Many stories have a simple beginning and a tidy ending. But squished between those bookends is the messy middle. Characters have to discover themselves; heroes and villains fight; relationships develop and devolve; unpredictable things happen. It’s where the good stuff is, that makes the story enjoyable or instructive.
This post contains some of my thoughts as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on choosing hope through Jesus Christ and His Atonement during that “messy middle,” whatever it might be for each of us.
TL;DR: Even when any or all of our shorter-term hopes in specific outcomes don’t become reality, we can choose hope for a joyful future with Christ in the next life and in this one.
You might be in the messy middle of a specific chapter or subplot of your life—a job, a relationship, a degree, less-than-perfect physical or mental health, a deep question or doubt, or so many other things. Regardless of what I write, my desire is that the Spirit can teach you something valuable or help you feel hope, whatever your middle might be. Or if you’re in a spot right now where things aren’t messy, perhaps consider how you can be empathetic and supportive to others. I always need the reminder to be kind: everyone we meet is fighting a hard battle.
In a broad sense, we’re all in the messy middle of mortality, here on this planet with billions of our spiritual siblings who all chose Christ in premortality and had hope in Him as our Savior. We’re all here in physical bodies, trying to figure out how to use our agency and live our best lives, and it’s messy!
As President Nelson has taught, choosing Christ will bring joy, regardless of circumstances. When I let it, that teaching brings me hope. We can always hope to receive that joy, because we can always choose Christ.
Finding and choosing hope can be hard for me. As a kid, that wasn’t the case. I was quite optimistic, life was good, and I had no reason not to believe I would live a happy, stereotypical Latter-day Saint life. Did I know what would happen in the future? Of course not—no one does. But I saw a path forward that made sense, seemed likely to happen, and was accepted, and it was easy for me to hope for that.
That all changed about ten years ago when I realized I was gay. I still of course didn’t know what would happen in the future—no one does—but now I didn’t even see a path forward that made sense. I was left to wonder how being gay would fit into God’s plan for me. I was thrown into a messy middle with what felt like a dumpster full of questions, doubts and decisions dumped onto me. When before hope was the default, easy choice, it became the opposite, and it was easier for me to give up hope, to choose not to hope. When I’m in that mindset, it seems nicer to not have any hopes, rather than let them be dashed or not have the patience to see them come about. It’s been said that pessimists are either correct or pleasantly surprised!
But we’re not commanded to be pessimistic or to give in to despair. Rather, hope is a commandment and is part of the faith, hope, and charity that are vital to our spiritual progression. The Book of Mormon tells us to “press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men.” A perfect brightness of hope is not a natural tendency for me.
Despite hope being described as “brightness,” hope is not seen. There’s an intriguing verse in Romans 8, when Paul teaches about being spiritually reborn and following Christ: “For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for?” (Romans 8:24) Hope that is seen is not hope. That phrase has stuck with me. Good circumstances are not a prerequisite for hope. It’s precisely when we don’t see how things will work out or get better in our messy middle that we need to choose hope—it’s not when we see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel that we need to hope, it’s before that, when it’s still totally dark, that we most need to actively choose hope in Christ. Easier said than done, but as long as we have agency we can always choose hope, because Heavenly Father is loving and sent Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ is faithful to what He says. He will not leave us comfortless. He will forgive us when we repent. He will guide us and heal us. And He is a “high priest of good things to come” (Hebrews 9:11).
Whatever small hope or desire to hope we have is enough to let Christ work with us. A couple years ago, I learned about a painting titled Hope by English painter George Frederic Watts. In a BYU devotional, Kevin Worthen shared some insights about it. This quote is long, but good!
“Prior to Watts’s painting of the subject, most illustrations of hope typically featured a lively young woman holding a flower or an anchor. Watts’s portrayal of hope departed from that norm. Watts himself described the painting as “Hope sitting on a globe, with bandaged eyes playing on a [small harp] which has all the strings broken but one out of which . . . she is trying to get all the music possible, listening with all her might to the little sound.” Her dress is threadbare; she appears to be exhausted, worn out. She is seemingly barely holding on. And yet she is holding on, trying her best to get music from what she has left: one single string.”
