How to Have Hope in a Cynical Age

Recently, Isaac Dagneau, host of the indoubt podcast for Back to the Bible Canada, invited me to discuss the themes of my forthcoming book, Mere Hope: Life in an Age of Cynicism. You can listen to the podcast at the link below as well as read the transcript.

Isaac Dagneau with Jason Duesing
January 29, 2018

Also available at iTunes


Isaac Dagneau: With me today is author and professor, Dr. Jason Duesing. Jason serves as the academic provost and associate professor of historical theology at the Midwestern Baptist Theological seminary. Thanks so much for chatting with us today Jason.

Jason Duesing: My pleasure. Thank you.

Isaac Dagneau: Midwestern has been a neat place for us, because we’ve been able to talk to a few different people from there, people like Owen Strachan for instance. So anyways, I’m wondering, before we jump in to our conversation on hope, can you just let us know a little bit more about who you are, more personally?

Jason Duesing: Sure. I serve here at academic leadership as you mentioned. I’m originally from the state of Texas. I grew up in the Houston area, and trusted Christ my freshman year of college at Texas A&M University. God was kind to bring a number of people along my path that helped me to hear the gospel really for the first time.

I grew up in a big city and hadn’t really heard the gospel before, so that put me on a path and a journey of really turning my world upside down, and led to a lot of things, but namely seminary was a part of that, wrestling with a call to the mission field, and then ultimately here into academics.

Isaac Dagneau: Did you ever think when you were in … after you were saved in freshman year that you would ever end up in this senior academic leadership role at a seminary?

Jason Duesing: No, no. Yes, not at all. Many of my friends still give me a hard time about that, even today.

Isaac Dagneau: That’s awesome.

Jason Duesing: God’s very kind in the way He surprises us.

Isaac Dagneau: Yes, for sure. That’s so good. All right, so today we’re going to be having this short conversation on hope. Our realized hope as Christians, which obviously includes our future hope. You make mention in your new book that’s going to be coming out, Mere Hope: Life in an Age of Cynicism, you make a point that we are in fact living in a cynical age.

I wanted to ask what you mean by that, but I want to ask it this way, if someone from another country, say who knew nothing of the North American, or the Western culture, civilization, if they asked you, “Hey, what do you mean by that? What do you mean when you say you’re living in a cynical age,” how would you explain it to them?

Jason Duesing: Part of it is you have to introduce them to our current Western culture, but it’s changed so much even in the last 30 years. When I was growing up there was a cartoon on television called The Jetsons, and it’s laughable now when you go back and watch it, but at that time, everything … it was a projection of the future where everything was automated, it was really automated awesomeness.

I mean everything … you didn’t have to do any chores, it was all fixed, and we just thought that, how great would it be to have all this technology? It would solve all of our problems. In those days in the 80s growing up, our greatest concern was things like World War III, was it going to really happen? Were we going to go to war with Russia?

Well since that time, we’ve gotten over that. We didn’t go to World War III, and we have all this technology, and it has solved a lot of our problems, but that’s put us to a place of really then worrying about what’s next in terms of anxiety, or it’s put as in a place where we just don’t really care. We’re sort of indifferent to much of the things around us, which causes us to really not trust much around.

Then you accelerate that into just a perpetual way in which sin reveals itself in culture, in our leaders, and people failing us left and right, it puts a lot of people in a place of mistrust and doubt. We sort of have all this connectedness, we’re aware 24 hours a day of every cataclysmal event in the world, but it’s left us in this place of, “So what?”

Neil Postman in 1984 wrote a book called, Amusing Ourselves to Death, and so we’ve moved beyond anxiety and we’re now in this place of, we’ve tried to amuse ourselves, that hasn’t worked, and so we’re left in Western culture with this kind of hopelessness where we’re just despairing because we don’t really know what to grab onto.

Isaac Dagneau: Do you think people generally are coming to an understanding of that in their own hearts and souls, and are beginning to kind of grasp through things, just trying to cure that hopelessness?

