Hope or Hopium?

Hope or Hopium?

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The other day I was doing some research related to financial investment when I came across an author who dismissed a particularly speculative money-making opportunity as "hopium."

Now, I'd never seen that word before, and it kind of captured my imagination. (Turns out the word has been used quite a bit in both the political and investment worlds; I just hadn't encountered it before.) Hopium immediately implied to me a hope that wasn't grounded in something realistic or likely, but one that induced a fantasy high just thinking about what it promised — never mind that the promise imagined by hopium would most likely never come to pass.

I suspect the word got my attention because I think about hope a lot. Hope is one of the most important, albeit at times abstract, concepts that gives us a reason to keep going, to move forward. It may be a short-term hope — like looking forward to a good meal at the end of a long day of work, or a restful weekend after a hard week at the office. Or it may be a longer term hope, like finishing a degree or the prospect of finding satisfaction in marriage or a family. I know I spent many years thinking about the latter during my years as a single.

God has created us with an intrinsic desire to fulfill all sorts of legitimate longings, from rest to meaningful work to deep intimacy with other people (be it with close friends, a spouse or family). That said, I'm also aware that even legitimate, good things in life can morph into something like hopium if we're not paying attention. That happens when we live in such a way that the majority of our emotional attention is fixated on achieving or receiving something we want desperately, when we begin to believe that just having X — whatever X might be — would lead to ultimate, never-ending fulfillment in our lives.

Scripture has another word for this kind of unhealthy hope: an idol.

So how do we keep our legitimate hopes and dreams from becoming a lethal kind of spiritual drug that promises more than it can ever deliver?

I think it involves continually — as in, daily — taking our hearts' desires back to God and seeking, as best we can, to relinquish them. Relinquishment doesn't mean we talk ourselves out of wanting the stuff of this world. But I do think it means being honest about our desires and inviting God into them in prayer as we find our hearts quickened by the prospect of getting something we really want.

Personally, I wrestle with materialism — perhaps even more than I did when I was younger, which is a bit embarrassing to admit, actually. I don't know why, but I'm susceptible to the idea that certain things will somehow make me more happy, even though I know from experience that getting something I really want generally produces a slight and momentary "high," then wears off.

It is, in other words, hopium.

For me, trying to ensure my longings don't morph into hopium involves talking to God about them. If I hear that a friend has gotten a brand new car, then climb into my 1997 Subura Outback with 157,000 miles on it and feel discouraged by it, instead of fixating on how I, too, can obtain a newer ride, I need to pray in that moment. Perhaps something like, "Father, thank You for Your provision for me. Help me to keep what really matters in perspective and to trust You with my hopes, my needs and my desires."

It's a little thing to pray a prayer like that. But to the extent that I can make a habit of surrendering my hopes, needs and desires to God on a moment-by-moment, day-by-day basis, it shapes my character and helps me put my hope in Him, not the stuff of earth that so easily captivates my always fickle heart.

Back in 1997, when I was working as an associate editor for Discipleship Journal (a NavPress magazine that has since ceased publication), I wrote an article about Jeremiah titled "Hope Reborn." In it, I talked about why dealing with our hearts' desires are so important:

"Hope is crucial to the outcome of my life. It affects what I think and feel. It affects whether or not I am content or driven. It affects my perspective on and response to both success and suffering. It helps define my purposes in this life. It affects my ability to love God and to love others. My desires regarding the future guide my thoughts, my decision making, and my life today. Apart from a hope that transcends the day-to-day things I dream about having, doing or being, there is no release from the endless cycle of wanting more. My hopes are a road map to my destiny.… Only as I place my hope in God am I freed from this compulsive pursuit of the next thing that I think will satisfy my soul. Only as I place my hope in God is there peace in the midst of either tragedy or wild success. Jeremiah's message of hope, then, is not just for those experiencing disappointment. Hope anchored in God is just as vital in the midst of blessing as it is during loss. Both are equally capable of destroying me if I fail to respond to them properly. Such hope frees me from being tyrannized by fear of the future, and from idolatrous and impatient expectation of it."

It's been 16 years since I wrote those words, and I'm still working on internalizing and living them out. I want to hope in the right things, not be seduced by the world's many varieties of hopium. As I do that, as you do that, we become people whom God can use to offer others hope, too — real hope, not a counterfeit variety of it. The Apostle Paul put it this way in his prayer for the Romans near the end of that book: "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope" (Romans 15:13, ESV).

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  • --Funny how this article, which is about something extremely important, has no comments yet, while other less important things are debated to death in 30, 60, or 100 comments.

    "Hope anchored in God is just as vital in the midst of blessing as it is during loss." Yes. Somehow, I am more discouraged in times of blessing than loss. I've been told that's not unusual. I wonder why that is.

    Also, any ideas on counteracting the other (also sinful) extreme of rejecting good things because you know they can't satisfy what only God can satisfy?

  • --Morey Sol: I think it's because there's not a lot to add. Idolatry is Bad, God is good. It's relateable, but it's not neccessarily something that debate can add too. For me, the opposite extreme is avoided by enjoying the fruits you have labored for, working diligenty so that you can be excellent in all you do, accepting blessings when they come to you and being thankful to God for the opportunities he gives you. :)

  • --I think I know what this sort of "hopium" is. I have heard that feeling a spiritual "high" can be quite cathartic, but seeking one out is harmful behavior. Yes, even I sometimes wrestle with materialism, thinking about what sort of fan merchandise I should pick up at the record store or the comic book store just to prove that I am a fan of a particular fantasy franchise. But all in all, it's just a fictional work. In the end, it's not that important.

  • --"For me, trying to ensure my longings don't morph into hopium involves talking to God about them."  That should be in bold.  

    Excellent post.

  • --Hope can also be just hopium when we do nothing to make those wishes, wants, dreams a reality.  

    Pr 13:4 The soul of the sluggard desireth, and hath nothing: but the soul of the diligent shall be made fat.

  • --We can hope and wish for something and yet not be willing to do what it takes to achieve it.  For instance: I had always wanted to swim but never learned... until I decided to take lessons and push myself to practice. Only then could I swim.

    The opposite side of "Hopium" is idolizing, or putting up on a pedestal, the very things we want.  Only God can save us from that pitfall. And I think He works against us, meaning God frustrates our plans, when we idolize anything more than Him.  I've seen that happen in my life and close friends.  

    But God is good to show mercy and help us grow and nurture healthy dreaming and healthy pursuits.

    Thank you for this post Adam.  God bless.

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