Learning to hope – all over again

The recovery of hope is an essential component of healing, especially for those suffering in their minds and emotions. But for too many, sensations of promise for a meaningful future have been depleted. They have lost the equipment and the capacity for hope. 

Yet the recovery of hope is easily left in the suggestion stage. We urge people to hope, but don’t include that in the practical rebuilding of the mind. We want hope to be found by others, but we don’t know how to offer it.

 So, let’s work together to build some new wisdom together! A wisdom grounded in our experiences of God, informed by faith in that which is truly real, and shaped by the Holy Spirit whose ministry among us is to transform us, from one degree of glory to another. And the Spirit is capable of shining the light of that glory in souls so dark one might not think it possible anymore.


Not too long ago, I was introduced to a Greek word that began to cast fresh light on this problem for me, and that word is prolepsis. Before I define it, let me illustrate it.


In my second novel, Those Frightening Things You Should Let Win, Tamara Baxter finds herself in a death grip against despair. She senses the practice of prayer may lend her strength. She’s heard of prayer, but she has no concept of what prayer is or whether it is even safe for her to trust it. Her wise and elder mentor, Barb, guides her through a reflective reading of the twenty-third Psalm, leading Tamara step by step through her own valley of shadow. Later, when her inner demons are eviscerating her once again, Tamara realizes an affinity with the one she would thereafter call Shepherd Jesus. She doesn’t know how to relate to him. He is only an image formed by a mind she learned long ago not to trust. And though she had no sensation of what hope ought to look and feel like, she intuits that this shepherd is the one who will help her face, and perhaps walk through the nightmare that is her life. In him, she senses what life ought to be, and though she can’t lay claim to it yet, through him she knows she will find it.


That, I think, is the essence of prolepsis.


But why use a word few people have ever heard of? My short answer is this: because the English word ‘hope’ is too common and inexpressive of what it needs to convey, especially when it is required for someone’s survival. Likewise, the concept of promise has been sorely abused by far too many people who can’t seem to keep them, no matter how vociferously they make them. 


Prolepsis, on the other hand, is one of those thick, rich, and delicious words that may help us appreciate the dynamic qualities of hope and realize a fresh vitality for our faith drawn from the promises made by God. Furthermore, the word bears the advantage of being intentionally practical as we learn to live into our hope by reactivating the dynamism that the promises of God are meant to offer us. 


Prolepsis is derived from the Greek, prolambano, to anticipate. It is a concept that may be more familiar to those engaged in literary analysis than to people of faith. Gérard Genette defines prolepsis as “any narrative manoeuvre that consists of evoking in advance an event that will take place later.”[1] 


Though it is not a word found in the Bible, the essence of it is clearly expressed throughout the Scriptures as one writer after another paints their perceptions of what is unfolding through the promises of God. 


This is especially true in the Gospel of John.[2] Like the prophets before him, Jesus looked to a future fulfillment of creation, and his every act of healing, demonic deliverance, feeding and forgiving point us forward toward the dawning Kingdom of God. The fact that he could proclaim that the Kingdom was already in our midst was not to suggest it has arrived in full, but that he has come to usher it in, and equip us to live in the outskirts of that realm even as we venture toward its fulfilment. What Jesus began in his ministry he continues through his Word and Spirit, shaping us into his likeness so that we may live into the promises now unfolding through the work of grace.


So, think of prolepsis as a way of living our trust in the One who can deliver. Such a hope is ignited in the furnace of the soul by the Spirit of God who desires our eternal satisfaction and wants us to experience a down-payment of it now. In that hope, a soul finds the room and the freedom to breathe again, and even allow for new potential. 


But how is such a hope instilled and nurtured? I hope you will continue to reflect on this with me as I add posts below. Until then, pray that Shepherd Jesus will guide us all into those fruitful pastures where new wisdom is cultivated and enjoyed by those who hunger for it.

     [1] Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, trans. Jane E. Lewin (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980), p. 40; quoted in the article by Adele Reinhartz, “Jesus as Prophet: Predictive Prolepses in the Fourth Gospel.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 36 (1989): 3-16. See also See R. Alan Culpepper, The Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1983), 56.     

[2] Culpepper, The Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, 56-70. 


