To startled shepherds an angel announced, “Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”  I must admit, as 2017 comes to an end I’m not sensing much joy and good news.  Instead, a spirit of fear and division hangs like a cloud over the year.  Where can I find the hope promised so long ago?

On the domestic front, mass shootings, natural disasters, and racial strife feed our fears.  Globally, North Korea thumbs its nose at the world with ongoing weapons tests, while wars grind on in the Middle East.  And, of course, there is the divisive impact of last year’s presidential election.  Americans have discordant opinions about President Donald Trump and his policies, but I don’t know anyone who views him as a unifier.

Yet it occurs to me that a spirit of fear and division hung over first-century Palestine as well.  In those days Israel was ruled by an oppressive regime, typified by Herod’s massacre of the innocents.  Common practices in the Roman empire gave moral offense to people of faith: mothers abandoned a fourth of all babies to die of exposure or wild animals, Romans watched murderous gladiator games as public entertainment, and wealthy citizens engaged in pederasty with their Greek slaves.

Pious Jews disagreed on how to respond to that dominant culture.  Zealots, including one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, favored violent revolution; Sadducees and tax collectors found ways to collaborate; Essenes withdrew to desert caves; Pharisees clung to separatist purity laws.

Against this background, Jesus joined history with these words of introduction: Do not be afraid, and I bring good news of great joy.  A God of majesty was expressing extravagant love in the least fear-inspiring form imaginable, as a helpless baby.

To me, the angel’s upbeat message illustrates the difference between optimism and hope.  We all know optimistic people who instinctively expect things to turn out well—their spirit springs from inside, a natural bent toward belief in positive outcomes.  In contrast, hope places its trust in something outside or external, a force beyond our personal control.

I picked up my Bible and read again the Christmas story.  In Jewish tradition neighbors gathered after a child’s birth to sing a blessing on the home, but Mary and Joseph, far from home and huddling in a cave that served as a stable, had no such celebration.  So, after the angel’s announcement, God provided a choir.  Suddenly the sky lit up with a heavenly host who sang “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

After reading the familiar story, I pulled out my calendar and reviewed the year.  As a journalist and author, I frequently travel to participate in conferences or to speak on topics related to my books.  Had I seen any evidence of the good news of Christmas, any grounds for hope in our fearful, divided world?  This is what I found:

  • January: I spoke at one of my favorite churches, Holy Trinity Brompton in London. HTB originated the Alpha program, which has introduced the basics of Christianity to some 30 million people.  In a city known for its secularism, HTB packs out ten services each Sunday, and I spoke at six of them.  Again and again I looked out on a hall full of young professionals—lawyers, financiers, artists, diplomats, musicians—who, sitting on floor cushions, had gathered to worship God rather than taking advantage of the many temptations of a London weekend.
  • February: I joined the Japanese artist Makoto Fujimura at Fuller Seminary for a conference centered on Martin Scorsese’s movie Silence, which tells the story of Christian martyrs under the Japanese shoguns. Through his leadership of the International Arts Movement, Mako has spurred a new interest among Christians involved in the arts.
  • March: After attending a conference of several thousand ministry workers in Honolulu, I visited Molokai, a national park that honors the work of Father Damien, who transformed a lawless dumping ground for leprosy patients into a civilized, orderly colony. There, as elsewhere, Christians led the way in the research and treatment of leprosy, for they alone had the courage to overcome ancient fear and prejudice.
  • April: I spoke to nurses in training at Florida Hospital, the state’s largest, managed by Adventist Health. As their names reflect, many of our nation’s best hospitals were founded as ministries by Adventists, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and various Catholic orders.  The one in Florida provides around $700 million in uncompensated care each year, a form of charity typical of nonprofit hospitals and one that gets little notice in the health-care debates.
  • May: I met with a group of young Christian writers in Bulgaria. Given the limited size of the Bulgarian reading public, none of them hope to make a living at writing.  Their enthusiasm, though, brought to mind again the peaceful revolution of 1989, when millions in Eastern Europe experienced the first gusts of freedom—including the freedom to worship and to write without censorship.
  • July: I spoke at the American Scientific Affiliation, and then in October at a BioLogos meeting in Grand Rapids. These organizations comprise top-rank scientists from many fields, who see no conflict between science and their Christian faith.
  • September: At another writers’ conference, I spent a week in Alaska, a magnificent and underpopulated state that gives perhaps our best glimpse of unspoiled creation: elk and caribou, mountain goats, whales, sea lions, eagles, puffins and, yes, Kodiak bears.  The world of divisive politics seems very far away in the wilderness, where survival is the main goal.
  • November: In a most unusual assignment, I was invited by an Orthodox Jewish synagogue in Beverly Hills to support their brunch for the homeless by speaking on the biblical basis of caring for the poor. Honoring the Sabbath with the Orthodox was a cross-cultural experience: we walked instead of drove; I had to speak loudly, with no amplification, in the large synagogue; and for 24 hours no one turned on a computer or cell phone.  Unlike some churches, the congregation seemed to direct their attention toward God rather than toward entertainment; the congregation chanted Hebrew prayers for two hours before I spoke.
  • November: The following week I spent six days on the Logos Ship Hope, a project of Operation Mobilization. Some 385 young people (mostly in their twenties) from 62 countries serve on the converted ferry, which has traveled to 140 ports around the world.  I joined the ship in the Caribbean, where the crew had been helping with hurricane relief, distributing books and literature, staging performances of The Chronicles of Narnia, and serving local churches in practical ways.  At meal time I found myself listening to stories of crew members who hailed from such places as Nepal, Denmark, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Zambia, Nepal, Trinidad, Russia, and China.  It resembled a youthful United Nations, with one exception: every volunteer had raised financial support to serve for two years with the sole purpose of spreading the good news of their faith.
  • December: I joined a group of Christian activists for a spiritual retreat led by Richard Rohr. These folks take their faith seriously, lobbying and protesting on behalf of prophetic causes.  Two participants came directly from a jail cell.  “It is illegal to pray in the U.S. Capitol!” a policeman announced through a bullhorn as they knelt in the rotunda to pray for just laws.  When they tried to retrieve their Bibles, from which they had been reading Isaiah 10, the arresting officer said, “No!  You can’t remove those.  They’re evidence of the crime.”

When Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God, he used images of small things: a sprinkling of salt that preserves a slab of meat, a pinch of yeast that spreads through a loaf of bread, the smallest seed in the garden that grows into a great bush in which the birds of the air come to nest.  As I reviewed my 2017 calendar, I saw abundant proof that what an angel announced to shepherds that first Christmas night—good news of great joy— is still coming true.

The birth of Jesus, attracted little notice in his day, yet he ended up changing the world more than anyone in history. Today, the world lurches along under a cloud of fear and division.  None of the hope-filled places I visited made front-page news. And yet the good news continues to transform lives, leaving in its wake joyful evidence of compassion, healing, justice, freedom, scholarship, beauty, and quiet service.

There is one final difference between optimism and hope. Optimism waits expectantly for good results whereas hope summons us to actively join the larger cause.  Jacques Ellul, the French sociologist, became disillusioned with the empty optimism of politics, which promises a better world and rarely delivers. Instead, as he wrote in a memoir, he placed his faith in an external hope, that “the powers of this world have been conquered; that through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, death is conquered; that all God’s promises are inevitably fulfilled; and that we are promised the kingdom.”

Ellul concluded, “I can thus say: everything is done. Everything except history. History is no small thing, and we must make it.”

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41 responses to “Hope Amid the Gloom”

  1. Yeo Yee Ying says:

    Dear Mr Yancey,

    Hello, it’s me again. Here are some of my thoughts. The ineffable qualities of faith, hope, and love cannot and will not co-exist without a God who made them possible. The search for faith proves frustratingly difficult for people who see without seeing, hear without hearing, and who float through the streams of our times without the sureness of an anchor to hold them steadfast in the certainty of the uncertainty. Faith is the first step, to me, in order that hope may be borne in our hearts that the sublimity of love may shine through the light and glory of Christ Jesus.

    My personal intuition as to why the search for hope is so desperate and difficult in our world today amongst Christians is not so because we are without faith but because so many of us have forgotten to dream. Where I speak of dreaming, I am not talking so much about having visions or imagining a brighter and better future alone, but that of the quality and substance of believing in what language the heart speaks as it abides in Christ and communes with Him in the secret place of the Most High. Such dreams which find their germination together with God surely cannot be lost even if they are not come to fruition in our time of living, just as it was with Moses and the Promised Land, and the many men and women of the faith who have gone down the way before us into glory.

    Would you do me the kindness of reading a letter I wrote to a friend at the brink of the New Year, which speaks of hope? (https://lovelifelord.wordpress.com/2018/01/25/new-years-letter/)

    Thank you, and God Bless!

  2. linda says:

    Hi Philip,

    Actually my heart is more broken when I look at the Church. Unity? Not so much. Lost? Seems so many give lip service but their hearts are far away from Christ.

    The biggest disappointment? Me.

    Keep writing Philip…
    Linda

    • Colleen says:

      Hi Linda

      Be encouraged, there is a movement of unity happening. People where I live are starting to ask “Are you a believer?” Not “ what church are you from, if you are not from mine, you are wrong”… I am excited about what is happening as the light shines in the shadows of fear.