“While it may not seem like much, the smallest form of hope—the smallest desire to believe—can be the first step in a miraculous process through which God can exalt us. So if at times you cannot see clearly or really not at all, if you can play only one note and that note sounds out of tune—if all you can do is hang on to one thread and hope it holds, then hang on and hope. That will be enough to start the process. If you then turn to the Savior and sincerely ask for His help, He will take what little you have to offer and turn it into magnificent, exalting hope, which can be an anchor to your soul.”
It’s quite a transformative process, ranging from fragile, out-of-tune hope to an anchor to the soul. It’s a process that I’m somewhere in the middle of, although my location in it jumps around from day to day.
Looking back, I think that one fragile string for me was having felt that God loves me. In all the things that I question and doubt, I’ve somehow never seriously doubted God’s love for me. It has helped me (probably in ways I don’t even know) to continue to try and follow Christ and stay in His Church when things don’t make sense. I love Nephi’s response to something he didn’t know when he said, “I know that God loveth his children, nevertheless I do not know the meaning of all things” (1 Nephi 11:17).
God’s love is unchanging, but the things I think and do affect my fluctuating ability to feel His constant love. However, learning that connection helps me to choose things through which I feel God’s love—music, prayer, and service to name a few that have helped me. And doing that perhaps helps get my one string of hope a little more in tune. And whatever hope I have can be transformed through the Atonement of Christ if I allow it by coming unto Christ.
Hope is often spoken of in rather broad terms: hope for a positive, fulfilling life; hope for certain things we want to happen; hope to make it through a messy middle. Of course it’s good to have goals and dreams and work towards those. But ultimately, our hope needs to be in Christ and His Atonement, not in specific outcomes. Hope (and I would extend this to include faith, which is interrelated) placed in outcomes can be dashed if those things don’t happen, which can lead to discouragement and maybe end in a worse place than the start (which brings back my tendency to just not hope at all). Or maybe those outcomes do happen, and if it’s working so far, that could increase desire to continue to put hope in outcomes. And then we’re set up for eventual disappointment.
Neal A. Maxwell eloquently phrased it this way:
“Life’s disappointments often represent the debris of our failed, proximate hopes.”
“Ultimate hope is a different matter. It is tied to Jesus and the blessings of the great Atonement, blessings resulting in the universal Resurrection and the precious opportunity provided thereby for us to practice emancipating repentance, making possible what the scriptures call “a perfect brightness of hope” (2 Ne. 31:20).
“Moroni confirmed: “What is it that ye shall hope for? Behold I say unto you that ye shall have hope through the atonement of Christ” (Moro. 7:40–41; see also Alma 27:28). Real hope, therefore, is not associated with things mercurial, but rather with things immortal and eternal!”
And there are some beautiful promises to hope for, both in mortality and for eternity. Preach My Gospel states: “As we rely on the Atonement of Jesus Christ, He can help us endure our trials, sicknesses, and pain. We can be filled with joy, peace, and consolation. All that is unfair about life can be made right through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.”
When I choose hope in Christ and really feel that I want to stick with Him—no matter what happens—I better appreciate that making and keeping covenants binds us with Him. During times when I’m not choosing hope, if I reflect on my relationship and connection with God, I’m not trusting enough and don’t appreciate that covenant relationship. I somehow think that God can’t or doesn’t want to help make my future glorious, or that I won’t be able to follow Christ well enough for it to happen.
My invitation (mostly to myself, but also to anyone else reading this) is to choose hope for a joyful future with Christ in the next life and in this one, which is possible even when any or all of our shorter-term hopes in specific outcomes don’t become reality. Choose to want to hope.
I hope and really do believe that God has a perfect plan for our happiness, even if our understanding of that plan is imperfect. As I learn more about His plan for me, I can look back and see a few more dots connecting over time, and that helps me to choose to have hope for the future. I’m still somewhere in that process of developing hope, and I still don’t know what my future will look like. I can still get depressed if I get stuck thinking about the distant future too much, and I don’t fully understand how being gay fits into God’s plan for me. However, through being gay and through other life experiences, I have learned so much about my Heavenly Father and my Savior Jesus Christ and Their love for me. I can see how They have helped me in the past, and that helps me during the messy middle to choose hope in Christ for the unknown future.