In his book Arctic Dreams, naturalist Barry Lopez describes in chilling terms the craftiness of the arctic polar bear. He says that this great hunter of the far north probably uses more strategies than any other predator on earth to capture and kill its prey.
The polar bear has developed such a wide arsenal of hunting techniques that it has become very proficient at killing ringed seals. It may take half an hour in the water to approach a resting seal on an ice floe, surfacing silently to observe its prey and then submerging again. It may drift like a small, harmless iceberg to within striking distance, when it explodes from the water so suddenly and ferociously that the seal has no time to react. When it is stalking a seal on top of ice, it slithers along on its chest and forelegs, keeping its body low. It will build small mounds of snow to hide behind while it waits at the edge of a seal’s breathing hole. It can even surface in the seal’s covered den and catch it sleeping there. Or it can smell the den buried under the snow and crash into it so quickly the seal cannot escape.
It may seem that the ringed seal is completely helpless against its enemy. But there is hope. It has a number of strategies it uses to protect itself. While it rests close to its breathing hole, it looks up for six or eight seconds every 20 to 30 seconds. At the slightest sound, it slips quickly and silently into the water. Scientists have found that, for all its diabolical cleverness, the polar bear is successful in killing ringed seals only about 20 per cent of the time.
In the spiritual life, we face a predator so clever that, in our own strength, we can never expect to escape. There seems to be in the human heart an almost visceral awareness of what is right or wrong—of good or evil, if you like. Yet, despite that awareness, we continue to struggle against negative, selfish and strangely self-destructive impulses. For millennia people have attributed this evil to sinister spiritual forces—something beyond mere internal drives and natural impulses. And we can certainly see the misery caused by this irresistible malevolence in the world around us. The Bible likens the devil, aka Satan, to a terrifyingly cunning predator: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
“For all have sinned,” the apostle Paul wrote in the first century, “and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). And because “the wages of sin is death” (6:23), it seems we are hopelessly doomed to eternal destruction. When we get to feeling this way, Satan, that purveyor of evil and death, has us right where he wants us. Hopeless and believing we’re helpless.
But hope triumphs over despair. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us . . . a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” writes the apostle Peter (1 Peter 1:3), who deeply knew forgiveness after he’d betrayed his Teacher in a moment of weakness and fear. Because Jesus died in our place, there is no longer any need to fear death. Millions of Christians have pinned their hope on this powerful promise. And this isn’t just a “pie in the sky” kind of escape from the problems that threaten us here on earth. It brings many immediate benefits in our everyday lives.
Hope is a spiritual principle of living in which we can place our fullest confidence. There is not a human institution on this earth that is fail-proof. Human beings, after all, make mistakes. That is something we can count on. But in God “we have . . . an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (Psalm 6:19). An anchor promises security and stability when a ship is in troubled waters. In its use from ancient times as an anchor, a rock is a fitting symbol for our hope in Jesus, the Rock.
"By dying for us on the cross, Jesus has given us something to hope for, and faith projects that hope into certainty."
Through this Anchor, God offers security. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we can presumptuously dare to place ourselves deliberately and recklessly in harm’s way. But we can know with assurance that God will protect us in whatever way we are asked to serve Him.
And this kind of assurance helps to overcome anxiety. Just a cursory scan of the day’s headlines suggests that we have all kinds of things to worry about—war, disease, poverty, broken relationships. The more stressed we are, the more we find ourselves in a position to doubt the power of God to help us overcome our problems. “Why are you so downcast, O my soul?” asks King David, the Old Testament bard. “Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God” (Psalm 43:5).
By putting our lives in the hands of God, we are sure to be accepted by others who have done the same. It puts us in pretty good company. There isn’t a better—surer—formula for friendship on this earth than to become a friend of Jesus.
Sometimes it may seem as though we are giving up a lot to follow God. Friends and loved ones may not be able to understand our choice to place our hope in Christ. But instead, we are becoming brothers and sisters in the most loving family ever. We are entering a household whose doors are always open to us—even when we make mistakes.
By dying for us on the cross, Jesus has given us something to hope for, and faith projects that hope into certainty. This assurance is the best news of all; it can help us to face each day with courage.
“Faith is absolutely certain,” writes theologian William Barclay, “that what it believes is true and that what it expects will come. It is not the hope which looks forward with wistful longing; it is the hope which looks forward with utter conviction.”1
And, when you stop to think about it, for all the benefit that it has to offer us, hope doesn’t cost a thing. Poet Emily Dickinson compared it to a bird that sings through storm and gale: “I’ve heard it in the chillest land, / And on the strangest sea; / Yet, never, in extremity, / It asked a crumb of me.”
When she imagined in verse the “chillest land” and “strangest sea,” Dickinson surely envisioned a world beyond that of the arctic polar bear. But she expresses the sweet simplicity that hope represents as a gift from God. We have nothing to fear when our hope is in Jesus. He has never failed.
1. William Barclay, The Letter to the Hebrews (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976), p 128.