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Is it hope or wishful thinking?

To Aaron Neff, the difference between hope and wishful thinking is evidence. In this article, he explores the foundation for our Christian hope.

Photo by Kristel Hayes on Unsplash

Hope is the belief that things will get better. In modern American English, we tend to use the word “hope” to express a preferred outcome. Sometimes, the preferred outcome we desire is based on little evidence, a type of hope we call “wishful thinking.” Wishful thinking is when we choose to believe something will happen, despite little evidence to suggest it will actually happen, usually just to make ourselves feel better. What about Christian hope? Is there evidence to support Christian hope, or is it just wishful thinking? On what evidence do we base our belief that things will get better?

In answering those questions, my mind goes to two Scripture passages. The first is Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The author of Hebrews refers to hope as “things not (yet) seen.” I think what the author means here is that faith is the way we “see” the yet unseen, better future we desire. The author of Hebrews goes on to demonstrate why any of us should have this kind of faith to “see” such a future by describing Abraham’s faith (11:8-22). On Abraham’s journey from Ur to Canaan, God demonstrated God’s self as good and able to deliver on the promises God had made to him. That was the evidence on which Abraham based his faith to have hope — God’s own character. It is the same for us. The evidence on which we can base our belief that things will get better is God’s own character — demonstrated most clearly to us in Jesus Christ. God is good and able to deliver on the promises of a better future. That leads me to the second Scripture passage that comes to my mind about this topic.

In Titus 2:13, we read, “We wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” The author of this letter is referring to the return of Christ — that future day when Jesus will return to the earth to bring God’s salvation to its completion by restoring all of creation and undoing all injustice. The author refers to this future day as “the blessed hope.” This is also evidence on which we can base our belief in a better future: God’s own promise that Jesus will return to us. As Hebrews 11:1 teaches us, faith and hope are related. Our good and faithful God has promised that Jesus will usher in God’s perfect kingdom. Do we believe it or not? Is our belief in Christ’s return based on our belief in God’s character, or is something more like “wishful thinking” — something we tell ourselves to make us feel better but based on no evidence?

For me, I must take it literally, because I refuse to allow my faith to become wishful thinking. I value my time and my integrity too much to simply tell myself and my church something to make us feel better. I believe that one day Jesus will literally and physically step foot on this earth again, and all of creation will be transformed by God’s love and justice and will perfectly reflect God’s will.

This year, to help me practice Advent as a season of hope, I am rediscovering an old prayer. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he concludes his letter with the Aramaic phrase maranatha, meaning, “Our Lord, come!” (16:22). The phrase is in reference to the return of Christ and is Paul’s hopeful desire that God’s salvation would be completed soon. The ancient Christian mystics, like John Cassian and Benedict of Nursia, picked up on this phrase and used it in prayer.

The version of the prayer I have been using is a monologistic prayer (a meditative prayer that utilizes the repetition of a single word). I sit in silence and, breaking the word apart into four separate syllables, I pray the word in sync with my breathing. On my in-breath, I pray in my mind, “Ma-ra-na-tha.” On my out-breath, I pray in my mind, “Ma-ra-na-tha.” I do this for as long as I have time to pray. Somedays I find that the Lord comes to me spiritually and refreshes me. On other days, I find myself strengthened by the hope of Christ’s return and the mystery of the world made new.

Whether using the maranatha prayer or another practice, I hope you will find a renewed belief in hope this Advent, based on the faithfulness and character of God and the blessed promise of Christ’s return. May we wait eagerly for his return, and may he find us actively preparing a place for him when he does. Our Lord, come!