A major theme in contemporary society is despair. The rise in hopelessness has been so significant that sociologists have coined a new term: “deaths of despair.”
Drug, alcohol and suicide deaths have risen in nearly every age group over the last decade, but the increase has been especially pronounced for younger Americans. Between 2007 and 2017, drug-related deaths increased by 108% among adults ages 18 to 34, while alcohol-related deaths increased by 69% and suicides increased by 35%, according to the report, which drew on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. All together, about 36,000 millennials died “deaths of despair” in 2017, with fatal drug overdoses being the biggest driver.
In the face of this increased hopelessness, Christians can offer an authentic demonstration of hope through their work.
Hope is one of the three theological virtues Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13:13. Like faith, hope requires a perspective that expects a change or improvement without it being a present reality, as Paul argues in Romans 8:24.
Christians have a unique perspective on the virtue of hope. Our eager expectation of the coming renewal of all of creation is what enables us to have hope and to share glimpses of that hope with those around us.
Finding Hope in the Workplace
Hopelessness is a matter of perspective. In office life, the fact that there always seems to be another report to write, another email to read, another corporate meeting to attend can perpetuate a feeling of purposelessness. As David Graeber argues in his provocative 2018 book, many workers are employed in positions that are “so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence.”
Graeber makes a bleak argument based on anecdotal data that supports this hypothesis. It reflects a legitimate sentiment of hopelessness, but does not explore the reasons for that sentiment. When work is atomized to a small component of an overall process, it can be difficult to grasp its significance. The worker on the production line making high-quality bolts may not see that she is responsible for ensuring millions of people depend on her craftsmanship as they cross a bridge.
Tiny contributions can make a huge difference, but a narrowed perspective, bounded by the repetitive kerchunk of a machine, a carefully regulated production quota, and periodic paychecks can contribute to a loss of hope. Even if someone recognizes the work of their hands, however repetitive, contributes to something bigger. It may not lead to a sense of hopefulness if the boundaries of their imagination are limited to the prospect of a nice vacation next year and maybe a few years of retirement at a ripe old age.
In contrast, the Christian should be a source of hope for those we work with. Our hopefulness is a gift from God that we are born into as a result of our faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. (1 Pet. 1:3–5) But its scope goes well beyond our personal salvation to the renewal of all of creation. (Rev. 21) Our daily work should be a participation in that great renewal story. Our hope in that daily work is found in trusting that the tasks at hand, faithfully completed, will be used by God for his purposes.
The Nature of Hope
Hope requires us to be diligent with the opportunities that we have. As Eugene Peterson writes in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, “Hoping does not mean doing nothing. . . . It means going about our assigned tasks, confident that God will provide the meaning and the conclusions.” We may not understand the full scope of how our daily work contributes to the well-being of the world, but we should have confidence that our tasks fit into the web of God’s design.
Furthermore, hope is not an escape from work but an honest expectation that God is at work in creation bringing about its redemption. Again, Peterson argues, “Hoping is not dreaming. It is not spinning an illusion or fantasy to protect us from our boredom or our pain. It means a confident, alert expectation that God will do what he said he will do.”
Hope is necessary for human survival. As Viktor Frankl shared in his personal account of a German concentration camp, “The prisoner who had lost faith in the future—his future—was doomed.” For those prisoners who were not executed outright, hope was an essential ingredient for survival. Those who gave up hope typically declined rapidly and died quickly.
As Christians, we have a hope that should be contagious. It is a treasure in earthen vessels. Hope is a light shining in the darkness. (2 Cor. 4) It is this hope that causes us to share the life-giving message of the gospel with our friends and co-workers and also to live faithfully, executing our daily tasks with a sense of purpose and anticipation of the coming renewal of the world.
Working with hope is one way we work faithfully for God, “knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord” (Eph. 6:6).