Waves of Grace

The rebuilding of hope relies heavily on our ability to trust in the assurances God makes to his people. God is ever at work forming a future for his creation. And our assurance is grounded in an eternal initiative, the origins of which can be traced to those first utterances of God: 

“Let there be….” 

Hope rests in a fundamental trust that what God initiates God sees through to the conclusion God intends for it. 

Throughout the unfolding of the Great Story of creation, its redemption from the fall, its restoration and final fulfilment, God lays down markers, signs of ongoing fulfilment, and pointers toward what is to come. God makes promises to his people, and our hope is established in those promises. 


So many of us profess a living faith, yet we place so little trust in the promises of God. That’s not surprising in a world where so many promises are broken and we are culturally conditioned to demand answers, action, and workable solutions as we need them, not at some undisclosed moment in the future.


But the promises of God come to us as a first wave of grace. When God makes promises, such as he outlined through his various covenants, or as he declared to Moses when he stated his intention to set his people free, those promises tell us God is paying attention. The Lord has heard our cries and is even now addressing the circumstances that cause our suffering. The promise is given to redirect our awareness and focus our faith on him. 


The promise alerts us to pay attention, for the actions of God may at first lay far outside our realm of comprehension. They may be at work in the undercurrents of our souls, as the Spirit of God reasserts God’s presence and strengthens the inner foundations of our faith. 


Prolepsis, a vibrant hope in the One who can deliver, is drawn from the hidden wellsprings of the soul by the Spirit of God who speaks again the promises of God to us, desires our eternal satisfaction, and wants us to experience a down-payment of it now. 


We can begin to reclaim that hope and make it personally real as we come alongside those who already possess it. 

Community is a second wave of grace, or rather, a current that moves around us and carries us with it, those “streams of mercy” that course through seasons of fright and fear. The Christian community is a carrier of grace, in which the promises of God are proclaimed, prayed, and reinforced through the ancient Story we possess in common. 


As I will emphasize over and over again, community is too often the missing ingredient in the resurrection of hope. We simply cannot find hope on our own. It doesn’t work that way. The little droplet of hope we swallow when our lives are so parched of promise is easily drowned and overwhelmed by frightful circumstances. Yet as those waves of grace, the promises of God, can become a new current to carry us forward in faith once again as we move along with those who trust them – even if for a little while they are trusting them on our behalf until we can find the assurance in ourselves.  


The hard part, as we know all too well, is that people with little hope often withdraw from those who have precisely what they need. We isolate when we are in pain. Or we don’t feel worthy to be with those who appear more whole than we are. We don’t belong there, with them. They either won’t understand, or we don’t want to let others into what is really going on inside us. 


And the sad reality is that a lot of faith communities, who hold such hope in common, are oblivious to the needs so prevalent in our midst, and don’t know how to lend hope when it is needed most. 

But if there was ever a time to learn, it is now. We must acquire new collective wisdom and activate a dormant faith in ways that may be fearful and feel unsafe. And those who of us who possess such hope will find our hope enriched and revitalized the more we find ways of sharing it with those who need it most.





When Hope Comes to Grief

When a member of my family began to suffer from what would later be diagnosed as bi-polar disorder, I was in absolute denial. 

I retreated, I rearranged the circumstances in my mind to manage the pain in myself by trying to manage the suffering in my loved one and keep it all to a minimum. And when, seated in a tiny room at the emergency ward confronted by a mental health care provider, my reality cascaded the moment suicide entered the conversation. Plans had been made, attempts had been considered then, thankfully, aborted. We were all safe. But we weren’t okay. 


Hope lost all definition over the next few weeks, and I couldn’t have constructed a clear view of the way forward if my life had depended on it. 


Many of us experience torrents of disorientation, resistance to help and reluctance to act when faced with emotional circumstances beyond our control. Whether it is a crisis we find ourselves in, or one we stumble into when confronted with the emotional turmoil faced by someone else, our internal transmission shifts into reverse and we back out to look for safety somewhere else. 


We may hear ourselves saying words we don’t believe or know how to reinforce. The expression: “You have to have hope,” may be one of them. But how do you offer hope to someone when hope is not what they want, because having to hope means you don’t have a solution? How do you flip the hope switch and begin realizing strength from it?


