Saturday, December 12, 2009

Hope Abides

Some time ago in a class at church I listened as a comment was made about the principle of hope. “It’s an important principle,” admitted one of the class members, “but it’s kind of a weak one compared to some of the other principles of the gospel.”

This seemed rather sad to me, although I understood how someone might think so. Hope to many people is not much more than wishful thinking. In fact the dictionary considers hope to be just an optimistic desire about the future. And since the future is so ill-defined, how can hope be anything more substantial than a birthday wish made over candles on a cake?

It then occurred to me that hope has an additional meaning in Spanish. It can mean “waiting” - esperanza. Is it possible, I thought, that waiting was originally an important part of the meaning of hope that we have lost - except by those speaking Spanish?

I looked in new dictionaries without much luck. Then I went to older dictionaries and still could not find any evidence for my hunch. Even the word elpida (in the Greek New Testament) and the Latin speranza (in the Vulgate) lacked this sense of waiting. I was about to give up when I decided to check my copy of The Complete Biblical Library (Gilbrant et al.). In the second volume of the Greek-English Dictionary (in the discussion of “elpis”) I found it. Hope at one time had everything to do with waiting.

“There is probably no area in which the contrast between the Greek and the Hebraic concepts of life appear more clearly than in the differences between their conceptions of hope.”

So wrote the editors of this dictionary. In ancient Israel, hope did mean waiting. In fact it sometimes meant longsuffering. Certainly it could involve an optimism about the future but this optimism was tempered with time. It could also be tempered with grief. I was beginning to learn that hope was not necessarily a weak principle at all. To have hope - to endure the trials of life while remaining true to a divine desire - is to prove one’s faith. If faith is central to religion, hope becomes its refining fire.

The Hebrew word that conveys this sense of hope is q­āwâh, and an important example of how it is used can be found in Isaiah 40:31:

“But they that wait [hope] upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”

This word for hope is usually translated in our scriptures to mean waiting. This is, of course appropriate. The trouble with it, though, is that because it carries more than one meaning, translators ended up having to choose between them. It seems that the sense of waiting was lost.

Having made this discovery, I then looked in the New Testament to see if there was any of this Hebrew sense of hope there. I was pleased to find that there was, but one has to look for both words (hope and wait/endure) to find it.

One remarkable example is the 13th chapter of 1st Corinthians. This is Paul’s famous discussion on charity and not the first place you would think to look for references about hope. But Paul understood charity as a culmination of faith and hope. Specifically, he saw both faith and hope as virtues that endure.

What stands out in his discussion of hope is his creative use of the Greek language and his expansion of the Hebrew concept of hope - with its sense of waiting and longsuffering - to include a Christian optimism in Christ.

There are primarily two words that are used in the Greek New Testament to convey the Old Testament meaning of hope. One is hypomeneo (the most commonly used) which means waiting or enduring. The other word is elpida which is very close in meaning to our word hope. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he uses both forms, although if you don’t read it in the Greek you will miss it.

“And now abideth [meneo] faith, hope [elpis], charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity” (1st Corinthians 13:13)

Paul uses the optimistic form of hope (if we can call it that for convenience) here - the Greek elpida. For him, hope in Christ is something to experience optimistically. But he is also sensitive to the Jewish understanding of waiting and also refers to it (he uses the word meneo - a less onerous form of hypomeneo). In this verse (from the King James Version) it is translated as “abideth”.

This may all seem a bit technical but the meaning is very simple. It is also significant: hope is much more than just wishful thinking.

This dual sense of hope continued into the early Christian period. The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians (written in the 2nd Century) pleads for both longsuffering and patience in hope (see Roberts and Donaldson).

“Let us then continually persevere in our hope, and the earnest of our righteousness, which is Jesus Christ … Let us then be imitators of His patience; and if we suffer for His name’s sake, let us glorify Him.”

Augustine, in his work on faith, hope and charity (the Enchiridion, written in the early 5th Century) does not have much to say about hope but does acknowledge Paul’s epistle to the Romans with it’s understanding of waiting.

For we are saved by hope: but hope that is see is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it.” (Romans 8:24-25)

By the time of Thomas Aquinas, however (mid 13th Century), the Old Testament understanding of hope is difficult to detect. His treatise on faith, hope and charity (in the Summa Theologica) is comprised of roughly 500 pages. But just over ten percent of this is given to any discussion of hope, and most of these pages are only a discussion contrasting hope with fear. The older concept of waiting is acknowledged briefly but ambiguously.

The expectation which is mentioned in the definition of hope does not imply delay although longanimity may pertain to hope. But hope implies a reference to the Divine assistance, whether that which we hope for be delayed or not.”