Jason Duesing: I mean in a hopeful way I think so, but I think there’s sort of, much like everything in life, there’s two ways to live, and when you come to that realization it can drive you further into despair, almost into a … One of the things I talk about in the book is really there’s two types of cynicism, an active cynicism and a passive cynicism.

The active is really like a functional atheism. It’s so much sarcasm, it’s so much distrust, it’s so much everything, that it leads you to a place of despair, to the place of there is functionally no hope, so I’m just going to live the best way I can. Passive cynicism is what we see more among believers, people who … believers in Christ Jesus, who know better. Who know and believe that He is coming again, that we have every reason to place our hope in His second coming, but we end up to a place of not really despair, but really more what I call resigned indifference.

Often in culture we hear people just saying, “Whatever.” It’s just sort of that attitude toward everything of, “Yes, I know this is true,” but really functionally the way I live is more of this kind of ‘whatever’ attitude. It’s more of a passive cynicism in that way.

Isaac Dagneau: Yeah, no for sure. It’s crazy to think about it, and I’m sure you thought about it, and I’m really glad that you talk about this in your book, because this is the main idea, that as a Christian obviously we are to base our hope and pretty much trample over this cynicism with this glorious hope, obviously in the gospel, in the midst of this cynical age, because so often our gaze is set on just what’s in front of us, this world, and that obviously creates this cynicism.

So, for many though … here’s my next question, for many including myself, this hope, this gospel hope, can become very religious, traditional, it kind of becomes heady, intellectual, I know it, I hear it from my pastor all the time, I read it in books, but so often it can never impact our actual hearts’ gaze, our emotions, our affections, or at least as it should. My question is, why do you think we can be so quick to turn our hearts eyes away from our gospel hope?

Jason Duesing: Well, we have every reason in the world to turn our hearts and eyes away, because we’re competing with so many distractions, and by that I don’t just mean the things we’ve talked about. The onslaughts of 24-hour news and social media feeding us with the latest things that’s happened, good things and bad things, to people all around the world.

I mean even in a Christian culture where we’re just bombarded with book, after book, after book of how we’re supposed to live, and how we’re supposed to do these things. It just gets overwhelming trying to even keep up to figure these things out. Part of even what I’m saying is this book is not even that long, I hope not to occupy too many people’s time and attention with it, because it is trying to compete.

I’m really just trying to get out helping people remember the core of the Christian faith, that’s why in the title I used the word, “mere,” which many people will recognize from C.S. Lewis’s, Mere Christianity, because I mean to use the word mere in the way he does, in the sense of core or central hope of the Christian life. We’re distracted from it, it’s actually really not that hard to get back to it.

It’s very simple, but we sort of have to fight for it. It does start in the mind and the heart. It’s not 12 steps or anything like this, but it’s a choice to remember and start back at what the core hope we have as Christians.

Isaac Dagneau: Right. I so appreciated that as I was reading the book myself, and just that sort of the … it was bringing it back down to the roots of the true gospel, and I love that. Speaking into that, obviously you mention four areas in the book, which we need to look. I’m wondering if you can actually just first explain what those are?

Jason Duesing: Well, I take kind of my cues from what Jesus says in Matthew 6:22, that the eye is the lamp of the body, so if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light. What I mean by that is, it matters where we look and what we see, and not just with our eyes, but with our hearts as well, on what we choose to set our gaze. It’s a conscious choice every day.

So this recapturing mere hope as an answer to living in a world of cynicism begins with where we look, and so I’ve divided the book really into four sections, encouraging believers to return again to look down at the foundation of our hope, to look in at the fountain of our hope, to look out then at the flourishing of our hope, and then to look up finally at the focus of our hope.

Each one of these kind of follows a different passage in the New Testament in exploring doctrines that relate to these.

