There’s not a lot making Americans hopeful these days. More than half of the country told pollsters last year that they were “extremely worried” about the direction of the country. One in 4 said that “nothing made them hopeful.” Their anxieties: politics, the pandemic, and inflation.
This year, existing worries have likely been compounded by fears and anger over mass shootings, the war in Ukraine, sex abuse scandal cover-ups by church leaders, a massive drought on the Southwest side of the country, climate change inaction, spiking fentanyl deaths, and an explosion in homelessness.
In the midst of this, why should Christians hope?
Carmen Joy Imes is associate professor of Old Testament at Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology. She previously joined the show to nerd out about the Bible in light of Donald Trump getting COVID-19 and controversy over the San Francisco school board seeking to drop the names of well-known Americans from their schools.
Imes joined global media manager Morgan Lee to discuss what it looks like to practice hope in the midst of despair and how we move past Christian platitudes and flimsy one-liners to a robust faith in something greater than our present circumstances.
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Music by Sweeps
Quick to Listen is produced Morgan Lee and Matt Linder
The transcript is edited by Faith Ndlovu
Highlights from the Quick to Listen Finale
Let's just start by having a frank conversation about what is going on right now. Carmen, as either someone who lives and works in the United States or you specifically, as a college professor in SoCal, what is making your situation feel overwhelming right now?
Carmen Joy Imes: I didn't have to think very long about this one. A lot is overwhelming right now. Personally, since the start of the pandemic, our family has been through so much hard stuff, and so many broken relationships. We're still dealing with the aftermath of all that. This past week we celebrated Thanksgiving for the first time since my parents' divorce after 46 years of marriage. We had our first in-person two-step Thanksgiving, which I know a lot of people in the world are very used to. But I grew up in a stable Christian home in which my parents were married to each other, so this is new territory for me personally. There are lots of other hard things in our family that we've had to navigate over the past couple of years.
But then when I look more broadly, I see that here in Los Angeles County, inflation is rampant. It's unbelievable how high the taxes are, and how fast the prices are going up and I'm seeing that stress and strain in those around me who are having trouble finding housing, having trouble paying for groceries, and struggling in lots of ways.
I see record levels of anxiety in my students. My students are resilient, they tend to be cheerful, but I can see the strain of carrying all that they're having to carry. There seems like there are even more family crises on so many different levels, health, relational and other emergencies and so I think this is a good time to talk about where we can find hope.
Morgan Lee: Yes, it's, it's very desperately needed.
When you saw this particular discussion matter that we have today, was there any biblical passage or character that you thought is something that we need to pay attention to at this moment that will help us as we're struggling with despair, depression, and hopelessness?
Carmen Joy Imes: This might feel ironic, but the person who came to mind first was Job in the Old Testament because he is in the darkest season of his life. He's gone through so much loss, and yet we don't see him silenced or despairing. If he was experiencing complete despair, then we wouldn't have anything from him in scripture. What we do have is a very robust and angsty conversation with God and with his friends about how he got into this predicament. What I think is so helpful about Job is that at the end of this lengthy conversation in which Job is yelling into what feels like a void and wondering whether God will answer, we have God affirming that his angsty prayers were good and that Job has spoken rightly. One of my recent aha moments with Job is as I was rereading Richard Middleton's book called Abraham's Silence. The subtitle of his book is The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God.
One of the insights that Middleton brings out in his book is that when God finally speaks at the end of the book, He spends a long time talking about these wild creatures, Behemoth and Leviathan. People have come to this text and have read it as sort of God putting Job in his place and saying, “look, I've got wild creatures that I'm in charge of who do you think you are to talk to Me like this?” But Middleton shows that these wild and maybe even mythical creatures that God talks about are the most like Job in all of creation. These untamed creatures are being held up as an example of God's good creation.
Using similar terms to how God would describe Job in his being untamed in his speech. Middleton argues that God is affirming Job and that He's inviting us to bring our honest and unvarnished prayers of desperation to Him. So, I think in a world where everywhere we look, some things are falling apart, what we most desperately need is permission to pray honestly, because I don't think that we are ever going to find hope by just trying to paste a smile on our faces and cheer things up a bit. I think we're gonna only get there through brutal honesty and through naming what's wrong in the world, naming what's broken, and doing that in the presence of God.
If we say it to God, that's not despair because we speak in trust that there is a God who's listening and that He is both good enough to do something about this and powerful enough to do something about this. Otherwise, why would we bother praying?
