In the United States, where self-esteem and self-indulgence have been force-fed for a generation, suicide rates are growing once again, especially among young people. The federal Centers for Disease Control reports that suicide is a serious public health problem, the third-leading cause of death among youth.

Suicide claims more than 4,400 young lives each year. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. A nationwide survey found 15 percent of students in grades 9-12 (from public and private schools) in the United States reported seriously considering suicide, 11 percent planned their death, and 7 percent tried to kill themselves in the preceding 12 months. Every year, about 149,000 young people receive emergency medical care for self-inflicted injuries.

But the problem transcends our shores. Europe is facing its own crisis. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has called the current financial situation dire. “I think Europe is headed to a suicide,” he says. In countries such as Spain, youth unemployment is 50 percent.

Literally and figuratively, “The economic downturn that has shaken Europe for the last three years has also swept away the foundations of once-sturdy lives, leading to an alarming spike in suicide rates,” according to The New York Times. “Especially in the most fragile nations like Greece, Ireland and Italy, small-business owners and entrepreneurs are increasingly taking their own lives in a phenomenon some European newspapers have started calling ‘suicide by economic crisis.’” The tsunami of financial hardship is leaving a valley of despair in its wake.

It has been said that “Man can live about forty days without food, about three days without water, about eight minutes without air, but only for one second without hope.” If that’s true, we can spend a few moments considering the nature and function of hope.

Hoping against Hope

The great English journalist and satirist Malcolm Muggeridge, reflecting on forms of despair in the 20th century—-particularly among proponents of Stalin in Russia and Western nihilists devoted to materialism and abortion—-said modern man has a “suicidal impulse,” a type of self-hatred. This impulse has spawned a bewildering number of proposals to cure, or at least curb, the problem. Unfortunately, varied as they are, these remedies share a common thread: their ingenuity and power are limited to human resources.

For many, “hope” is an emotion or positive outlook excavated from the depths of one’s soul. It often comes in the midst of calamity and disappointment. In spite of misfortune, we “hope” things will go well. The actor Josh Hartnett captured this notion when he said, “Hope is the most exciting thing in life, and if you honestly believe that love is out there, it will come. And even if it doesn’t come straight away there is still that chance all through your life that it will.” Thus the phrase, “hoping against hope”!

Among the Sioux living at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, suicide rates exceed the national average. So students at the nearby Oglala Lakota College are launching a campaign for hope. They have provided disposable cameras for elementary school students to photograph “things that gave them hope.” Some of the photos show other children. One shows trees and rocky cliffs; another shows three dogs; still another depicts a basketball falling through a hoop.

Though well-meaning, this attempt is a long distance from the biblical vision of hope, which God grants to his people as a gift, often in the middle of painful circumstances. Biblical hope is all about what God has done for us in Christ. It is not a matter of achieving liberation for ourselves, about “hoping for the best.” Nor is it wishful thinking or blind optimism. Rather, hope enables men and women to look through our windows at the biting, grinding, violent world, red in tooth and claw, and know that we belong to a kingdom that cannot be shaken (1 Peter 1:4).

The Hope of God

God offers real hope, and he does so through the nail-scarred hands of Jesus. The salvation Jesus purchased upon the cross before rising victoriously from the grave is the only power strong enough to lift men and women out of despair. How does it work? Paul writes, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5; emphasis added).

The blessed progression of the Holy Spirit makes hope accessible. We don’t pull hope out of a religious hat or somehow conjure it up by the strength of our wills. Nor does it come from within us; rather, it travels from afar to illumine our darkness. The Spirit brings hope as a byproduct of his very presence, which is poured into our hearts. We don’t generate hope any more than we generate divine indwelling. It is God’s gift.

And given the heart-breaking despair all around us, it’s a gift we must share with others.