Rescuing the Word “Hope” and Recovering Its Biblical Meaning

hopeHope (like love) is a word that needs to be rescued from a world that has overused and misused it for so long that its original meaning has been nearly lost. Hope has come to imply more of a vague wish for something. Sometimes it’s used as a substitute for the word “maybe.” For example, if a person says, “I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow,” he likely means “I wish it wouldn’t rain” or “It’ll probably rain but it sure would be nice if it didn’t.” Here is another example: If a person is asked, “Will you be at the meeting tomorrow?” and responds, “I hope so,” he probably means “Maybe I’ll be there.”

In both examples, doubt surrounds the situation and the desired result seems improbable. While the word hope is not used only in situations like this, too often it merely represents wishing for an unlikely outcome.

I cannot set forth an entire treatise on hope here, but I would like to try to rescue it from its secular meaning, or at least to distinguish the theological virtue of hope from secular hope.

The theological virtue of hope is confident expectation. The theological meaning of the word hope has a much more vigorous quality. The definition of theological hope that I memorized back in Seminary is the older one, which was in use prior to the current Catechism.

Hope is the Theological Virtue wherein one confidently expects God’s help in attaining eternal salvation.

The current Catechism of the Catholic Church defines hope in this way:

The theological virtue by which we desire and expect from God both eternal life and the grace we need to attain it (Glossary, cf # 1817).

Notice how much more vigorous hope is in these definitions. Hope is a confident expectation. The Catechism (# 1817) quotes from the letter to the Hebrews, which says, Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful (Heb 10:23).

This is more than a vague wish for something that is unlikely. This is more than saying “maybe God will save us.” It is vigorous because He who has promised is trustworthy, true, and able. It is also vigorous because true hope is a theological virtue. That is to say, it is infused into the soul of the believer by God Himself. Hence, although it interacts with our human nature and builds upon it, it does not wholly depend on our mood or temperament.

The theological virtue of hope has God for its proper object. St. Thomas Aquinas made it very clear that eternal happiness with God is the true and proper purpose of hope:

The hope of which we now speak attains God by leaning on his help … [and] the good which we ought to hope for from God properly and chiefly is the infinite good … For we should hope from Him nothing less than Himself … Therefore the proper and principle object of hope is eternal happiness (Summa Theologica II, IIae, 17.2).

St. Thomas also taught that hope concerns things that, though difficult, are possible with God’s help. This is why we need hope. Life has its challenges and there will be obstacles and discouragements. But hope summons us to persevere, not losing sight of our goal.

Therefore, hope is a vigorous and necessary theological virtue. It bestows a kind a confidence and ability to persevere.

The theological virtue of hope pertains to what we do not yet fully see or possess. Although hope is confident expectation, it is not absolute fact or current possession that some of our Protestant brethren assert when they claim “Once saved, always saved.” St. Paul wrote of hope in this way: For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently (Rom 8:24-25).

In other words, if I were to say, “I hope I find my Bible” and then proceed to find it, hope vanishes. One doesn’t hope for what one already has. Hope pertains only to what one does not currently have or fully possess. When I hope for something, I confidently expect that I will one day possess it because God has promised it. I am not already saved (as some Protestants assert) but am justified through the Blood of Christ and am being saved as long as I hold on to God’s unchanging hand by His Grace. Hence, hope is confident expectation, but not possession.

We can thus see that the word “hope” has suffered the same fate as the word “love.” Too often people say, “I Love God,” or “I love my wife,” or “I love my new car.” Love has lost its meaning through overuse and misuse. So it is also with hope. We say, “I hope in God and to be with him eternally,” and then follow right up with, “I hope it doesn’t rain.” Theologically hope does not pertain to things like rain, the outcome of football games, getting a raise.

In theology, hope always has God and the things of God as its object. I have no delusions that we will ever get the words “love” and “hope” back to their proper objects and context, but I wanted to present their origin so that we can all understand that when the Church and Scripture use these words, they do not mean them in the flat and often vacuous way that the world does.

Tomorrow we will look at some sins against hope. Or at least I “hope” so.

2 Replies to “Rescuing the Word “Hope” and Recovering Its Biblical Meaning”

  1. Colossians 1:27. To them GOD chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is CHRIST in you, the Hope of Glory.
    Great! That I may abide in HIM so that I may attain and gain heaven and be with HIM in HIS Glory.

  2. Could you compare the notions of the theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity) with that of the commonly held notion by Protestants of faith which seems to me to encompass all three virtues?

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