Is there a particular prayer that Job prays that you would wanna read a couple of lines of?
Carmen Joy Imes: The chapter that comes to my mind is Job 3, which is probably the darkest chapter in the Bible and the reason that I bring it up is that I had an opportunity one time to interview a couple; Kevin and Julia Garrett, who had been imprisoned in China and tortured over many months. After a while, they were able to each get a copy of the Bible brought to them. So, I thought, Wouldn't it be wonderful to find out what their most treasured bible passage was in their darkest days? Julia said it was Job 3 and I was so surprised because we would expect maybe Psalm 23 or something more cheerful. But Job 3 is one in which Job opens his mouth and curses the day of his birth. “May the day of my birth perish, and the night that said, ‘A boy is conceived!’ That day—may it turn to darkness;
may God above not care about it; may no light shine on it. May gloom and utter darkness claim it once more; may a cloud settle over it; may blackness overwhelm it” (Job 3:3-5).
Again, the reason why I think they found hope in this chapter and why I find hope in it is because it acknowledges that some seasons of life are so dark and feel so hopeless. Job says he would rather he was never born because life is so hard and that rather than condemning or canceling out Job's voice, it gets preserved for us in sacred scripture.
Somebody could say this is just reporting what he said. It's not affirming it. But if we look at the psalms, Psalm 88 sounds very similar. It's also a psalm that ends in darkness where the psalmist is just utterly despondent and yet prays.
Both of these prayers remind me that it's okay to bring our darkness and struggle to God. We don't have to try to talk ourselves into putting a more positive spin on things. There are days to rejoice and days to celebrate, but we don't get there by pretending things aren't hard right now.
When you say the word positive spin, some people would look at the word hope and say that is a four-letter word for a positive spin on a horrible situation. How are you defining hope?
Carmen Joy Imes: I would say hope is the confident conviction that this is not how it will always be, that this is not all there is. Hope in and of itself is not varnishing today by trying to put a positive spin on today, it's saying there's more than today, there's tomorrow and the next day and I trust that things will not always be this bad. Real hope allows us to be honest about the struggle but in that honesty to recognize that it's not the last word.
How does it look like then to practice hope? What does that mean? Or is it a mental exercise or an emotional exercise that we're doing?
Carmen Joy Imes: Some of it is an emotional exercise. I think practically, one thing that's been helpful to me lately is looking back and remembering. When that sick feeling comes over you, that knot in your stomach or that moment where you feel you can't sleep because your mind is going round and round over some problem that you can't unravel, think about When have I felt this before? That's where I've been even over this past week when I felt this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. As I asked that question hope flooded in because I can remember other seasons of life that felt hopeless, that I thought I was coming to the end of something that I treasured, the end of life as I knew it and when I look back now I can see how God redeemed those really difficult circumstances and how I'm in a much better place now in some areas of my life. So, the things that I thought were dying didn't die. God brought new hope and new life into those areas of my life. So, to me, just stopping to say, when have I felt this way before and looking back can then remind you of God's faithfulness.
Practically, cultivating a community where we can be real with other people is also essential because, on my darkest day, I might need somebody else to carry the light for me. We usually are not all in the same dark place at the same time, the same sense of hopelessness. I guess our hope ebbs and flows. So, when we're together, we can borrow hope from other people. They might be able to cling to the truth that God is making all things new even when we have forgotten that temporarily.
What would it look like for us to characterize a church or a group of Christians or a family, any type of thing where we're amidst a group of people and for us to be described as hopeful?
Carmen Joy Imes: I think one sign of a hopeful community is when we're not turned in on ourselves, but we're reaching out to each other and even beyond our community. It seems to me like the ultimate hopelessness is when you're completely self-absorbed and don't have any energy to reach out. So, if we cultivate communities where we're not just thinking of ourselves, but we're anticipating the needs of those around us, I think that is so encouraging.
I had a tough week at a conference a couple of weeks ago, and in the moments when I was despairing, other people were sending me notes saying, “Carmen, thank you for all you've done. Thank you for all your work.” It's made such a difference and I was in a space where I wasn't sure anymore if I had made any difference or if there was any hope in that particular space. Other people were able to see my discouragement and reach out and encourage me, and they could have just walled in their discouragement, but they didn't. That was empowering to me. It at least gave me the strength to keep going on.
That reaching out to others I think cultivates hope because when you're out of your strength and you're not sure how to do the next thing, recognizing it isn't all about me, we're in this together, can lift that sense of heaviness.