  3. Michelle Pehlman says:

    I agree with those commenting here: Thank you for sharing your heart. THis message comes at a very appropriate time.

  4. Dianne Lami says:

    So many good comments regarding this article. More than the statements on the divisive spirit in the US was the reminder that Jesus entered a chaotic. divisive and fear-filled world. He came to change us from within; to provide the hope that does come internally as opposed to optimism that is external. And, to read of your year’s travels to different cultures, world views and to witness Christians discussing or sharing or just serving all in the name of Jesus – so encouraging. Thank you for sharing your heart, Mr. Yancey.

  5. judy birt says:

    Thank you Mr. Yancy for a wonderful message . I agree with everything you wrote and wish we all could be kind and accepting when someones’s comments do not agree with ours.
    I have read and enjoyed many of your books and am looking forward to the next one.
    Wishing you a blessed year ahead. Judy

  6. Michèle Gyselinck says:

    I just read this today, December 27th. I’ve been too busy with planning worship services, and family celebrations to have time for reading blogs. Of course, looking at world affairs is not going to give you much encouragement to have a positive outlook on things. Personally, I’m not an optimist. Just watching American political shenanigans from north of the border is enough to be depressed.
    No. We need to find our hope in God, Who alone can fix this mess we’ve made of His creation.

  7. Dave Tjart says:

    Thank you, Philip. My own experience, although much, much abridged when compared to yours, agrees–I see many, many pinpoints of light in a dark world. God bless your ministry, and continue to make you a channel of Grace.

  8. M. Warren says:

    It’s so good to hear from Philip Yancey on Christmas Eve. To be reminded of these truths about Who Jesus is and what His kingdom is all about helps me so much.
    Thank you for how your words have ministered to me over the years. Merry Christmas Philip & Janet!

  9. Daniel Hill says:

    This was magnificent, and just what I needed to read tonight. Thank you!!!!

  10. Avenel Grace says:

    Dear Phillip.
    Thank you for your blog.
    There is always hope..Hope of our hearts O Lord art Thou, Glorious Star of day,
    Thou wilt shine forth and chase the night,
    With all our tears away.
    Hope you received J’s book. He is in a better and brighter place, but I am just finding out of late, what legacy he really left behind. Almost another book !
    Blessings to you and Janet, Avenel.

  11. eric schaap says:

    Phillip, things you may have missed.
    The president had a short but thoughtful, very christian, Christmas speech on the front lawn of the white-house. I also experienced the first-lady in prayer, before a massive audience; the Lords Prayer, no less.
    All very hopeful and unifying, I would think.
    And I am looking in from the outside, being canadian.
    Have a great and blessed Chritmas with your loved once, Phillip!
    Love all your books.

  12. Paul Oerter says:

    Forgive my ignorance, but who is the artist of the painting of the angels and shephards?

  13. Joe Johnson says:

    “Americans have discordant opinions about President Donald Trump and his policies, but I don’t know anyone who views him as a unifier.” Are you inviting a discussion? Does your comment help encourage unity? Why do you need to include this in your blog? Does it help us listen to what you are saying?

    • dk burris says:

      I actually thought the same thing… it seems to be a totally unnecessary comment to this article. It does make me bit angry too that Philip Yancy whom I admire greatly would add that to his statement.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      I didn’t mean to cause offense, or add to any division. I cannot think of a more divided spirit in the US in my lifetime, in Congress or in the nation at large. If Hillary Clinton had been elected, I would have said the same thing. I wish politicians in Washington would work for the good of the nation as a whole rather than their partisan agendas.

  14. Elizabeth Peebles says:

    This message of hope in today’s world was just the message I needed to hear on Christmas Eve. Thank you for this blessing.

  15. Larry Mais says:

    So good….I appreciate Phillip’s writing so much. There is reason to be filled with hope no matter what the circumstances are. For the creator of the stars & everything else is not limited by finite constraints . Bless his name forever.

    Christmas blessings
    Larry

  16. G says:

    “Americans have discordant opinions about President Donald Trump and his policies, but I don’t know anyone who views him as a unifier.” This comment of yours, I believe, is incorrect. Our President just unified the Senate and House and provided a 1.5 BILLION dollar tax cut/relief for Americans. I regret you feel this way and have this opinion, after I’ve read all your books—and just recently when I was in Florida for several weeks I reread one of your books. I give way over the tithe of 10% and give offerings to the poor, homeless, organizations rescuing women from human trafficking, etc. Now you know one person who believes President Trump is a unifier. Great things are ahead. No government authority exists unless God ordained it. However, I am only human and my feet of clay get muddy at times—therefore I may be wrong. If so, forgive me. May you know the joy of Christmas, G

    • Joh says:

      Of course reading all of Yancey’s books is not going to change Yancey’s principles… And to be so easily offended because Yancey’s political views do not line up exactly with yours shows that you have missed the point of most of Yancey’s work – showing the world the God of grace and love that it has otherwise missed because of the politics, greed, corruption, and pain.

