Hope deferred is different than delayed gratification. Waiting for hours to try a delicious new hot pot restaurant on a snowy day isn’t what we’re talking about here.
It’s more like a child waiting for a parent who never shows up or an adult hoping for a relationship that never exists, or a couple longing for children who are never conceived.
It’s the person unjustly imprisoned and kept from freedom by delay after delay. Or the entrepreneur who puts all they have in a venture that increasingly feels like a sunk cost. Or the missionary laboring for decades with very little to show for it.
This is the stuff groans are made of.
As the saying goes:
Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.Proverbs 13:12 ESV
For Christians in particular, this Proverb maybe hard to swallow because we believe in a God who could cure our heartsickness. But God withholds our desires so often it can leave us feeling alienated, disillusioned, and embittered.
Godliness doesn’t automatically produce the outcomes we want. In fact, the Bible’s “hall of faith” passage explicitly says:
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.Hebrews 11:13 ESV
Saints in the past got to say “hello” to God’s promises, but knew they weren’t going to get them in this life. So Christians not only have to live with hope deferred, they have to live with hope deferred indefinitely.
Coping with the heartsickness
Without a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s tempting to give up hope. Unfortunately this produces self-sabotaging behaviors (aka sins).
For example, the allure of pornography is strongest when you feel hopeless about ever getting to enjoy a secure and intimate relationship with another human being. And caving to that pressure hinders the very thing you hoped for.
It’s also tempting to compromise and burn out trying to satisfy your desires (aka relying on the flesh).
So how do we cope with the heartsickness of indefinitely deferred hope? The Apostle Paul writes:
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.Romans 5:3-5 ESV
It’s not enough to remember God’s grace in the past or to be encouraged by a new creation future. We need something here and now when our unfulfilled desires are so painful we could burst.
And that is what the Holy Spirit provides: an ongoing outpouring of God’s love into our hearts.
It’s based on Christ’s death for us in the past and fulfilled in all the good God has promised in the future, but it’s something we experience in the present.
So we don’t misinterpret circumstances as a sign God doesn’t love us. We don’t drown in self-pity or the anxious fear of missing out. We don’t withdraw into resentful isolation or get consumed by angry outbursts.
God’s love is with us now.
Our heartsickness is relieved by an outpouring of love so thorough it washes out any doubts we had that everything is working together for our good.