There is one factor that can make a counselor sigh in relief when a client describes its presence. There is one factor that can cause internal warning sirens to blare when a counselor hears of its absence. This one piece can be the difference between life and death: hope.
When people go through difficult circumstances, counseling can help. We walk through coping skills, build a support system, battle unhelpful thinking styles, heal past trauma, and learn to feel and tolerate emotions. However, I’ve noticed that people without hope struggle to work on anything. They are less likely to try something different, and I get it. What is the point of change if there is no hope? A sense of hopelessness is one of the strongest predictors of suicide. Hopelessness does not just say my circumstances are difficult. Hopelessness does not merely tell me that my circumstances will never improve. Hopelessness declares that there is no point or purpose to my life, to my suffering, to my existence.
One major emotion that I see lurking behind hopelessness is fear. When we have been disappointed, it becomes terrifying to dare to hope. What if my hopes are disappointed? Scripture validates this when it says that deferred hopes make a heart sick (Prov. 13:12). It is painful to hope for something to happen, only to discover that it will never happen or even that it will not happen in my preferred timing.
Hope infers an object of hope. In counseling, many people come in hoping for a counselor to magically cure their pain. That hope will be disappointed. We have all known people who placed their hope in their job, their spouse, their children. None of these are bad things, but none of them can bear the weight of our hope. In counseling, even placing hope in feelings changing is a dangerous game. The anxiety may return. You may again face painful, overwhelming circumstances. Your marriage may not become what you wanted it to be. If your hope is in a happy life with no suffering, then your hope will be disappointed because the purpose of life is not lack of suffering. Hope placed in circumstances is not a hope that can sustain.
Enter Christ. The gospel is such good news. Romans 5 talks about the hope that we all need. “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” (Rom. 5:1-5). The passage goes on to describe the evidence of God’s love, which is Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross. Hope in Christ is the only sustainable hope. It’s not about lack of suffering. In fact, scripture says that we can have great hope even through our sufferings. This is not a hope based on pleasant circumstances, but rather an unwavering hope that we are loved by God and have been redeemed by him and exist to glorify him. That hope gives each life purpose and meaning. Through redemption, we belong to God. We have been chosen. We also belong to a family- the church. Each life has purpose because it is lived to the glory of God. We can love God and love other people even if circumstances are difficult. We don’t have to feel happy all the time. We can be overwhelmed. Joy can exist alongside painful emotions like anger and sadness and rejection. Even in the midst of painful emotions and experiences, God will never be a disappointment.
If you are struggling to find hope, I would first encourage you to consider the object of your hope. If you are hoping in your own abilities or you are hoping for your circumstances to change, then you may indeed be disappointed. But if you are hoping in Christ, then your hope is secure. Your life has meaning and purpose. You are loved, and you belong. When faced with depression, anxiety, parenting struggles, trauma, you can continue to hope in Christ since none of those things can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:38-39). Ultimately, we look forward to the day when Christ will return, making all things new. Our hope will be fully realized. Believe these foundational truths. Then, I would encourage you to take steps that may seem scary, knowing that your hope will forever be secure. You have security in the love of God. Let that give you boldness to implement healthy changes, to change your thought patterns, to seek counseling for that trauma that you have experienced, to try a new behavior. Hope in Christ, then take action to live a life that testifies to the hope you have.