What Hope Is NOT

Let’s be straight about something: hope is not easy. Hope is hard to hold and internalize, but it’s even difficult to grasp as a concept.

Some people use “hope” to mean something akin to a wish: “I hope I get that toy for Christmas!” Others use it when they really mean optimism— that use carries a little more depth along with its good intention but still falls short. Some even seem to use hope as a synonym for joy or being happy with no regard to the future orientedness of the term. We’re all guilty of this, by the way, even all my research and study, I still catch myself using the word recklessly.

Complicating Hope

If you fall into this category, and I know you do, then let me complicate it for you. Václav Havel was a political dissident who became the first President of the Czech Republic. He’s an amazing figure for many reasons, but this story has nothing to do with that. He was walking a drunk friend home (Havel himself was sober, by the way) and fell into the sewer. While there, he discovered what hope truly was. He wrote a brief, one-page essay on it for Esquire, which I highly recommend reading. But here’s a quote:

Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy when things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something to succeed. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

Want even more? Let’s turn to Emily Dickinson:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.

I’m tempted to raise my eyebrow at that last line, but who am I to question a poet whom I often don’t understand.


Searching for Deeper Hope

Hope is hard to research, too, trust me, I know. Even searches in academic databases lead pretty much entirely to sources about other things. You get a lot of journal articles with titles like “Finding hope amidst [this other topic that actually has nothing to do with hope.]” One of my favorite moments is a book found in a database search by one of my academic mentors who thought it had promise, a publication of the World Council of Churches entitled, “The Christian Hope and the Task of the Church.” I went to all ends to get my hands on a copy of this long out of print book. Guess what I found? It’s a collection of committee reports bound together by the idea that “Hey, all of Christianity is about hope, right? We can’t find any other connection for all these reports so let’s just title it ‘The Christian Hope!’”

But while pursuing the psychology section at the library, I serendipitously stumbled upon something that had eluded my database searches: an entire body of hope psychology that is at the same time deceptively simple and utterly brilliant. It’s well researched, too, with a bevy of supporting studies.

And to my utter amazement, almost no one had brought hope psychology into the church. Seriously— aren’t we the hope people? How had no one looked for God in this, at least not in writing?

I’ll share the basic premise of it probably in my next post, but for now, let me say that it led me to draw a distinction between hope in this world and in this life and hope that is beyond it. (Remember the Václav Havel essay? Indeed the hope in the quote above is beyond this life!) Following in the tradition of theologian Paul Tillich and others, I call hope in this life “practical hope” and that which comes from beyond it “ultimate hope.”

It’s an artificial distinction, however, and to live without either is to live without complete hope. It is, however, helpful for diagnosing where our hope is strong and where it is lacking.


Definition? Expectation?

I am not going to attempt a concise definition of hope. Perhaps that’s an academic copout, I’ll admit, or maybe it’s my nature to love the intuitive and the contemplative. There is one word that somehow hasn’t been explicit in this post so far: “expectation.” One thing that sets hope apart from a wish or shallow optimism is a simple and pure expectation that the thing hoped for will come to pass.

One may or may not get the gift they want for Christmas. One may or may not find the desired resolution to the situation about which one is optimistic.

But the love of God? Grace? God’s promise that all will be made new? The faithful know that these are a given. They are expected simply because of who God is. That’s hope.


I want to share the definition of hope upvoted by the community on Urban Dictionary. I can’t believe I’m going to end this way, but this is a blog and not a dissertation, right? Like everything on Urban Dictionary, it is imperfect, rough around the edges, and most importantly goes downhill quickly. So beware if you click the link, for the love of all that is holy, don’t click around any further. :) But, this part made me think, so perhaps it will make you think (or feel), too:

[Hope is] a beautiful friend who will stand by you through everything and someone you can always rely on. beautiful on the inside and out with a very funny and warm personality. quite a small person with a huge heart, big eyes and pretty features. can make you laugh at any time and does the most random and spazzy things that will just put a big smile on your face. extremely spontaneous and likes to make people happy.