I was three years old the first time I fell backwards off a cliff. There’s a moment in the transition from vertical to horizontal where your body panics. All the balance systems in your brain fire off warning signals and every muscle spasms in an attempt to stay upright.
For a moment you float in the air.
Then the ropes go taught, the harness around your waist cinches tight, and gravity drives your feet into the cliffside. If you’re lucky, your brain will adjust and you can walk backwards down the mountainside with ease.
But if you’re not lucky—if panicked muscles succeed in keeping you vertical—you’ll find the rockface welcoming your nose.
Rappelling is counterintuitive. Everything about the physics of walking on a vertical cliff contradicts what we’ve learned about human locomotion. From the first year of our lives we stand upright, face forward, and put one foot in front of the next. We keep our eyes fixed on the horizon and march steadily toward our goals.
But none of that matters when you’re at the edge of a one-hundred-and-fifty-foot cliff. You have to unlearn movement. You have to put your back to the future and fall. And it’s the only hope you have for reaching the bottom unscathed.
Hope is like that—at least the Bible’s presentation of hope. It’s counterintuitive. It rubs against everything we’re told about successful living—especially in the West. After all, the people who pioneered the empty plains of Kansas and the empty black of space are always looking for what’s over the next horizon. Forward and upward—faces turned to the rising sun of the future.
But what if I told you that, if you want to really understand biblical hope, you have to put your back to the future?
Getting Hope Backwards
During Advent season, the idea of hope rolls around the mouths of preachers and teachers all over the country. They’ll say hope’s not optimism or a wish—it’s a confident assurance of a future event. There’s nothing exactly wrong with that statement. It’s the putting it into practice that’s more difficult.
How do you tell the family that’s facing deportation to hope in the future promises of God? How do you tell the woman staring at the word “tumor” on her mammogram results to hope for the best? How do you tell the man whose wife’s left him that his hope lies in some yet-to-come divine reality?
You can try. But you’ll most likely be met with a polite half-smile and a never hear from that person again. The promises of God are certainly for the future. A glorious day does exist somewhere down the timeline—a golden “x” marked on a calendar years or decades or centuries from now.
For all the good intentions or “right” theology, a future hope expressed in nebulous truisms does little to actually help the people who need hope the most. Our Western way of understanding progress through time complicates the matter—it deprives hope of its sure foundation.
I’ll tell you why.
An Ancient View of Hope
Throughout the history of Israel God told his people to remember—remember and never forget his past actions. Every holiday or festival or ritual was bizarre on purpose. Waving a giant lemon at the four walls of a cardboard shack doesn’t usually qualify as normal in everyday life.
But God designed the ritual habits of his people as ways of sparking their memory. In fact, Yahweh goes so far as to say, “When your kids ask, ‘Dad, why are we waving palm fronds and lemons at the wall?’ you can answer…”
Embedded in the rhythms of life of the Hebrew people was an iron-strong understanding of hope. But it didn’t stop there. A backwards-to-the-future vision hope courses through the very language of Israel.
On the timeline of life, they faced a different direction.
In the Western mind, we move along our timelines facing toward the future. Everything that’s yet to happen lies ahead of us—we’re looking forward to it with eyes lifted toward the horizon. It’s why we built the transcontinental railroad and launched ourselves toward a rock in space.
But the Hebrews didn’t think that way about time. They faced the opposite direction we do. Rather than look toward the future, the ancient Israelite conception of time looked backward toward the past. And it comes out in the very Hebrew words for the past and the future.
The first word in the Bible is “beginning.” It comes from the root that gives us the word “head” or “new.” It would makes sense that the beginning be the “new” thing, but it’d be easy to jump over the significance of the word “head.”
A thing’s head is always the most important part. Everything flows from it—life, direction, purpose. The head governs the rest of the body. So too in the Hebrew mind. On the timeline of life, the head directs what will come after. What’s primary isn’t what’s to come in the future, but the beginning from where that future flows.
At the risk of sounding crass, the counterpart to the Hebrew word for “beginning” simply means “backside.” In the Hebrew mind the future was anything that came after. It’s what was behind you. Which makes sense, really, if the beginning of anything is the head.
Ancient Hebrews faced the wrong way on the timeline. Like a rappeler, they backed off the cliff into the unknown looking not to their destination which lay behind them, but to sure hope of the ropes that held them up. Only by facing backwards could they have one-hundred-percent confidence that they would arrive safely at the promised future.
Maybe today we’d benefit more from the concept of hope if we turned ourselves around on our timeline. Instead of pointing always to some nebulous promise in the future, what if we insisted on reminding ourselves of the actions of God in the past? Come what may, what matters is a constant focus on the truth of the past. The future will take care of itself.
This season of Advent begins with the word hope. Hope is the head from which everything else flows. It’s easy to think of it as anticipation building for the coming of Jesus in Bethlehem. But that event is in the past. Jesus came. Rather than anticipation for a future event, the hope of Advent really reminds of what has already happened. And that past event anchors our hope as we move forward toward Jesus’s return.
This Christmas, if your world is crumbling around you, keep your eyes on the manger—because the baby in Bethlehem is the rope who keeps you safe. You don’t have to face the future. You can keep your back to it.
Instead, fix your eyes on what Yahweh has done. Tell the stories to yourself. Your family. Your children. Let them be the sure anchor for your hope. And let the God who’s tied you into his promises like the rope over a cliffside deliver you safely home.
Photo by Benjaminrobyn Jespersen.
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