Posted by: Philip Rushton | April 7, 2010

Hope, Presumption or Despair: How do we shape the narrative of our lives?

I recently finished reading a book by Alan Jacobs titled, Looking Before and After: Testimony and the Christian Life.

The purpose of Jacob’s book is to examine how we tell personal narratives. He suggests that there are two extremes we ought to avoid. On the one hand we should not shape the stories of our lives on the ground of presumption. By this he means we should not presume to know exactly what is going to happen as we look forward. As authors of our personal story we need to be leery of finalizing God’s plan before it has actually happened.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a first year bible college student who said that God had called him to start a seminary in the midwest of the US. While God may have been planting this vision for his life, there was a strong sense of presumption in the way this student was looking forward. It was as if he already had his life story finalized. This brings to mind the text James 4:13-16 where it warns against those who say “today or tomorrow we will to such and such a city and spend a year there and engage in business.” The text goes on to say that we should not presume to know what tomorrow brings. Instead we ought to say “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.”

The problem with presumption is that it does not leave us open to what God is calling us to. It is also a theory of personal narrative that can not withstand set-backs very well. This is something I’ve had to learn first hand this year. There have been times when I have been too presumptive about what God was planning for me. At times people encouraged me to believe that my visa would come in a matter of days; yet, this only left me frustrated and confused when it did not happen. Presumption can not withstand the twists and turns that God intentionally leads us on for his purposes.

The other extreme is despair. This is when we shape our stories under the assumption that nothing good is going to happen. My good friend Dave Robinson told me a story of a student he was counseling who had started to shape her life story along the lines of despair. This particular woman was also a first year college student and had unexpectedly got pregnant. She was single, alone, and now expecting a baby. As she narrated her story to my pastor friend it was filled with a sarcastic pessimism, saying things like “apparently I won’t be able to finish school,” or “apparently I have become a failure.”

The danger of this narrative pattern is obvious. It gives us no hope for the future. It has the danger of developing unhealthy self-fulfilling prophecies.

Jacobs argues that the Christian pattern for personal narratives must be one of hope. Hope is something that avoids both extremes of presumption on despair. While hope does not finalize our narratives too early, it challenges us to shape our stories along Paul’s claim in Romans 8:28 that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love him.” Hope, then, calls us to turn from despair when things go wrong. On the grounds of hope we can remain open to good things even when unexpected events come our way.

One of my favorite theologians summarizes this idea well in a quote that I think is fitting during this Easter season. Lesslie Newbigin writes, “I am neither an optimist or a pessimist: Christ is risen from the dead!” Newbigin points us to a hope that transcends the circumstances we faced. This hope is rooted in the power of the resurrection!


  1. Thanks for sharing these thoughts Phil. I love the Newbigin quote.

    (And welcome to the blogosphere! I wish you and Julie all the best in your endeavors south of the border!)

    • Hey Ryan,

      Nice to hear from you! Ya Newbigin is so quotable. Hope you are doing well!


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