We've moved between both big external events that are happening in the world and ones that are immediately affecting us and our situations. If we pivot again to talking about the things in the news, so to speak, are there particular ways that that type of catastrophe or disaster, or horror ends up affecting us and hitting us differently than the stuff that we are experiencing on a very intimate and personal level?
Carmen Joy Imes: Yes, I think the news definitely hits us and it hits us differently in different seasons; depending on how big our emotional reserves are when we see a headline, depending on how close it is to home, either demographically or geographically. I can remember being in my senior year of college in Oregon when the shooting happened at Columbine High School in Colorado. I'm from Denver and Columbine was just a few miles from my neighborhood growing up. So even though I didn't attend that school and I didn't know anyone who was killed, I carried that trauma. I was glued to the news, my parents were sending me newspaper clippings and we were talking on the phone and processing it all because it felt close to home, even though I was far away when it happened.
So, I think depending on our individual experiences and our network, we can be more or less affected by events. It's good for us to pay attention to whether we have the emotional bandwidth to enter into every news story. There may be a time when to totally get absorbed in the news would make it impossible for you to love the people around you well and to take care of yourself well. I think we can go in and out of seasons of being more engaged with the news and less engaged. Ultimately, we're called to be faithful to what God is calling us to do on a given day. There's no one size fits for how much you should be following the news. I think it depends.
Morgan Lee: Yeah, I feel like that one's extremely hard because, first of all, it begs the question, what is the news?
I hear a lot of people who get news from their social media platforms, and if that's true for you, then most likely you are consuming personal updates and global headlines in the same minute or even second and definitely on the same screen and so where exactly something becomes news or not is not immediately clear. Not to mention that the person who is delivering that news could be someone you've never met, someone that you have a connection with online and does not necessarily factor into your real life, quote-unquote, but still plays an important role in the life that you have on the internet. It could be someone that you don't talk to regularly but have known. There are all these different ways that, depending on who the messenger is, there's a different level of connection.
There'll be times when someone you have a decently deep connection with shares something from a different part of the world that's hitting them very closely. So, it's hard to just say keeping up with current events is exhausting and fatigues my mental health, and I can't pay attention to that at all. And I think that most people who listen to the podcast are people who like following the news. So that becomes relatively challenging. Conversely, I do notice that in general, people who tend to be following every single thing that happens do not seem to be more present.
I know for myself, we saw two high-profile mass shootings happen in the last 10 days, and that really weighed extremely heavily on me, and I still feel very upset about that in many ways. I don't know anyone that died in these mass shootings, aside from the fact that they happened in a country that I live in, and I know some people in Colorado Springs.
You look at that and question what your options are. This sucks and is painful for me to have to sit here and read these headlines and feel once again, because of course, as you know, another thing that happens in these situations is that we don't just experience them as isolated events. We experience the whole weight of the fact that they have not stopped and been resolved and gotten better and we start to spiral.
So the news consumption and so forth to me seems particularly vexing and I do wonder if there's anything we can go back to scripture here to talk about our news consumption because I do find that to be someplace where I am just at a loss and it's one significant way that our world has fundamentally changed even in the past 10 years. The fact that we can lie in bed, barely awake, and be reading traumatizing headlines and watching difficult-to-watch videos from anywhere in the world.
Carmen Joy Imes: This is such a different world than when I was a child, and I think that as we're increasingly globally interconnected, it's also harder to separate yourself from the news. I remember in 2020 even before the pandemic hit there was a volcano in the Philippines that erupted and we used to live in the Philippines, so we were watching that. We were riveted to the news because we had been on that volcano, and we had friends who were having ash fall in their yards. So, we were watching that kind of with deep concern and then wildfires in Australia, and I was thinking about my friends in Australia. The pandemic then hit and then there were wildfires in Oregon that came within miles of the home that we had once lived in. It just felt like one thing after another. It was so difficult to process, and it would be one thing if it was just a headline of something far away, but things don't feel far away anymore because we know people all over the place. That's a challenge and although we go through seasons of needing to pull back from the news just for our sanity, and focus on our daily routines, I think there's something to be said for being aware of news headlines that affect the people in our lives that we know and love, recognizing the global interconnectedness. This is something I'd like to get better at because I have students here at Biola University who are from all around the world and all over the United States.
