps develop perseverance and character, along with a confident, enduring Christian hope that does not disappoint, is more than wishful thinking, and leads to real-world action.

The post Look to Ebenezer: Historical Hope as Advent Ends and Christmas Begins appeared first on Providence.

Look to Ebenezer: Historical Hope as Advent Ends and Christmas Begins