This week we are returning to one of Miroslav Volf‘s essays in his very good book, Against the Tide: Love in a time of petty dreams and persisting enmities. In his essay “Not Optimistic” Volf draws an important distinction between optimism and hope. While both hope and optimism have to do with the future, and they both envision a good or improved future, they are not the same thing. Optimism is based on our past experiences and it is a useful and even necessary thing. If our last trip to Kansas City was a good trip, we will be optimistic that our next trip will be a good trip. If I have a good lunch at a restaurant once, I am optimistic that the next time I eat there lunch will be good. Optimism is something that comes out of this world and our experiences.
Hope, as Volf points out, “is independent of people’s circumstances”. “Hope is not based on the possibilities of the situation and on correct extrapolation about the future. Hope is grounded in the faithfulness of God and therefore on the effectiveness of God’s promise.” ” [H]ope is based on the possibilities of God”. (45, 46)
What does it mean for Christians and the church to live as communities and individuals of hope?
If we have hope that our future, our destiny belongs to God who will set all things right- how do we live now?
To live as people of hope means that we are free to break from the past. The way it has always been is not the way it must be in the future. If I am trapped by a persistent sin, I can- with God’s help- change. Just as individuals can change, nations too can break with their past. Consider how South Africa has changed, or Northern Ireland. They are not perfect, but their present situations are radically different than their past.
To live as people with hope also means we know we don’t do this alone. The work of the Holy Spirit opens us to the possibility of a different future and helps us have the courage to step into that possibility.
To live as people of hope means we take Jesus and the prophets seriously.
When Isaiah talks about God’s reign and says, “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them”. (Isaiah 11:6) We believe he is telling us the truth about our future.
When Micah talks about a world where, “…they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.” (Micah 4:3-4) We believe it will happen.
When Jesus talks about the life of discipleship and says, “”You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matt 5:43-47). We believe this is the life followers of Jesus are called to live.
We don’t often talk much about hope during Lent. But because we are people who live in the time after Easter, we can read the Passion story, in its grim progression to the cross, moved forward one step at a time by the crushing reality of life in an Empire driven by power and fueled by fear, with hope. Our experience of the world tells us we ought not to be optimistic about how Jesus life and work will end. But hope, hope “based on the possibilities of God” allows us to continue reading- from Palm Sunday to the last supper to Good Friday and into Easter morning. Hope allows us to get up each morning and believe the prophets and Jesus. Hope allows us to live as forgiven and forgiving people.We do this very imperfectly but hope, calling to us from the future, gives us the courage to try.
2 thoughts on “Hope”
I must admit, I don’t think I have ever tried to differentiate hope and optimism. Nonetheless, your analysis makes sense.
Hmmm … hope as a Lenten message … now that’s interesting, and another thought I have not contemplated. Maybe it is because hope is more of an Advent theme, but hey – Easter is the highest of all Christian holidays – It is the day that Christianity is built upon – It is the day we hang our hope upon – so yes, hope should be a lenten message!
Thanks for your comments. It seems to me the only reason anyone can make it through 6 weeks of Lent with its proper emphasis on repentance is precisely because we have hope in the resurrection.