      • M P Mathew says:

        Agree with Mr Joh’s comments.
        To get easily offended over Mr Yancey’s political statements and then to make such self promotional comments “I give way over the tithe of 10% and give offerings to the poor, homeless, organizations rescuing women from human trafficking, etc” totally misses out the essence of GRACE that is the hallmark of all Yancey’s books.
        Belated Christmas to All and God Bless.

  17. Tim Holdahl says:

    Thanks so much for reminding us in the chaos that the good news is still good news and that there is good still being done and lives being touched all over Gods creation in his name and that God is still in control!

  18. Al Koschmann says:

    Thank you for your calming and challenging words. Merry Christmas

  19. Dan Bruce says:

    I want to be one of the hopeful who speaks with my behavior and my actions. A wonderful. Statement by Philip Yancey

  20. Jennifer Hodgson says:

    Thank you for the testimony of hope in the midst of dark circumstance! Peace to you and yours! Jennifer

  21. I was so glad to get this just now as I wanted to wish you and Janet a very Happy and blessed Christmas and to thank you for all your books which I keep re=reading. At the moment I have just started re-re-reading Soul Survior. Your books really speak to me and I pass them on to friends (sometimes don’t get them back!) and as I said, I can’t thank you enough.Love Virginia (youdale, from Cannes)

  22. Bob Sutton says:

    Yes, God is not inactive in this chaotic world, He will accomplish His purposes!

  23. Helen Hardin says:

    Maybe the best thing I’ve read all year. Amazing year. amazing life.

    Matthew 16:18 I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.

  24. Wonderful article. Thank you for the reminder to look for that joy. God bless and have a wonderful Christmas and even greater 2018.

  25. Bruce says:

    Thanks for sharing these pictures of God’s love at work and a view into your interactions with such diverse groups. God reaches down and uses people to be His hands here in many different ways. Blessings Bruce

  26. Barbara Campanian says:

    How I needed to wake up on Christmas Eve to such a hopeful message! In my lifetime (I’m 70), I’ve never experienced such unrest, division, and fear in our dear country as this past year. This blog was a reminder that the country, the world has seen such times before. Jesus has and continues to carry us forward with hope and his promises of peace. Thank you, Mr Yancy. God bless you!

  27. Tobie says:

    Thanks Philip. Reflecting on your words, I could not help but be reminded of the fact that Jesus’ definition of peace is different to the world’s, and that he thought it necessary to include this distinction in his promise: Peace I leave… NOT as the world…

  28. Pamela Stevens says:

    Thanks for giving a renewed global view of the only hope we have in Jesus Christ, Lord of Lords.

  29. Richard Stanislaw says:

    Thanks for making Hope specific in all those experiences. Blessings of Christmas to you and your family.

  30. Joanne Petrella says:

    Thankful that you use your talent to the glory of God. Your words always a reflection of The Word. Keep traveling, keep writing, keep hearing and seeing, keep sharing. May Christ continue to speak through you into the lives of his wide and diverse flock.
    Christ in us, our hope of glory.

  31. Loretta Cota says:

    Thank you for your message. My spirit was heavy today, I needed to hear/see God’s truth vibrantly alive all around the world, especially in America by Americans. I’m encouraged to do God’s work to “Make America Proud Again”.

  32. Well said, Philip. A longish version of an old song I’ve embraced this Christmas season – “I heard the bells on Christmas day.” Merry Christmas! I so appreciate you.

  33. Clark W Johnson says:

    Thanks – this update is helpful to me.

    Some musings of mine in a similar vein …

    Love’s Unfolding Presence
    Advent – 4th Sunday

    Mary
    was told
    by an angel
    and was perplexed

    and was told more
    the words growing
    forming a presence
    of the Very Other
    in the conversation

    and she didn’t run off and say
    “Great! I’ll go do that!”

    but rather spoke
    “may it be to me as You have said”

    the Word spoken
    the Word received

    and the Word a package gift
    which would unfold throughout her life
    Jesus’ life
    and the life of the communities
    she walked in

    figuring it out
    is a scientific way of living into truth
    and has value

    yet love
    is above and beneath
    even our best understandings

    and love indeed
    unfolds
    in seasons

    as the new wine
    takes time to
    grow
    harvest
    crush
    age

    until it is ready
    to be poured out
    and shared with one
    or many
    who would come
    to our table

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Somehow this got lost for a week or so. It was worth finding though–and took me back to Advent. –Philip

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