Hope: Why Every Human Being Needs It

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Hope as Looking Forward to Better Days to Come

The author of Ecclesiastes reflects on the absolute importance of hope, the sine qua non in a person’s life, saying,

“For whoever is joined with all the living, there is hope; surely a live dog is better than a dead lion.  For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten” (Ecclesiastes 9:4-5, NIV).

Hope is looking forward, believing in a future which is better than the present. Koheleth’s message is realistic, not pessimistic. That is to say, as long as one is alive, there is still hope.1 Hope ends when one dies. Hope, then, is for this life, the here and now. Even when it comes to believing in life-after-death, one hopes for it now, because after death, either one’s hope is fulfilled or it is not. In the words of philosopher Peter Kreeft,

“Only angels do not need hope, for they do not live in time and have no future. But we creatures of time are constantly moving into the future, and our eyes are usually facing forward, [in need of hope].”2

A Distinctively Human Virtue

Hope is one of the most important spiritual virtues (cf. I Corinthians 13:13), along with faith and love. Every person has the spiritual potential to hope. Neither cats nor dogs nor birds hope but humans do. To be human, then, is to hope. It is literally a matter of life and death. With it, one lives with meaning. Without hope, one lives in despair.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Example of Hope

Hope is developed from oppositions to one’s aims or from obstacles, which stand in the way of pursuing one’s goals. It is also developed from the temptation to give up, when everything seems hopeless. As Solzhenitsyn says, referring to the inmates in the concentration camps, “The fighters’ spiritual strength rises to the greatest height and to a supreme degree of tension when their situation is most helpless….”3 Through exercising the virtue of hope, it becomes an inner, spiritual strength that helps one to cope with adverse conditions – spiritual, mental or physical – which either can or cannot be changed.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was arrested for criticizing Josef Stalin – the former leader of Russia or the Soviet Union – and sentenced to a total of eight years in various Soviet concentration camps learned there that “All that the downtrodden can do is go on hoping. After every disappointment they must find fresh reason for hope.”4 For Solzhenitsyn, hope was necessary for survival. He often had to find new reasons to hope in order to stay alive.

The Prophet Jeremiah’s Example of Hope

Every day is a new reason for hope. For example, the prophet Jeremiah, who is known as “the weeping prophet,” could not change the destruction of the city Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587-  86 B. C. He mourned over all of the dead men, women and children who lay in the streets of the holy city. Yet, right in the middle of that tragedy, despite everything that had happened to Jerusalem and God’s people, Jeremiah hoped for better days to come, a brighter future, saying,

“My soul … is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him’” (Lamentations 3:20-24, RSV).

 Jeremiah’s message of hope to the exiled Jews applies to every human being, especially anyone who is encountering some kind of difficulty or problem:

“‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (Jeremiah 29:11, NIV).

Every person, then, needs to believe that there is still “hope and a future” for him or her.

Viktor Frankl’s Example of Hope

Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, illustrates the need for hope by his experience in a concentration camp:

“When we spoke about attempts to give a man in camp mental courage, we said that he had to be shown something to look forward to in the future. He had to be reminded that life still waited for him, that a human being waited for his return.”5

Hope, then, is looking toward the future, especially during difficult times, believing that things will be better than they are now. It is Frankl’s lesson from the living laboratories of the concentration camps. He comments,

“The prisoner who had lost faith in the future – his future – was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay.”6

Hope as Active Passivity

Hope involves patience. In fact, in biblical Hebrew, hope may be translated as “wait” (qavah, cf. Psalm 62:5; Isaiah 40:31) To hope, then, means to “wait,” to “look eagerly for” or “expect.” Hence, hope is active passivity or living in the present, while aiming toward and doing something about a better future. Hope also involves faith, believing that the object of hope, which, at present, is unseen, will be realized or come to pass in the future. In that sense, hope is positive, optimistic. As St. Paul writes, “… hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it” (Romans 8:24-25, NASB).

Hope, therefore, is the “fuel” that keeps human beings alive. The head and heart must “feed” on hope. To “feed” on it is to have, every day, a reason to live. Keep on hoping, keeping hope alive!

Endnotes

1. Michael A Eaton, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Vol. 16: Ecclesiastes, ed. D. J. Wiseman (Downers Grove, IL.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983), p. 126.

2. Peter Kreeft, Fundamentals of the Faith: Essays in Christian Apologetics (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1988), p. 176.

3. Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, Vol. 3: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, Parts V – VII, trans. Harry Willetts (New York, N.Y.: Harper and Row Publishers, Inc., 1978), p. ix.

4. Ibid., p. 298.

5. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster/ Pocket Books, 1963), p. 146.

6. Ibid., p. 117.

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