Isaac Dagneau: Yeah, for sure. That’s so good. Now, as you say that too, I’m reminded of Peter who gets out of the boat and he’s like walking towards Jesus on the sea, I don’t know if this can relate at all, because I just … I’m remembering that he’s looking to Jesus, but then he looks away at the waves and he begins to sink. I think so often for us, that’s the exact same thing that happens in our lives.

Jason Duesing: No, I think that’s a great imagery of definitely a metaphor of what happens in the Christian life. That’s why the New Testament’s replete with challenges to, where are we going to set our eyes and what are we going to fix our gaze? Not just for the pursuit of godliness, but really for the establishment of this hope that by faith we have to look beyond what we actually see physically and one of that’s just remembering what we know to be true.

Isaac Dagneau: Yeah, for sure. I’m wondering Jason, as I was reading your book in the … I think it was the third part when you’re saying you’re looking out to the flourishing of our hope, you talk about the story of you going to visit your friend, I think it was in China if I’m correct?

Yeah, and it was actually, as I was reading this, it was actually a little bit emotional for me, because I was feeling with you when you were in that gathering of people worshiping God. I’m wondering if you could just explain to us what looking at the flourishing of hope is, and then sort of explain how this story impacted you so much?

Jason Duesing: Right, well what I’m trying to do there with the flourishing of hope is just a reminder that in the Christian life we can often become too insular and become so introspective, and we need to be looking in, we need to be putting sin to death, we need to be sizing up where we are in our walks with Christ, but sometimes we do that to our own detriment. We don’t realize that all that is meant to propel us then to look out to the ends of the earth, that Jesus assigned His disciples and the churches that would follow to take the gospel to the ends of the earth.

My friend, he servse now in China with the International Mission Board now for 20-something years, but when he first went there, he was assigned to a far western region of the country where there were many unengaged, unreached peoples, peoples who have never even heard the gospel at all. His first assignment was to get on his bike and to basically map out where all these peoples were.

After a number of months, he established where all these villages were, and he said, “Well, there’s one mountain range I haven’t been over, I’m just going to go up over that just to make sure.” He goes up and over, and he realizes … and he sees just scores and scores of more villages. Just people and people that nobody knew was there, never been mapped. From that point to when I was with him just a few years ago, in one of those villages he began to live and work, saw a number of people come to Christ and a church eventually planted.

I was worshiping with him in that church gathering and it all came together that, here’s my friend, we were in college, and now over the last 20 years God’s used him to go out and see the flourishing of hope, to take the gospel to the ends of the earth and these people now are, humanly speaking, worshiping and trusting Jesus, because someone who has been transformed by Christ Jesus has taken the gospel message to them.

It’s a component of this hope, we’re trying to get ourselves into a place of spiritual, emotional and mental health ourselves, but we often forget that that’s for a purpose. It’s for us to be taking the gospel to other people, to be taking that hope to other people.

Isaac Dagneau: Yeah, which is so critical, because I feel like so much of our culture tells us just to look at ourselves. It’s so autonomous, like fix yourself, all these self-help books, so it totally makes sense that the church can be influenced by that, where we’re always just preaching that, so that’s so important.

Now, obviously all of these different areas to look, like looking at our foundation, the gospel, and in the fountain of our hope and so on and so forth, all of them are essential, but when you look, Jason, at the young adult culture today, which I assume at a seminary and things like that, you deal with some … a few young adults for sure. Which area do you think is most lacking, that needs to be most emphasized?

Jason Duesing: Yes, I think especially in our context here, we have young men and women in college, in our undergraduate program, in our graduate program, and they’re all moving forward. They wouldn’t be here if they didn’t have a desire to do great things for God and things like this, but the thing that I see is this final chapter, this idea of looking up and remembering the focus of our hope.

In our context in doctrinal terms, this is really eschatology, or the study of the end things, and we really lost a healthy eschatology. Sometimes in younger generations we’ve lost it because we’ve seen an older generation take it to pin point the exact date and time when Jesus would return, and that has turned them off and things like this, but in the midst of that, we’ve lost hope.