When there's a major crisis like flooding or fires or political unrest, it's a good idea for me to be aware of that and to make the connection that there are students in my class today whose families might be in danger of flooding or something, even though we're fine here in sunny Southern California and to be able to acknowledge that and just reach out to them with some kind of comfort. I think that comes back to this idea of practicing hope as a community. If I'm only wrapped up in my little world and everything in my world, then I don’t have the capacity to can't acknowledge and recognize when those around me are struggling. So that's something for us to think about.
So, we've been in situations before where someone is feeling very overwhelmed or in the midst of despair about a particular thing that's going on. I can think of a lot of my relatives, for instance, who have felt a lot of this when it comes to the elections in the past couple of years. There tends to be this very strong sense of fatalism and also the sense that at least in these situations, America's on the brink and you can tell that people are quite shaken about this reality, so they come to me. How are we to respond well as Christians? Part of supporting this person and being there for this person is listening well, it's empathizing, and it's hard because I'm giving examples of people who maybe are Christians and maybe are not.
I just don't know where you might see it as our place to try to practice hope or being hopeful in a situation without going back to these trite Christian platitudes.
Carmen Joy Imes: Yeah. For me, what has been helpful is to recognize that God invites our honest lament, and when I recognize that, then it relieves me of the pressure of trying to fix somebody's difficulties by getting them to the place where they can put a positive spin on it, but actually can just provide space instead for them to be honest with God about the struggle.
When somebody comes to me who's really struggling, if I can be a non-judgemental and non-anxious presence with them and just give them the space, they need to be honest, the practice of being honest with me can then help them take on the posture of being honest with God. If I can remind them in that conversation that God wants to hear this too, and that they can say what they've just said to me to God, that's been liberating for some of my students who've come to me angry or despairing or struggling.
I think there's a place to remind people of the truth, but I don't need it to be my goal for them to be smiling as they walk out the door of my office. I'm even thinking of somebody who came to me recently, with a crisis in which her grandmother was dying and she was wrestling with, how could God allow this to happen. But as she talked about how much she loved her grandmother and how much her grandmother loved her family and poured into her family and how she was the rock of the whole family, I just felt such joy for her, that you have a family that's all gathering around your grandmother and that you have such a rich legacy to remember together. Nobody lives forever, at some point we all die and then we'll have a resurrection to look forward to. But God doesn't keep all people alive all the time. People have been dying since the beginning of time. So, this might be your grandma's time to die, but what a gift that you have had such a beautiful relationship with her. You have all of these happy memories to cherish together and that doesn't erase how hard it is. But I think she was feeling like it was a personal affront like God was being somehow cruel by taking away her grandmother. I just saw such a gift of these last months with her grandmother filled with happy family memory memories and even that ache of grief is like sweet grief because it's remembering someone you loved and who loved you well, rather than the more complicated kinds of grief when we lose someone with whom we were estranged or they were abusive or something, and so then it's more complicated.
So, in that case, I was able to express to her what a gift her grandmother's long dying was, that they would be able to have this family time together, and I think that helped her to turn it around and see it from a different angle.
As you mentioned several times already, you're in this position where you are having a lot of interactions with Gen Z, the youngest generation, and one of the characteristics that I think many of us who are not part of this generation tend to think of when we think of this generation is struggling with a lot of anxiety, and I think that there's been strong feelings about that from millennials and also boomers and Gen Xers about whether we need to tough love it out of these young people.
One of the things that I've seen a lot of and would probably resonate in your university experiences, is professors potentially feeling pressure to give mental health days, or otherwise accommodate some of the mental health challenges that their Gen Z students say that they're struggling with.
I'm wondering if you can give some of us who are not part of Gen Z advice for supporting this generation and what you've learned working with them over the years.
Carmen Joy Imes: I am figuring it out as I go along. I'm seeing a spike in anxiety. I try to be a compassionate, non-anxious presence for my students. One of the ways that I do that is by showing up to class early, like 30 minutes before class starts. I get there and start getting all set up, especially for my larger classes, so that as they're coming in the room, I can be more present for them and not flustered getting all my things plugged in and all the things started and getting my stuff organized.
So being able to invite them into a space where there's calm instead of frenzy. That's one thing I do. I also play music as they're walking into the classroom and students love it. I choose music that goes with the theme of the day and some of them come in and they're trying to figure out which movie score is this and how it relates to the book of Esther or the book of Psalms or whatever book we're on.
So that's been one small thing to do. It is tricky to try to discern and sort through all the myriad emails that I get from students saying, “for this, or this reason, I didn't get the quiz done on time, or I didn't get the reading done in time. Can I still do it?” I find that part of my job to be quite exhausting, this kind of constant discernment of whether that is a valid excuse or not?
