According to 1 Corinthians 13:13, there are three great spiritual virtues: faith, hope, and love. And of these three, Paul says that the greatest is love. Paul makes it clear that love drives our spiritual lives, and without it, we are as worthless as a rhythm-less drummer. In addition to love, as good Protestants, we understand the importance of faith. Faith alone saves. In addition, without faith, it is impossible to please God (Heb 11:6). Paul spends large chunks of his letters making sure we understand the role of faith in our spiritual lives. But hope? Hope can easily get lost in the shuffle like a middle child in a minivan. It’s easy to think of hope as a nice addition to our spiritual lives if we happen to have it, but not necessarily something to be purposefully cultivated and intentionally pursued.
Perhaps we overlook hope because we have re-defined it in incomplete ways. I’ve often heard hope described as a confident expectation for the future. On the surface this makes sense. This definition even attempts to correct a common misunderstanding born from its normative use. In day-to-day life, most people use the word hope to speak of a wishful desire. For example, I hope the Detroit Lions will win the Super Bowl, or I hope I will inherit money from an unknown rich uncle. It would be hard to classify either of those hopes as a confident expectation. The above-stated “confident expectation” definition moves our characterization of hope away from common cultural usage and toward the biblical understanding, but it’s still lacking in significant ways. These shortcomings tend to cheapen hope, and they fail to accurately reflect the biblical picture.
There are two ideas that need clarification before we arrive at a proper understanding of hope. First, hope must be understood as a Christ-like emotional virtue because of its strong connection to joy. As we grow in sanctification, not only do our actions become more Christ-like, but so do our emotional dispositions. In other words, as we are growing more like our Lord, the emotion of hope will be more consistently present, leading to greater and greater joy and fruitfulness. Hope cannot be true biblical hope without joy. We find this connection repeatedly in Scripture. Proverbs 10:28 puts it like this, “The hope of the righteous brings joy, but the expectation of the wicked will perish.” Romans 5:2 agrees that we rejoice in hope, “Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” Paul even commands Christians to bring joy and hope together in a series of imperatives in Romans 12:12, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” But why does biblical hope require joy? This brings us to our second clarifying idea concerning hope.
Biblical hope grows with joy because true hope is fixed on our future bodily resurrection in the presence of God in the new creation. The biblical picture of hope is focused on the future, but it is not a vague and abstract belief about what will happen. Biblical hope brings joy because I know that one day, based on the promises of God, I will rise from the dead to a resurrection body and dwell on the new earth fully enjoying the presence of God, entirely free from sin. Hope dwells on a particular moment in the future, and is thrilled with the prospects of that moment. Romans 8:18–25 makes this clear. Paul explains that our future culminates in the full and complete redemption of the entire creation, along with the redemption of our bodies. This is the moment when all will be set right. In fact, in verse 24, Paul says that “in this hope we were saved.” The outcome of our salvation is joyfully fixed on a concrete, embodied reality, not an abstract possibility.
With these two clarifications in mind, I’d like to offer a definition of hope that better fits the biblical notion than the “confident expectation” definition.
"Hope is a construal of one’s future as holding good prospects. … In hoping, a person delights in the future, welcomes it with enthusiasm, tastes it with the pleasure of anticipation, because he sees excellent prospects of having what he wants."[i]
Hope in a Cynical Age
If this definition is right, most people do not live with even a little bit of long-term hope. We live in a cynical age. People are world-weary and pessimistic. Sin always tires and breaks down hope, but the mood of our time shapes people toward cynicism in poignant ways. This comes from the cultural and philosophical shifts of recent centuries.
To paint with an incredibly broad brush, the twentieth century brought the realization that enlightenment modernity could not provide the answers we hoped it would. We believed that science and human ingenuity would save us, and that we could hope in the inevitable progress of humankind toward some utopia-like state. After two world wars and millions dead, the idea that there could be any sort of all-encompassing metanarrative was critiqued by the first postmodern scholars. The postmodern reaction to modernity was to deconstruct any metanarrative. This has fostered greater and greater cynicism among us. If modernity and liberal democracy was the end of history and failed, then we are left with nothing to hope in. All we can do is deconstruct systems and look for the power dynamic at play. When the dominant posture of the culture is to deconstruct, there’s very little left to believe or hope in.
Hope in Our Worship
This matters immensely for how we live and worship as the church. Our lives are meant to put on display the hope that lives in us to the point that people see it and ask about it (1 Peter 3:15). The darkening cynicism of our times provides ample opportunity to shine our joyful hope into the pessimistic cultural dimness.
The church is a community of hope, and as such, our Sunday gatherings must train people in hope. The church is an outpost, an embassy of our home country, and when we gather, our goal is to encourage and build one another up in hope and anticipation as we see that future day approaching (Heb 10:24–25). Author Jonathan Wilson says that worship provides a “corrected vision” of our lives and of the future. He says, “In the midst of lives that are continually shaped by other visions of reality, worship corrects our vision and enables us to live in hope in every part of our lives.”[ii]
It’s quite easy to soak in the cultural malaise of cynicism throughout the week. The church’s worship teaches us to hope in God’s kingdom and reign. As we sing, pray, listen, give, celebrate the Supper, and fellowship, our thoughts are lifted above this current life to God’s eschatological rule. We regularly need this “corrected vision” if we are to be people of joyful hope in a hopeless and cynical world.
[i] Robert C. Roberts, Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), 158.
[ii] Jonathan R. Wilson, Gospel Virtues: Practicing Faith, Hope, and Love in Uncertain Times (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1998), 122.