We’ve forgotten the truth … the reason I believe that God gives us through the Bible any sort of inkling of the return of Christ is not so that we can calculate the times and dates and seasons, it’s to prepare us to be ready, but it’s ultimately also to give us this hope. We know how things will end, we know what will come, we know what’s true and eternal for the next trillion years, not just the next 100 years.

So part of our regular living out the Christian life is to help ourselves and to help others to look not just at our circumstances, but up over them into the future, and put our focus on Christ Jesus and His return one day, and the hope that comes with that.

Isaac Dagneau: Totally, and I think … I was interested to know which one you would choose there. I think that’s good, because even for myself as a young adult, I haven’t been encouraged amongst my Christian friends to think about it and dwell on it. As I read through the New Testament, I find that different writers like Peter and Paul, they make this effort to sort of use language like, “We’re in the last times,” and “He’s coming like a thief in the night,” and there’s these … they use rhetoric to help their readers understand like, “You must live with this expectation, this eager expectation because it’s coming,” and I don’t see that in my culture today, that kind of language.

Jason Duesing: Well, it portrays that we’re really not relying upon God, we’re relying upon ourselves. One of the stories I tell in here, there’s a real famous sign and you see it all over, market place and things like this, this red sign that says, “Keep calm, carry on,” which is inspiring and so I don’t mean to just bash this idea. There’s some to be said in certain realms of life, of just hunkering down, especially in a sporting arena, or something like this, just sort of exercising and just sort of toughening it out.

But that’s really no way to live the Christian life, and really what that is in philosophical terms is it’s stoicism, and so there’s an evangelical or a Christian stoicism that we often find ourselves drifting into. Meaning if I can just get through this semester, of if I can just get through this trial, if I can just get through these things.

What that is, is we’re relying upon ourselves, and the Scriptures, especially I’m looking at 2 Timothy in this one chapter in other places tell us that that’s not the way at all, through suffering and things like this, there should be a looking up and a reminder of, and a reliance upon God and how He is able, not that we can do this, but that He is able and we should rest and put our trust in that.

The diminished eschatology or the weakening view of the end times really is … what that means is we have a small view of a very big God, and if we would cast our gaze up to Him and rely upon Him and throw our hands up at trials and sufferings and cling to Him, the hope will return.

Isaac Dagneau: Yeah, that’s so good. In your book as well you offer this different kind of slogan, a mandate or mantra, “It is well, He is able,” which I think is awesome. I mean if you’re listening right now and you had this keep calm and carry on in the back of your mind, I suggest you switch that now with, “It is well, He is able.” It’s so much better.

It’s interesting, I think for some of us too, Jason, it could be the Lord’s will that He really does bring some trials and suffering to help us rely on Him. I think of Paul at the beginning of 2 Corinthians when he says, “We almost died, but that was for us that we would rely on God and not ourselves,” which is so powerful.

Jason Duesing: So true. So true and good.

Isaac Dagneau: Yeah. I find too that a lot of Christians settle … this leads into our next question, settle for living like the world in that, Christianity is just one aspect of their life like a hobby, or a passion or something like that. Now from your experience, I was wondering, Jason, if you could give my generation, which is the 20 to 30-somethings, give them an appeal to live with this gospel hope in a real sense, in all areas of life? What does this look like practically for us to live this gospel hope out?

Jason Duesing: Right. I think, and again, it’s not an effort on my part just to make it simple, because it isn’t simple, it’s hard and challenging, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, what one is to do practically every day is not complicated, it’s not like you need to master this book, or you need to do these steps of things.

I think simply it really is just rooted in where we set our minds and hearts every day, and every moment of the day. One of the ways I line it out in the book is really emphasizing what the Scripture talks about as remembering it. It talks often about remembering and not just looking back to the Old Testament and seeing how God worked and reminding ourselves who He is, but it’s just every day reminding ourselves what do we know to be true? Who is God? What is true about ourselves, regardless of how we feel, regardless of what the world is telling us, regardless of anything else, the way we know our place and standing in rightness before God, sanctified by the blood of Jesus Christ, it’s because we are remembering and knowing what is true.

