I sometimes find myself caught in the clutches of fatalism. I grew up in a family with an alcoholic father. Although he went through medical and psychological treatments, worked the Alcoholics Anonymous program, and managed to stop drinking for months and even years at a time, he is beaten by his illness. He is resigned to his addiction. And his resignation finds reflection in mine.
For the past 16 years, I’ve served among youth and adults with addictions – addictions to the streets, to gangs and to substances. While we’ve seen many of them come off the streets and some of them into healthy situations, a number of them are in jail, in hovels or on the streets. I feel like Lazarus’ sister, Mary, who went to Jesus and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” and Martha, who said, “‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days” (John 11:32, 39). Despite love, prayer, support and opportunities for change, we are watching our friends die in their addictions. I find myself being moved unwittingly by an undercurrent that says that people cannot change.
I also look at my own life and the changes that I hope for, pray for and work for but which, after years, I still don’t realize. The lack of change, of answers to prayer, of expected results all cultivates fatalism: no hope for the possibility of change. This reminds me of Albert Camus, a philosopher who deals with fatalism in many of his novels. In his book The Plague, Camus depicts the torturous disease that dominates people and over which they have no control. Camus’ character suggests that we resign ourselves to eminent death because we “… will [only] have suffered longer.”
The flicker of fatalism is fanned by society. Most of the public replies to the government with a defeatist sigh. They look at our environment and say, “That’s just Romania”. They look at the disenfranchised population among whom I serve and say, “Why waste your time and resources? They will never change. And if they do, they won’t amount to much. They were born into poverty, into a bad family, into dysfunction, and that’s where they’ll remain. That’s just the way they are.”
Of course, our kids, youth and families are raised and living in this very fatalistic society. Social psychologists, like Csikszentmihalyi and Seligman, affirm that helplessness is learned. Many of our kids lack any vision for the future other than what they see in their parents. There isn’t even a perspective which hopes for something different.
What is worse is that we witness fatalism creeping into the church. There I see mixed messages. Some overstress God’s determinism to such an extent that they make God responsible for sin and minimize any human freedom or responsibility. Others proclaim a prosperity gospel, which is a form of positive thinking that has no basis in reality. It is a positive fatalism, believing that certain determined effects follow certain human actions. On the other side of this unhealthy optimism is a millennial pessimism. Those that purport this view believe that things will get worse and worse and then the end will come with cataclysmic destruction. What is worse is that some think that they will be raptured to heaven and saved from the pain of the world, thereby relegating God’s passion for the redemption of creation and skirting any personal responsibility for the stewardship of creation. And even worse is that these bad theologies project fatalism onto the character of God.
These are the shackles of fatalism – a chain that binds the families I serve among, the society in which I live, and my own life. But I would concede to fatalism if I stopped here. There is an alternative, transformative vision for the history and destiny of humanity. There is a reality that breaks our despair.
This reality is God. God, who is Creator, has a plan for the renewal of all creation and refuses to let us go. It isn’t so much that I need to find resources of hope for God, for the world or for our kids; rather, I find that God himself hopes. God hopes for us. In the person of Jesus, God met fatalism and all its correlates at the cross, bringing fatalism to its end. In the resurrection and ascension, Jesus is the declaration, sign and execution of all God’s promises of healing, redemption and transformation. This is the Good News that snaps the chain of fatalism. And it is here that I am invited to live and hope. Our hopes are rooted in God’s.
This does not mean that we simply believe without acting. Ultimately, it means standing in the face of addiction, dependency, death, destruction. There we must either resign ourselves to these domineering finalities, or we must find grounds for hope. And that ground is God. We see that Jesus acknowledges death, destruction and decay. He experiences the weight of this finality, for example, in the death of Lazarus. Jesus wept (John 11:35). But God brings hope, the possibility of change, and even the possibility of the impossible. Jesus said with a loud voice, “’Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go’” (John 11:43-44).
This is not hope that evades and avoids fatalism; rather, it addresses it head on. It is the hope that, with Abraham and Sarah, looks at our bodies and our possibilities and still hopes in God. That is, against possibilities for hope, still they hoped (Romans 5:18).
Hope isn’t something we always have at the start – a source that motivates us in the midst of trials. Rather, it is a result. St. Paul tells us that sufferings produce endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope (Romans 5:3-4). This is hope that is formed in the fire of pain and waiting and unfulfillment.
And this is the place where we must cultivate in the lives of our kids and their families, in our church and in our society. Although hoping hurts and although the things we hope for are not seen and often contradicted, we hope against hope in the promises of our Father in the Son and through the Spirit. Apart from the discipline of hoping against hope, I would also suggest two other actions.
First, we can pray. We pray for the things we hope for. In this way, the very act of prayer cultivates hope. In prayer we affirm our own powerless to transform and our faith that God can. Here I am reminded of the prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr that is said at every Alcoholics Anonymous meeting:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Second, in our communion with God our imaginations are infused with God’s dream for humanity and for creation. As ambassadors of Christ, we are called to give articulation to God’s dream. This is part of the prophetic office of the church. One way that this gift may be manifested is by affirming God’s dream and vision for those that are given over to fatalism.
Although this isn’t necessarily an example from within the church, the move The Cider House Rules depict such words of destiny spoken over children’s futures. It is a story of an orphanage – children that are abandoned and from the very early stages of life are in positions of disadvantage and despair. But every night as the children go to bed, the director of the orphanage tells them, “Goodnight, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.” This is a prophetic vision that refuses the temptations of fatalism, opening up possibility and horizons to those who thought they had none.
We can affirm the destiny of the children and their families as being God’s creation and God’s beloved. We can affirm God’s plans of good and hope for every life. We can affirm life, wholeness, health and salvation in the face of fatalism. We can invite them to God’s dream and God’s hope for each one: Christ in you, the hope of glory!
As always, I’m moved and challenged by your words. You have an incredible ability to share combine theology with compassion and real-world understanding. These were good words for my own life and I’m sure for others as well. I’m going to share this with a friend who is currently come out on the other side of addiction. It’s been inspiring to watch her resist fatalism and embrace possibility. I’m sure you will encourage her as much as you did me. Thank you.
Reblogged this on and commented:
A beautiful depiction of the power of hope and persistence in the face of a fatalistic society.
We are speechless with gratitude for the truth and encouragement you have spoken to our hearts. Thank-you. Grace, Peace & Rest.
“This is the Good News that snaps the chain of fatalism.” I love that powerful imagery.
Thank you for your compelling insight and hope!
This is so very well written and touches my heart. Having just went through a time of despair and knowing that my life is so much better now, it is wonderful to see someone else knowing that there is hope!
I have learned that what I was taught growing up isn’t always the real rules to life. I had to get mad and accept that I could model other behaviors and be safe. GOD kept me safe while I learned these things one small step at a time. I read self help books, looked up websites, I listened to Joseph Cough self help messages. And of course I prayed!
A great perspective on fatalism. I have been thinking about fatalism a lot after reading John Piper and Gutierrez on Job. How he can affirm the sovereignty of God and maintain hope and avoid fatalism. I was particularly interested to hear you mention the fatalism expressed in Romania “That’s just Romania”, this is one of the most infuriating phrases that I hear, this hopelessness is a resignation to the mythic goddesses of fate.
I love the image of hands unbinding. Do you have a name of who illustrated it? I am a chaplain that would like to see about using it for a theology project. Thank you in advance for your consideration.
My friend Dan Richters did the illustration
Thank you I am developing a labyrinth walk using art to enhance the Word and that illustration speaks without words in a beautiful way.
God bless you both.
Chaplain Todd Mallory