Posted by: Titus Presler | September 3, 2011

Hope versus optimism in mission: A view from Peshawar

“I hope my question doesn’t disturb you, but are you optimistic about what’s happening in Pakistan?  I mean, there you are in Peshawar in what everyone knows is an unsettled and dangerous situation.  Is it worth it?”

An acquaintenance of some years asked this of me at the triennial conference of the Colleges and Universities of the Anglican Communion at Sewanee in May.  We’d talked about the situation in Pakistan, and he’d listened to a presentation I made about the work at Edwardes College.  He asked his question with both curiosity and concern.

My response was – and is – something like this:

Optimism is a scarce commodity in Pakistan today amid massive poverty, endemic corruption, Taliban insurgency, and ineffective governance.  In private conversation people shake their heads in pessimism.  Outraged media commentators analyze how politicians ignore or mishandle the country’s challenges, and they do not see the end of the tunnel, let alone any light there.

As a newcomer, I would be naïve to express sunny optimism in a setting where so many seasoned residents and observers see gray drizzle under gathering storm clouds.  Certainly there are many elements that offer joy and reassurance in my immediate circle: bright young people eager for education, fine colleagues who serve the college with dedication, a church that ministers faithfully in adversity and persecution, and strands of dialogue between Muslims and Christians.

But for the midterm and distant future of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Pakistan – who can be optimistic?

Optimism is based on empirical developments that can be charted as an upward curve on a graph.  My inquirer was asking whether there are such developments.  And could such signs form the basis for the kind of commitment I am making in this setting?  It was and is a reasonable and prudential question.

I had to respond in the negative: No, I was not optimistic.

Yet mission is about not optimism but hope.

Here I picked up on some pieces of scripture that I was understanding in a new way.  “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for,” someone wrote to a group of Jewish Christians, “the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11.1; emphasis added).  In ordinary thinking, knowing something is thought to be a good deal more robust than simply hoping for something.  Not so for the writer to the Hebrews.  There is assurance of things hoped for, conviction of things despite their being not seen.

And the writer is not sunny about the prospects for any particular faithful lifetime: “These all [Abel, Noah, Abraham, Sarah] died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11.13).  Yet the writer insists that the faith they lived, the hope they engaged, was something more real than anything else.

Paul sharpens the point in connection with his meditation on the contrast between current suffering and future glory: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.  For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God . . . We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as children, the redemption of our bodies.”  The whole creation groaning – including Pakistan and its people and its ecosystem, and countless other peoples and settings throughout history.

And then he moves to the nature of hope: “For in this hope we were saved.  Now hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what he sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8.18-25; emphasis added).  Here Paul actually cuts the commonly supposed link between evidence and hope, as though he were saying: “Hey, if you have evidence, that’s a basis for optimism, but that has nothing to do with hope or faith.  No, hope is the particular province not of the seen, but of the unseen.”

So here in Peshawar right now – no, I cannot claim to be optimistic.  But I am hopeful.  Infinitely hopeful.



  1. Many thanks for this great reminder about hope, Titus. Lots in the media this week remembering the anniversary of 9/11 and particularly about your part of the world. Related questions are being raised about optimism/hope with regard to US (and other) involvement there. Your points are very timely and reassuring as many reflect on the anniversary. Stay well! Sallie Craig

    • Thanks much, Sallie Craig, and so good to hear from you!

  2. Beautifully put – thank you for putting it into perspective.

    Laurel Schaap

    • Thanks very much, Laurel, and so good to hear from you!

  3. Dear Dr Titus

    I enjoyed my morning by reading such an excellent chunk of writing about your feelings for Peshawar. You have rightly observed fine colleagues at Edwardes College. Jehangir, a staff member

    • Thank you, Jehangir.

  4. Titus, thank you so much for the much needed “sermon”. I always enjoy reading your posts, but this was particularly “the right words at the right time” for me.

    I am finally reading Three Cups of Tea and plan to revisit your blog re: CAI once I have completed it.

    Grace and peace,

    • Thanks much for your response, Jill! Always good to hear from you. And it was so good recently to hear of your connection with the incoming Principal of Forman Christian College in Lahore. He and I have been in touch and hope to meet sometime soon. Blessings, Titus

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