Hope, like faith, requires us to reach into an unknown future complicated by circumstances we usually aren’t equipped to face. Yet we pursue hope in faith, following Shepherd Jesus, the author and only guide into the life we are promised by God.


Let’s return to the word prolepsis. I’m drawn to it because there is a practical incentive to act encased in the word.  Using the word as a new lens into the Scriptures, I find my faith undergirded by an approach to hope that feels more personally real. So, here’s a little bit more of what I’ve discovered about the concept.


In Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, R. Alan Culpepper describes several types of prolepsis. Of special interest for us, I believe, are “mixed prolepses… those which tell of events which will begin prior to the end of the narrative and continue past its ending.”[1] Culpepper refines this definition in light of Jesus’ farewell discourse: 


Mixed prolepses… define the nature of Jesus’ relationship to the disciples following his death and the role of the Spirit during this period. Most of the mixed prolepses are progressive: the conditions for their fulfillment are established by the end of the narrative, but their fruition lies beyond it.[2] 


As life unfolded between Jesus and his disciples, he initiated works of grace that couldn’t be halted by the cross. Many of his initiatives, offered in the heat of conflict with those who sought to terminate him and his cause, would not find their fulfilment until they had killed him. Yet as he stepped from the tomb, regathered his followers, ascended, sent the Holy Spirit, and began to create a new community, his words and actions would become a lived experience of what fulfilled promises look like.


This same story continues in us, and the fruit is realized as we pursue our lives in faith. 

Our experiences of suffering lead us into darkness, yet our time in the valley of Shadow is shaped by the one guiding us through it, the one who knows the way because he has been through it many times before. Hope only makes sense if you can place your life and circumstances under the care of one you can truly trust to finish the job.


This is of particular interest to those of us struggling in our minds and emotions, and for those of us who dedicate our lives to ministering among those who have little hope. We may live alongside those whose prospects are exacerbated by mental and physical illness, addiction, criminal records, lack of education, abuse, poverty, and oppression. For far too many, basic trust in the foundations and structures of life have broken down. 

Jesus’ story included such people at every turn. The heart of his ministry was directed toward people who lost the ability to thrive. It still is. The anticipated outcome of someone’s challenges may look bleak, but under his care there is more at work than we can see as his promises unfold in those whose situations have lost any semblance of success. 


The Gospel stories of Jesus prepare us for that. “In most cases,” writes Adele Reinhartz, [Jesus’ teachings of future fulfillment] “mark or allude to the beginning of the process which will lead to the eventual complete fulfilment of the prediction.”[3] Reinhartz continues, “In other words, the narrative presents events or stories which correspond either partially or completely to the content of these predictions. Hence the Gospel anticipates the eventual fulfilment of the prophecies by alluding to their partial fulfilment in the present.”[4] 


As followers of Jesus, we want to understand and benefit from the ongoing presence and influence of Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit as he brings our lives to fruition. Even more, we want to trust that at whatever point we enter into one another’s stories, there are promises at work that will carry us beyond any outcome we may be able to intuit or plan for. 


How often we must wade into people’s trauma with little or no expectation of a positive outcome! That, I think, is one of the basic definitions of Christian ministry. Yet we pursue healing trusting that no matter how futile our efforts may seem, we know we are meant to be there. We go, often blind and mindless of what we will do, because we are called to engage the suffering of another no matter how impotent we may feel. 


Such are the lived expressions of prolepsis, it seems to me. Something will be offered us, though we know not what, and in our surrender to the moment of need, fresh sensations of hope may be born.


Searching the Gospels for inspiration, we watch Jesus wade into those depths all the time. In faith, we know him to be the source of life and can affect an outcome using powers unavailable to us. So, we follow him into those needs trusting that what he offered then, he is still capable of offering now. And while an immediate cure may not be given as promptly, Jesus’ actions point us forward to fulfilment offered in other ways.

