The Virtues: Hope

The Lord answers Job out of the whirlwind, a powerful image of suffering prayer.

The Lord answers Job out of the whirlwind, a powerful image of suffering prayer.

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Romans 8: 18-25

The difference between hope and faith is not always clear. It comes down to this: Hope is in the future, faith is in the here and now. Hope is what we long for, what we pursue, what we dream of, but don’t have yet. As Paul says in Romans, “Hope that is seen is not hope.” Faith, on the other hand, is how we make hope visible in the here and now; it is how we put that hope into action. As Hebrews says, “Faith is the substance of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things unseen.” Faith makes our hope concrete in our lives. But our hope is the thing we’re really after. The Olympic athlete longs for the gold medal; when that hope pushes her to train harder and better, it has turned into faith.

Hope is something that transcends us. It is larger than ourselves. Psychologist Viktor Frankl was a German Jew and a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. He became fascinated by observing the qualities that enabled some prisoners to survive under conditions which killed other prisoners.  He determined that ultimately these survivors had the ability to place their hope in something larger than themselves and the situation they were living in.  “I have termed this …the self-transcendence of human existence,” he wrote in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning. “It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself–be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.” Frankl points, for instance, to the man he knew in the concentration camp who was always sharing his meager food with others. He survived when many who hoarded food for themselves did not.

But, Frankl points out, there is an irony, or a paradox here. “What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”

You see, though hope is good for us, though hope gives our lives meaning and purpose, hope can’t be about us. We must hope in something bigger than ourselves—whether it is a cause, or a human community, or God.  Our lives only have meaning when we aren’t living for ourselves alone.

And so it is easy to see why hope is a virtue. Hopeful people do not live for themselves. They live for others, or to serve what they view as transcendent purposes. And for the most part, those who serve transcendent purposes do good in the world. I think of the many of you here at St. Stephen, for instance, who work in the CountyProsecutors’ office. You believe in the Law, in the Constitution, and in Justice, you believe in civil society. You’re doing good for the community and the world because of it.

We are here at Church because we either have, or are in pursuit of, hope. But it seems that the Christian hope in our self-help age has gotten muddled and even completely misinterpreted. Someplace along the way Christian hope has gotten turned on its head and lost its proper focus. I think for instance of many well-meaning Christians I know who would say that they believe in Jesus because they want to have eternal life. I’m not saying that’s not a good place to start. Often that’s why people become Christian at all—they are worried about the state of their immortal souls. That’s a very selfish reason, but most of us probably start there. But if we stay there, then we have a misplaced hope. And it seems that many people have gotten stuck in that place where salvation is all about me—how wealthy and successful I am, how happy I am.

That is ultimately not a message that’s going to appeal to the present generation. Experts in generational theory say that American generations run in cycles, and that the generation of youth now in high school and college, or returning from service in Afghanistan—this group they call the millennials—is the newest incarnation of the generation many of you represent, the GI Generation, what experts call “The Civics.” They are civic-minded, motivated by the larger good, interested in building a better world not only for themselves, but for others, and for generations to come, just like the GI generation, who fought a world war, then rebuilt the post-War world, and post-war America. These young people want purpose and hope in their lives that transcends themselves, just as GI generation had—and they aren’t interested in a Christianity that’s only about personal salvation, wealth, and success.

That’s good, because that’s not what Christianity is about.

Christianity is about what St. Augustine calls the “exercise of a holy desire.” That’s what Augustine calls hope. “The entire life of a good Christian is in fact an exercise of holy desire. You do not yet see what you long for, but the very act of desiring prepares you, so that when he comes you may see and be utterly satisfied.”

What is that holy desire that we pursue? The psalmist tells us over and over again: it is to see the face of God. In seeing the face of God, in seeing God at last fully and forever, we find our heart’s true desire. I often say in funeral services that we live eternally because God is eternal, and it takes an eternity to know an eternal God; and God’s love is eternal, so God needs an eternity to love each of us and all of us. The ultimate hope of all Christians is that what we see as in a mirror darkly we will one day see face to face: we will see God.

But we don’t hope to see God just for ourselves. In the Bible, to see the face of God means to see God ON EARTH, God’s kingdom fully established in our fallen world, the end of human suffering and injustice, the eternal arrival of perfect peace between all peoples and nature itself united by and in love of God and of one another. To see the face of God is to see God’s shalom, the arrival of God’s peace and wholeness in the world. We see this is our passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans: “All creation has been subjected to futility in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the glorious freedom of the children of God.” Our hope is also the world’s hope. The Biblical perspective is that the world is broken and that when the face of God is revealed the tikkun olam, the healing of the world, will arrive forever and for all eternity.

Until then, Paul says, all creation is subjected to futility. The great theologians have given that a lot of thought. Hope is always, it seems, accompanied by futility. There are obstacles always in the way of every goal we strive for. Hope lays the groundwork for frustration and disappointment, because it seems like what we hope for is always just out of our grasp. It’s a temptation simply to give up. For us as Christians, for instance, we hope for a world of justice and peace, a world of reconciliation and love. We hope for a world where love of God and love of neighbor are the rule, not the exception. That hope is so often frustrated. Striving to add substance to what we hope for seems futile. Add to that that we want desperately for Jesus to return to straighten everything else. Why is He taking so long? It’s so frustrating!

But as Paul reminds us, “Hope that is seen is not hope.” Our hope has to be larger than anything we can grasp in this life or by ourselves alone. Augustine uses a wonderful analogy to explain the relationship of hope and futility. He says, “Suppose you are going to fill some holder or container, and you know you will be given a large amount. Then you set about stretching your sack or wineskin or whatever it is. Why? Because you know the quantity you will have to put in it and your eyes tell you there is not enough room. By stretching it, therefore, you increase the capacity of the sack, and this is how God deals with us. Simply by making us wait he increases our desire, which in turn enlarges the capacity of our soul, making it able to receive what is to be given to us.

 

So, my brethren, let us continue to desire, for we shall be filled.”[2]

 

That feeling we all have that what we do is never enough—that feeling is a gift from God. It keeps us hungry for God. It keeps us hungry for the Kingdom of God’s arrival on earth. Frustration enlarges the capacity of our souls to see new aspects of God, to discover new things about ourselves, to embrace even more people in Godly love.  The frustration of waiting that comes so often with hope only increases our capacity to hope—and because what we hope for is God and the Kingdom of God, we’ll always hope for more than we can have. We’ll always be reminded that our hope is larger than ourselves and what we can do and accomplish.

 

And thank God that it is. Thank God. Because “Hope that is seen is not hope.” Hope must transcend us to be hope at all.

 



 

Fritz Ritsch is the pastor of St. Stephen Presbyterian Church. He grew up in Spartanburg, SC; graduated in 1981 from Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia (where he received the Ropp Award for Literary Excellence); and graduated in 1985 from Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, VA. He has served churches in Virginia, Delaware, and Maryland.His wife Margaret is a Public Relations professional and teaches Strategic Communications at TCU. They have two children: Their daughter Sara Caitlin is a college student and jazz singer, and their son Bennie is a high school student and guitarist. Fritz has been pastor of St. Stephen since 2004. He enjoys writing about the intersection of culture, politics, and faith and is a regular contributor to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He has also been published in the Washington Post, The Roanoke Times & World News, and The Presbyterian Outlook.

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