From Hopelessness to Hope

This article is excerpted from chapter eight of Understanding the Faith, by Dr. Jeff Myers. This apologetics handbook is book one in a three-part series called the Summit Worldview Library. Now through Christmas, purchase the complete library in the Summit Bookstore and receive 50% off on any additional sets after the first with coupon code SWLGIFT. The perfect Christmas gift for your loved ones.

Christmas holiday songs can be trite and even silly, but one that has stood the test of time is Frank Sinatra’s rendering of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”:

I heard the bells on Christmas day,
their old familiar carols play
and wild and sweet their words repeat,
of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how as the day had come
the belfries of all Christendom
had roll’d along the unbroken song,
of peace on earth, good will to men.

These verses reflect both a tender reminiscence and an awestruck realization that people all around the earth celebrate the birth of Christ. Just beneath these beautiful lyrics, however, lies a story of a very broken man struggling to hold on to his belief in God and humanity.

“I Heard the Bells” was composed Christmas morning, 1863, by the beloved American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, walking alone down a frosty street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Not too long before, his second wife, Francis Appleton, had succumbed to injuries she suffered after her dress had caught on fire.

Longfellow had, years before, lost his first wife and his daughter. And now—this?

But Longfellow’s confusion wasn’t just personal. The Northern and Southern armies were at that time locked in combat in a vicious Civil War. The nation that Abraham Lincoln had called “the last best hope of earth,” seemed daily to be dissolving into an era of unprecedented slaughter—neighbor against neighbor, brother against brother.

Utter loneliness. Hopelessness. The third verse of “I Heard the Bells” expresses Longfellow’s sorrow:

And in despair I bowed my head
there is no peace on earth, I said
for hate is strong and mocks the song
of peace on earth, good will to men.

The temptation to hopelessness confronts every generation and every culture. A few years ago the news reported that a famous diplomat, Richard Holbrooke, passed away after an unsuccessful surgery to repair a torn aorta. Holbrooke’s last words were, “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan.” He died, literally and figuratively, of a broken heart. For decades he had traveled the world pleading for peace. Yet on his deathbed, he found himself grappling with the awful recognition that peace is one thing human effort alone can never bring.

And yet we hope for—long for—things to be right-side-up rather than up-side-down. We crave shalom. Psalm 78 counsels the children of Israel to teach God’s principles to children “so that they will set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, and not be like their fathers, a generation whose heart was not steadfast.”

And not only should we have hope, but we should also proclaim it. First Peter 3:15 says to “always be ready to give an answer for the hope that you have.” Our hope ought to turn heads, and we must be ready to explain its source.

In this way Longfellow’s final stanza is a shout of rescue to the despairing poet meandering down that wintery lane:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor does He sleep
the wrong shall fail, the right prevail
with Peace on earth, good will to men.

This is hope—that God is alive and awake; that he stepped into his own creation, entering the world stage as a helpless baby; that Immanuel, God with us, lived among us and willingly gave himself over to death on the cross, paying the penalty for our sin; that he was resurrected, overcoming death; and that he promises life of the ages to all with ears to hear.

Longfellow’s poem expresses the sorrow of a fallen world but also the metamorphosis of shalom—the repairing, rebuilding, renewing, and refreshing of the relationships that so violently ruptured in the fall. God’s redemption brings restoration and reconciliation—to God, self, others, and the creation. This is the most significant development in human history, as Richard John Neuhaus eloquently expresses:

But we have not the right to despair, for despair is a sin. And finally we have not the reason to despair, quite simply because Christ has risen. And this is the strength of a Christian worldview, the strength of the Christian way of telling the story of the world: it has no illusions about it. All the other stories are built upon delusions, vain dreams, and utopias.

Understanding the Times SeriesNow through Christmas, purchase the complete Summit Worldview Library in the Summit Bookstore, including Understanding the Faith in which this article was originally published. Pay regular Summit price ($79.99, retail $120) for the first kit and receive over 50% off on any additional sets with coupon code SWLGIFT. Offer expires Christmas Day 2017.

The perfect Christmas gift for your loved ones.