Much of the problem seems to be that there just hasn’t been an adequate word that conveys both the senses of waiting and of wishing that the ancient authors appreciated. Translators have been left on their own to decide the best word to use in any given context, assuming they understood the language nuances to begin with. An alternative would be to describe both meanings in repetitive or contrasting ways like Paul did in 1st Corinthians. Fortunately we have a handful of places where this method does occur. The best examples happen to be in the Book of Mormon.

One of the key chapters on faith in the Book of Mormon is Alma 32. It is also an important, though rarely recognized, chapter on hope. In fact verse 21 (perhaps the most widely quoted verse in the chapter) shows that the two principles are interconnected in an important way.

…"faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true."

And what are these things that can’t be seen that we, with faith, will hope for? They are actually quite simple, but Alma first wants to explain something else. He wants to shows us that through experimenting on the word and nourishing it that we can look forward to the fruits of faith. And it is by looking forward to this fruit, coming from a tree that has become rooted and well cared for, that we can hope for eternal life (Alma 32: 41).

It is this journey of faith to the fruit of faith that requires hope. And it isn’t until the last verse of this remarkable chapter that Alma mentions how this is to be done. In fact he doesn’t even use the word hope at all - at least the word for hope that we’re familiar with. Instead he describes it in the words of his scriptural heritage where hope means waiting.

Then my brethren, ye shall reap the rewards of your faith, and your diligence, and patience, and long suffering, waiting on the tree to bring forth fruit unto you” (Alma 32: 43).

Obviously Alma understood hope to be much more than wishful thinking.

It appears that faith is to be tried. It is to be experimented with - even proven. And it is this trying of faith that informs hope. The prophet Ether, in another important chapter on faith, teaches that if men will humble themselves before the Lord and have faith in Him, will He turn their weaknesses into strengths. And then will faith, hope and charity bring men unto Christ the fountain of all righteousness (Ether 12: 27-28). So it is that faith must endure through trials of its own. As it does so, it waits. It endures. In a word, it hopes. As it is refined, it knows charity and brings us unto Christ.

Finally at the end of the Book of Mormon, Moroni includes some of the teachings of his father Mormon about the interconnectedness of faith, hope and charity. He then adds his father’s prayer that God the Father will keep him through the endurance of faith on his name to the end (Moroni 8: 3).

Sadly, our generation, more than any other, is handicapped from being able to understand hope. Part of the reason for this is that we find it difficult to wait for, or through, anything. It’s truly revealing how agonized some of us become over a slow traffic light, a slow computer, or the delay of a package by a day. Our hope-less condition becomes almost a spectacle in the long frustrated lines of cars waiting for fast food at a drive-through window. Efficiency is the name of the game, and the innovator that helps us save a few minutes is our hero.

But who understands the Law of the Harvest anymore – the principle of reaping what we sow, the principle of working and waiting before we receive? Our ancestors used to know about waiting by the sheer necessity of living off of the land. They also knew that the planting of seeds was an act of faith that required a period of gestation – a period of patient maturation and care.

This is the way things are meant to be – both for seeds and for faith. The Lord doesn’t normally test our faith by requiring some immediately difficult task. He tests our faith in the prolonging of our trials. Without this period of testing we would never grow to understand the love of God.

This pathway to Christ - the pathway of faith, hope and charity - is quite a different pathway than we sometimes think. It is also different than our generation is able to easily understand. Faith is certainly much more than a blind rational belief when it is truly experienced. Charity, likewise, as a gift from God is much more than another word for love or for almsgiving. And hope - that “middle” virtue that so often gets lost in between faith and charity - is much more than a weak doctrine of wishful thinking. It is the very path of patience in faith that brings us to Christ. It is the connecting link that makes faith and charity understandable in a world of doctrinal semantics and temporal confusion. It is, most certainly, a crowning virtue. Faith, we are taught, is the evidence of things not seen that are true. And hope, as it should be properly understood, is the evidence of this faith. It endures. It abides.

Works Cited

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica Part. II, Question 17, Article 5.

Gilbrant, Thoralf et al. eds. 1991. World Library Press, Inc. Springfield, Missouri.

Roberts, A and J. Donaldson eds. 1995 Anti-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 1, Chapter VIII.


  1. Thanks for your wonderful thoughts. A few years ago I read the following article in the Ensign: "Hope: The Misunderstood Sister" by Larry Hiller While Brother Hiller didn't use the dictionaries you did for enlightenment on hope, in his search he came up with similar thoughts. Hopefully, more people will take note of the significance of this principle. I can't imagine how anyone can keep going without hope.

    1. Thank you for the reference and kind words.