Looking at the Past from a Position of Hope
As Christians, we all seek to become better and draw closer to God. The paradox, of course, is that none of us are, or ever will in this life, be perfect. And yet each year, with so many others, we make resolutions and goals. We set our aspirations high, and with great hope for the future, we work hard to get a little closer to perfection. Soon enough, we inevitably come to the realization that we have fallen short. We have not done what we set out to do. We have not improved in all the ways we wanted. Improvement, nevermind perfection, seems out of reach.
I am reminded of Emily Dickinson’s poem Number 314, which seems to capture an intangible truth. By comparing hope to a bird, Dickinson reveals that ineffable lightness of feeling hope gives. Hope, at its best, feels like you’ve just taken flight, that you have the power to lift yourself above the messiness of past failures, that there is a beautiful dawn coming—all you have to do is spread your wings and fly into it.
Hope, precisely because it is the thing with feathers—flying, lifting, soaring—tends to be forward looking. Eyeing the future and all the possibilities that lie ahead is the domain of one filled with hope. But what about viewing the past with hope? This feels like such a generous thing to do.
Viewed with hope, the missteps and omissions of the past are a necessary part of a building a better future. Mistakes are the unavoidable stumbling and halting steps of the spiritual toddler, staggering and teetering until steps turn to walking and then running. This idea of viewing the past with hope has anchored me and positioned me more positively going forward in 2018.
One of my 2017 goals was: “Develop More Gratitude: a) write in a gratitude journal once a week; b) write a thank you note once a week on Sunday.”
And here’s the thing: I failed. Abysmally, really. I think I wrote three thank you notes and kept a gratitude journal with exactly one entry—I wasn’t even close.
Normally, this fact might feel like a heavy, discouraging weight. Just another reminder of all the ways that I am not measuring up. But reviewing this past year’s goals with Emily Dickinson's “The Thing with Feathers” in my mind has given me a new perspective. Instead of seeing my past failures, I have looked for the hope.
No, I did not keep a gratitude journal nor even come close to writing as many thank you notes as I should have. But wanting to develop more gratitude in and of itself made me more of aware of people expressing gratitude around me. Because gratitude was a goal, I was mindful of the gratitude people expressed to me and I recognized their efforts as the true gifts of time and attention that they were. I felt myself drawn to people who regularly expressed gratitude. I listened carefully to hear the unique and creative ways they did it, so that I could emulate them. Being more conscious of gratitude gave me hope that I could cultivate this trait, not to simply check it off my resolution to-do list, but to actually internalize the virtue of gratitude. And that feels like progress.
Reviewing last year’s resolutions, I have found even though I failed in some ways to accomplish the specifics of my goals, those failures helped fuel a desire to do more than just check off a to-do list. The thing I really wanted was to become a grateful person. Far from tossing this aspiration aside and changing course, viewing my past with hope has emboldened me to make gratitude again a goal for 2018 and given me the hope that that goal is within reach—eventually.
Jeffrey R. Holland expanded on this idea in his 2017 address entitled: “Be Ye Perfect—Eventually.” With wisdom and insight, he expressed what ultimately makes looking forward or backward with hope even possible:
“Our only hope for true perfection is in receiving it as a gift from heaven—we can’t “earn” it. Thus, the grace of Christ offers us not only salvation from sorrow and sin and death but also salvation from our own persistent self-criticism.”
In the final analysis, all of our hopes for improvement must be anchored in Christ. Through acts of sheer willpower, we can change our habits, but it is only through Christ’s atonement that we can truly be changed. In Him, we have the hope that, one day, we can not only improve, but become perfect. He gives both our new hopes and old ones new wings. Perhaps especially when we look back at our shortcomings and failures, we need to hear the hopeful “tune without the words,” reminding us that there is more than just our mortal efforts at work. There is something better within reach. Ultimately, it is our hope in Christ that truly allows us to soar.
edited by Becca Robison
Lana is interested in exploring topics of faith. She is an avid outdoor enthusiast and feels a great connection to God when enjoying the natural world. A writer, runner, wife, and of mother of four children, she is learning everyday how to be more grateful. You can connect with Lana on Instagram @lanarbailey.