(from the regular Column: “Meaningful-Faith: Words, the Word, and a Life of Substance”)
Mark Williams, Ph.D.
Professor of Rhetoric, California State University, Sacramento
Hope does not disappoint—except, most of the time. We hope that our team doesn’t lose; that the grocery store hasn’t run out of milk and bread; that our politicians don’t lie to us; that our spouse doesn’t cheat on us; that our children won’t die.
But they do. All the time. And if it hasn’t happened to us, it has happened to people we know, and who deserved it no more—perhaps far less—than we do. Whatever Christian hope means, it is clearly not a cheery and optimistic expectation of everything turning out like we want. Every honest and attentive Christian who has passed their first teenage crush has moved beyond that mistake.
So what does it mean for the Christian to hope?
The theological virtue of Christian hope is rooted in suffering. Hope does not expect to avoid suffering. It is founded on disappointment, and it blooms in the proper response to that pain. It expects no outcome and embraces no promise except the promise that my suffering never happens in solitude: that my losses and disappointments are also part of my communion with God incarnate who, from his earliest days on Mary’s lap, had the strongest possible reasons to expect the richest possible outcomes, and who received the darkest possible disappointment of those expectations.
Hope requires darkness. Hope that sees clearly is no hope at all, we are told. I suspect Americans, especially, are primed to be disappointed by the real nature of hope. Communion strikes most Americans as a poor substitute for fixing these troubles. But hope is stunningly inefficient. It does not fix anything except us. Christian hope is the teacher of divine hierarchy. It prioritizes properly. It pours darkness on everything that is not important.
A drowning man does not hope for a new lawn mower. He hopes for a broken beam of wood that he can cling to and so be saved.
When circumstances scream and bang their fists on the table demanding solutions, Christian hope knows how to sit quietly within the soul’s shadows and highlight the difference between what I want and what is necessary.
Few things are necessary, Martha was told. Really, only one.
To live hopefully is to live with our priorities clarified. And for a Christian, that means that our perspectives and decisions are not founded on the circumstances around us. The substance and meaning of our faith lie in something more real than the stuff around us, more real than matter and atoms and time and space and death itself. Christian hope teaches that these things are not the counselors of our choices because they are mere shadows and hints of things that are larger and more real than these mere appearances.
If I have never heard any actual music, and I learned everything I know about music from watching silent videos of a flute player, I probably should not be a music critic. But if I paid very, very close attention to those silent videos, I might get a sense of my own shortcoming. I might realize that something much larger than I could understand was going on. Christian hope is an awareness of exactly that sort of shortcoming, and it births and suckles and educates the desire for something more real than the incomplete and frothy fragments of this broken world.
But here is the thing. The moment I am aware of my incomplete understanding, Christian hope turns me back to the world of incomplete appearances. Christian hope is never permission to pretend that the world is an illusion. The world and all its pain and loss and joy and achievement is not an illusion of something that is not real, but a reflection of something that is more real. And that reflection—like the silent film of the flute player—is our teacher, and must be tended and studied and celebrated, even in its present fragmented form.
Christian hope shows us the fragmented, reflective incomplete nature of the world, but then it turns us back toward that world, to polish the broken fragments so that they reflect the Heavenly Reality more clearly.
The Christian who hopes is not a cheery optimist about circumstantial outcomes. They are a quiet custodian busy cleaning and healing and reassembling whatever bits of brokenness they find around them.
If we wish to be Christians and hopeful in the present moment, I suspect we would all be wise to remember both the higher realities we cannot know and the material realities that we can work on here and now. Both are important parts of Christian hope.