In yesterday’s post, we discussed the theological virtue of hope. This is the supernatural virtue whereby we confidently expect God’s help in attaining eternal life. The object of hope is not earthly things (e.g., better health, a higher-paying job), but rather God and the things awaiting us in Heaven. Hope pertains to things that are difficult but not impossible; we do not really need to hope for things that are at hand or easily obtained.
Today, let’s ponder briefly some sins against hope. Expectation of God’s help must be confident and vigorous, but not overly so; careful balance is necessary. Both St. Thomas Aquinas and the Catechism of the Catholic Church identify two sins against hope: despair and presumption.
Despair – By despair, man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of his sins. Despair is contrary to God’s goodness, to his justice—for the Lord is faithful to his promises—and to his mercy (CCC # 2091).
While despair may have many complicated psychological motives, those falling into it ultimately conclude that God cannot or will not save them or give them the graces necessary to obtain the life He offers.
Despair is common today, when we too easily conclude that it is not possible live the holy life to which God summons us. Our modern world considers things like chastity, forgiveness, and self-control to be unrealistic, if not impossible. This is a form of despair because it denies that God’s grace can equip, empower, and enable people to live holy lives.
Hope confidently expects from God the graces necessary to attain to eternal life. Hence this type of despair is a sin against hope.
St. Thomas, in his Summa Theologica, also links despair to the capital sins of lust and sloth:
Lust is linked to despair because bodily pleasures and preoccupations often cause a distaste for spiritual goods. Lust interacts with the flesh and causes us to pines for and prefer bodily goods. It even causes us to perceive that spiritual goods are in competition with bodily pleasures because they setting limits on their satisfaction. Due to lust, we increasingly stop hoping for spiritual goods, despairing of them as problematic or even threatening.
Sloth is linked to despair because there are some who, seeing that something is possible but arduous, become downcast because of the significant effort required to effect change. In this case, they despair through sloth (cf ST II IIae 20.4).
Presumption – There are two kinds of presumption. Either man presumes upon his own capacities, (hoping to be able to save himself without help from on high), or he presumes upon God’s almighty power or his mercy (hoping to obtain his forgiveness without conversion and glory without merit) (CCC # 2092).
The second form of presumption is evident among many in the house of faith (both Protestant and Catholic). I have written at great length about the common presumption that just about everyone goes to Heaven. At too many funerals, bold “canonizations” take place.
Confident expectation of God’s help is essential to hope, but presumption sins against hope by claiming to have already “in the bag” what God offers us on condition. We must freely accept His transformative grace and by it, attain to the holiness without which no one will see God (Heb 12:14). This requires a profound work of God to take place within us. It is freely and unconditionally offered, but we must fully accept it. Our acceptance will lead to changes that many resist and that God will not force.
Presumption rejects the arduousness of achieving what we hope for by claiming to already “have” what is offered. In this way, presumption sins against hope. Once one has what one hopes for, hope ceases. As St. Paul said, who hopes for what he already has? (Rom 8:24)
Clearly, balance is required. Confidence of salvation, yes; current possession or possession without condition, no. Here is one of the best Scriptures against presumption:
Rely not on your strength in following the desires of your heart. Say not: “Who can prevail against me?” for the LORD will exact the punishment. Say not: “I have sinned, yet what has befallen me?” for the LORD bides his time. Of forgiveness be not overconfident, adding sin upon sin. Say not: “Great is his mercy; my many sins he will forgive.” For mercy and anger alike are with him; upon the wicked alights his wrath. Delay not your conversion to the LORD, put it not off from day to day; For suddenly his wrath flames forth; at the time of vengeance, you will be destroyed. Rely not upon deceitful wealth, for it will be no help on the day of wrath (Sirach 5:1-10).
Here is the Act of Hope, a traditional Catholic prayer:
relying on Your almighty power
and infinite mercy and promises,
I hope to obtain
pardon for my sins,
the help of Your grace,
and life everlasting,
through the merits of Jesus Christ,
my Lord and Redeemer. Amen.