Such stories and acts of prolepsis, writes Culpepper, “tie the experience of the intended readers to the final events in the ministry of Jesus. By this means the readers’ experience is authorized by the story, and the enduring significance of Jesus’ ministry is at least partially specified…. The mixed prolepses link Jesus to the Church.”[5]


The story begun in Jesus is one he continues in us, the Body of Christ. As we take hold of the cross and follow our Shepherd, we enter into those lives broken by sin, oppressed by forces imposed upon them, distressed by conditions beyond their control. And we may experience few, if any, sensations of success. 

Our experience, however, and our hope, is authorized by Jesus’ promises to abide with us and empower us for service. He will guide our faith into action and sustain our hope on behalf of those who can’t yet claim it for their own. It is as we engage this hope for the sake of others that we become true disciples of Jesus, forced simply to take him at his word and trust the outcome to him.


So clearly, prolepsis is more than a literary device where the Gospel of Jesus Christ is concerned, especially since we are counting on that narrative to shape the contours of our life and experience. That narrative is authored by the God who created us to participate within its framework. It is a story meant to carry us forward together so we may share in its finale. It is that participatory dynamic that assures us our hope is not wishful thinking but a means by which God engages us, speaks to our condition, and urges us on toward something new. 


How, then do we participate meaningfully in the reforging of hope? Well, come and see. We’ll pick it up here next time. Until then, review the Story, the great Story of God’s creation, redemption, restoration, and glorification of all he has made. Find yourself in that story. Share it with someone else.







     [1] Culpepper, The Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, 61.      [2] Culpepper, The Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, 63.      [3] Reinhartz, “Jesus as Prophet: Predictive Prolepses in the Fourth Gospel,” 7.      [4] Reinhartz, “Jesus as Prophet,” 9.      [5] Culpepper, The Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, 63-64. 


Enacting and Activating our Hope through Worship

After admitting our family member to the hospital, 
I was adrift during the long ride home.

Back and forth we went to Providence, day after day, to carve out some semblance of recognition in whatever new reality we were facing. And being the pastor of a rather intimate congregation, there was no way we could keep the diagnosis to ourselves, hide it from public scrutiny, and tend to it privately. So, we brought our pain where it needed to be brought and entered it into to the prayer life of our worship the following Sunday. 


The embrace of the congregation was immediate and gracious. Others began to speak for the first time of their own mental and emotional suffering. A few offered words of advice, a few cried with us. But what refurbished the foundations of faith was simply their recognition that we ought not do this alone. And while those expressions came all week long, it was the weekly discipline of worship that re-grounded us in a reality we could trust.


That experience taught me one of the most essential truths about the ministry of hope. We discover vitality in the promises of God as we worship the God who made them. We renew our faith in those promises through regular celebration of God’s accomplishments on behalf of his people. And we embody those promises as we stake a claim in the community of believers, persevering together to face all the challenges we share as a body. 


Worship is the one essential experience shared by Christians where our hope in God is enacted and activated. There, the link between Christ and his Body (his church) is freshly forged by the Holy Spirit. The dunamis – the dynamic power – of prolepsis is realized as the Gospel narrative unfolds, and the promises of God orient believers forward, secure in the hope they may now enjoy.


Worship is that indispensable incubational crucible of hope, and as we return to it again and again the slag of our lives is constantly being burned away as our faith is refined to sustain the greater challenges life throws our way. 


In turn, as we worship, we become stewards of these promises. Not just caretakers of them, but practitioners. We don’t just memorize and mouth them for others to digest and believe (or not). We embody them through community. Worship shapes us into a people whose sight is set on a horizon we may not yet see. We are joined in procession, moving slowly forward as one body, pilgrims in search of promised land, singing songs that would be incomprehensible were they not sung in faith. 


Where others lag, we bring them along. When they lose the road altogether, we go find them. Stewards of the promises of God make those future-oriented aspirations real here and now through human expressions of acceptance, patience, forgiveness, forbearance, encouragement, wisdom, and humility. In short, love. Practical, human-aimed love. And that kind of love breeds an active hope, one that fuels endurance, perseverance, and faith. 

More to come

Check back from time to time for further reflections on the dynamic of prolepsis.

I would value your insights and welcome your comments and personal experiences of prolepsis. How has hope been reactivated following seasons of trauma? How have you been living into the promises of God? How has your worship or congregational life enacted the promises of God to inspire hope in those who need it most?

Feel free to be in touch:
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