So, one thing that I'm trying to do is shift the way my classes are set up so that I have fewer decisions like that to make. So, students who are loving their extended family well and that's why they missed something because they were driving their mom to her surgery or they were sitting beside their grandmother as she was dying or whatever, recognizing that they made a good choice to be there for their family. What's it gonna cost me personally to open that quiz? Five minutes and so airing on the side of generosity with things like that.
Morgan Lee: Yeah. The decision fatigue that you're mentioning feels like it's one of the things that challenges all of us on this end. And yet, trying to figure out how to best be there and support people who are going through myriad things that may not feel as quote-unquote real to us, but are quite real to the people there seems like another thing we have to learn how to navigate well.
Carmen Joy Imes: I think time will tell how much the pandemic has shifted and shaped the way the next generation engages with life. And what sorts of accommodations that we've made for the pandemic are here to stay, and in which areas will we bounce back to how things used to be?
I'm not sure about that yet. One of my friends told me recently, we make policies so that we don't have to make decisions. So I'm in a zone where I'm trying to figure out how can I create policies that will take the weight of decision-making off of me, but the policies themselves are trauma-informed, consistent with what the learning centre on campus would want for our students, because the more I can shape the course from the beginning to recognize that life happens, the fewer exceptions I'll have to make in the end.
So, to take that principle of policies, when I think of policies in the church, I often think of spiritual disciplines or practices that we practice and continue to practice even when our external circumstances may feel like they're at odds with that particular practice. You've mentioned here prayer and how prayer may look different in a particular season when we're feeling overwhelmed by despair or feeling hopelessness. But this sense of we're gonna continue to pray and for people who are in a liturgical church setting, there may be very consistent readings that they're doing that exist outside of whatever else is happening in the world. Are there any other hope rhythms that you might suggest that we adopt as part of our Christian faith?
Carmen Joy Imes: You mentioned liturgical churches incorporating intentional prayer. I think that something every Christian can do is to incorporate praying the Psalms into their daily rhythm. The Psalms give us the whole range of human emotions and responses to what's going on in the world and some of my most despairing moments, I have found such solace in the Psalms because I recognized and discovered there that I was not the only one who felt this strongly about hard things. I was not the only one who's been through this before. So I think praying the Psalms can not only give us words to express the whole range of things we're experiencing, but they also help create the bandwidth for receiving other people's experiences.
So maybe you don't feel like you have an enemy that you need to pray imprecatory Psalms about. But there are people in your life who do, and by familiarizing ourselves with the whole range of ways of praying honestly, what I hope is that we expand the possibilities of what we can receive from other people and reduce our need to fix or change them. We can allow them to express themselves honestly because we recognize that's allowed. God invites this. We don't have to try to talk them out of how they're feeling.
Morgan Lee: I'll add one thing, which is that I think singing is also very important as well. We can take the words that we might have and elevate them with regards to the majesty we may want to communicate at the moment or the misery and just give us a depth of feeling that sometimes our words are not able to communicate. So, I find songs can be extremely powerful in that sense.
Carmen Joy Imes: Yes, and the thing about singing together is that when all our voices are raised together. It gives us a sense of solidarity and the sense that I'm not alone. These are things we believe and we're leaning into as a community.
So, Carmen, to wrap up, I want to go back to a question that I asked in the introduction, which is, why should we hope? I know that you're not gonna be able to recite a whole book from memory to discuss this, but given everything that we're suffering with and aware of right now, why should we as Christians in this context, hope?
Carmen Joy Imes: I think we should hope because our faith is rooted not in our emotional life or our optimism, but it's rooted in the character of a God who has created this world good and who has promised to renew all things and restore all things. On any given day life may look bleak but if we believe that the scriptures teach that God is determined to renew all things, that Christ's resurrection from the dead is the first fruit of all of our resurrections from the dead, that this is not all there is, that there's the best is yet to come, it takes the pressure off me trying to drum up optimism or me trying to feel a certain way today because our hope does not depend on how optimistic we feel. Our hope is grounded in someone and something other than ourselves and someone in something other than the circumstances that surround us. So that's what keeps me going and as I read the scriptures, they remind me that God's been faithful to previous generations and that He's promised to make all things new. So that's where I'm sticking my claim.
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts about hope with us and for rooting them back into scripture. Really appreciate it.