“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” are the words inscribed on the gates of hell, according to Dante in the “Inferno,” the first section of his epic poem, The Divine Comedy. Of course, those words come only from the imagination of the 14th Century Italian poet. But they are a succinct and accurate reflection of the status of all those who enter hell. While it is only there that the words are truly accurate—abandon all hope—it is certainly true that we believers are quick to succumb to unbelief and despair and to abandon all hope.
“Abandon all hope” was apparently their thought when Abraham and Sarah, both succumbing to old age, lost the ability to bear children. But they did not reckon on the miraculous intervention of God. And so Isaac was born.
“Abandon all hope” would surely have been my thought had I been Isaac and watched as my father, Abraham, bound me, placed me on a sacrificial altar of stones, and raised a knife to plunge it into my heart. I knew Abraham. I knew how determined he was to obey God. I knew this wasn’t some strange game. But then the voice from heaven, the substitutionary ram caught in the thicket, and with tears and shouts of utter joy, my father untied me and lifted me from my deathbed.
“Abandon all hope” might well have been Joseph’s thought when his brothers threw him in a pit with the intention of murdering him. Instead, he was sold to a band of Midianite traders. “Abandon all hope” might well have been his thought when he was sold by them as a slave to Potiphar, a very influential man and the captain of Pharaoh’s bodyguard. Instead, Potiphar saw that Joseph was trustworthy and made him the overseer of his house. “Abandon all hope” might well have been Joseph’s response when he was falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife of attempting to seduce her and found himself cast into the dungeon where the Pharaoh’s prisoners were secured. From all appearances, he had abused the great kindness and honor that Potiphar had bestowed on him. At best, he might expect to rot in prison for the remainder of his miserable life. Then seemingly out of nowhere, Pharaoh’s cup bearer and chief baker became Joseph’s prison mates, and the cup bearer promised to tell Pharaoh of Joseph’s kindness when he was restored to his position in the court. But one year passed and then a second year. As Joseph languished in prison, he might well have abandoned all hope. But the Pharaoh had a dream that he couldn’t interpret, and the cup bearer remembered that Joseph had correctly interpreted his dream. He told Pharaoh, who summoned Joseph from the dungeon. And in short order, Joseph found himself promoted to prime minister of all Egypt.
The severe drought in Israel had caused the widow of Zarephath to abandon all hope; she was despondently gathering a few sticks to bake one last meal of bread for herself and her son as they waited to die of starvation. But then Elijah showed up and with preposterous audacity asked her to bake him a cake of bread first. And when she obeyed, she discovered that God had provided meal and flour to make large cakes for her son and herself. And for the remainder of the drought, oil and flour flowed from the cruse and bowl in sufficient quantities to feed them.
Esther and Mordecai might well have abandoned all hope when King Ahasuerus issued a decree calling for the wholesale slaughter of all the Jews in his realm. But God allowed Esther to intervene before Ahasuerus, so the Jews escaped slaughter while Haman, the instigator of the diabolical scheme to destroy the Jews, became the victim of his own evil plan, dying on the gallows he had intended to use to hang Mordecai.
Had you been Daniel, you might have abandoned all hope when the Babylonian army swarmed your house, killed all your family, bound you, and carried you off to Babylon. A foreigner, a slave, taken into the midst of a cruel people whose culture was pagan, whose language you didn’t speak or understand. What could you expect beyond a life of hard labor during the day, slop for food, and at night a cold stone cell to try to sleep in with a group of other miserable wretches? But then, like Joseph more than 1200 years earlier, you became the equivalent of prime minister. Your jealous peers contrived a plot to throw you, not into a prison—that would have been bad enough—but into a den of hungry lions used to feeding on the carcasses of those who had offended King Darius. You might well have abandoned all hope. No one ever escaped the lions. But God shut the lions’ mouths, and after one entertaining night of watching the animals in the zoo up close, you were restored to your former position.
Mary and Martha had absolutely abandoned all hope. Lazarus, their beloved brother had been dead for four days. No one. Ever. Returned from the dead. But then Jesus came. Ordering some curious bystanders to roll the stone away from the tomb, the Lord prayed to His Father and commanded Lazarus to come forth. So he did. Alive. Restored to life by the power of the One who is the Life.
The thief on the cross! The epitome of hopelessness. Utterly lost. Justly nailed to a cross for crimes he’d committed. Staring hell in the face and just an hour or two from arriving there. Then he turned to the man hanging beside him who, from all outward evidence was in exactly the same state—a criminal, condemned by Rome, nailed to a cross and expecting certain death at any moment. And the thief prayed to Him! And believed! And was forever redeemed!
Paul? I shouldn’t even mention him. The list of his opportunities to abandon all hope is too lengthy. Imprisoned multiple times. Stoned and left for dead. Shipwrecked three times. In the sea for “a night and a day.”
How foolishly unbelieving we are. We don’t have the money to pay our mortgage. We just lost our job. Our little daughter has been diagnosed with a serious illness. A loved one we have witnessed to and prayed for seems absolutely hardened in sin and beyond reach. Fear, anger, dread, and despair come rushing to our house, banging at the door, breaking the windows, storming in and assaulting us. And we abandon all hope. Oh, we don’t put our doubts in such stark terms. But the reality is that we don’t trust the Lord; we don’t believe His Word. And I’m preaching to myself.
How we dishonor the Lord with our little faith. What causes our faith to flag? What is the reason for the abandonment of hope? Is it the fear that we will be thought to be naively optimistic if we maintain a confident spirit in the Lord? Is it the thought that we might be proven wrong if things really do go south? Is it the thought that others might think us naïve or unable to recognize reality if we don’t succumb to fear in the face of what appears to be an inevitable disaster? Whatever the specific reason, the general one is that we are looking at our circumstances rather than at the Lord. Without realizing it, we hold situations to be more powerful than God. We have taken our eyes off the Savior; we have forgotten the Scripture; we don’t believe the promises.
It is not naïve to believe God. It is not ignorant to trust in Him. It is not futile to trust in and claim His promises. Genuine faith is not a confidence that the pink slip I received is a mistake and that I’m really about to be promoted. Genuine faith is not the expectation that my diagnosis of a terminal illness was all just a misdiagnosis and that I’m going to recover quickly and fully. Genuine faith is the assurance that God is who He declares Himself to be and does what He promises to do. Genuine faith enables us to follow the example of the sons of Korah, who wrote: “Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God” (Psa. 42:11; see also 43:56).
We do not hope in circumstances or a change in circumstances. In fact, circumstances cease to be a factor when our confidence rests in God and when we trust His Word. Our hope, our trust, our confidence, our peace, our rest are all fixed and anchored in God. For the mature believer, circumstances are simply the stage on which God acts. Circumstances provide the opportunity for God to prove the faithfulness of His character and the truth of His Word. Like watching many dramas on TV, we may experience the action knowing that the star always wins in the end.
Abandon all hope? No, wait patiently on the Lord. He will bring to pass His perfect will. Abandon all hope? No, hope in God, who never fails, who always does only what is good, and right, and perfect. Circumstance is not a god to be trusted or feared. Circumstance has no power of its own. Circumstance is not a mindless force moving toward one inexorable disastrous conclusion. What the flesh sees as an axe wielded by a mighty executioner and smashing down on our outstretched necks is really the chisel of the Master Sculptor chipping away our extraneous sins and weaknesses to reveal the beauty of His finished work of art. Abandon all hope? “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Rom. 8:31).
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