We see all this, all throughout the Scriptures. One of my favorite places of course is in the book of Lamentations, when the destruction of Jerusalem is falling all around them, and he comes to chapter three and talks about this great passage of, “Great is your faithfulness God,” but before that he tells them to remember their hope, remember what they have in it, and it’s this kind of remembering and coming back.

We see all throughout Scripture this kind of call to remember, so I think the best way we can fight to regain our hope every day is just starting each day by remembering what we know to be true more than how we feel, and allow that truth then to guide and direct us, and bring … it’s not something to be lived out in isolation either. This is why we have the local church, so we have a body of brothers and sisters around us to help us to remember.

When we gather corporately through hearing God’s Word and singing and praying and these things, but it’s a call to remember, it’s a call to proclaim what we know to be true.

Isaac Dagneau: Totally. It’s interesting as you say, I love that, and you say in your book reminding oneself of the gospel is one of the most practical things one can do, which is so true, as you’ve just explained. But I do want to just kind of say this as a reflection of that, because I tried to do that, but early in the morning, you’re driving to work or school, and you’re tired, it’s not just like you’re, “Okay, God’s real and you feel good.”

You have to discipline your mind to actually work through these truths of the Scripture, and it is a discipline to remember, because you’re tired and perhaps you’ve just had an argument with a friend or your wife or whatever, and you have to discipline, and it does take an effort and you have to create a habit of doing this.

Jason Duesing: Right, and no I, of course, couldn’t agree more. I mean the call to discipline ourselves for the pursuit of godliness is the Christian life, it’s just what frame of mind are we doing it? We can do it like that stoicism, keep calm and carry on sort of way, “Well, I’ve got to read this, memorize this, listen to this.”

If we do it from the fruit of the gospel, remembering what we know to be true, then the desire comes to memorize God’s word, to be in God’s Word, to pray and all these other kinds of things. So, no, absolutely, we are to pursue holiness, and to do that in a systematic and disciplined way, but as a result of the gospel, not in pursuit of it.

Isaac Dagneau:That’s so good. As our last question here before we wrap up Jason, for someone listening, perhaps they’re driving right now, or they’re cleaning the house or whatever, what’s the first thing that they can do to begin living in this reality of our future hope, and maybe it is just reminding themselves right now of the truth, I’m not sure?

Jason Duesing: Well, J.I. Packer who’s one of my favorite authors, and I would never even claim to be able to write anything close to him, although this book is inspired by his lifetime of taking theology and applying it to the culture, that’s really what I’m trying to do in a very, very brief way. He said about hope, he said, “Hope is a tender plant, easily crushed and extinguished, and every believer must budget for having to battle for it.”

Hope is something we can do every day to really wake up and seek to claim, and to realize that if we are feeling out of sorts or feeling off or whatever else, we should be trusting in what we know to be true. So that call to remember, first and foremost, and that desire to battle for hope, is something we should start and do every day.

Isaac Dagneau: That’s so good. Well, thank you so much, Jason, for your time and your wisdom. If you’re listening and you’re interested in more, in this hope, in this reality and how to help our heart’s gaze look at all these different aspects of our hope, then you should totally get Jason’s book. Get it, read it. Mere Hope: Life in an Age of Cynicism. I’ve had the great privilege of reading it, it’s solid, it’s gospel focused, it’s rich in Scripture, it’s rich in Lord of the Rings if you’re a Lord of the Rings fan, and it’s short as Jason has said, which is really helpful for us.

So anyways, it’s available right now on Amazon pre-order. I’m going to provide the links for you if you’re interested on that, but it comes out in June of this year. So anyways if you have … if you’re interested in more with Jason’s kind of writing, different things like that, you can go to Anyways, again, thank you so much Jason. I hope to have you back on the show again.

Jason Duesing: My joy, thank you so much Isaac.

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