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A time to distinguish between false hopes and true hope

Hope is not trusting—even in  God—that tomorrow will be a better day. Hope is not optimism that everything will be better soon.

Bethany and Matthew Vogel share a tender moment in a pew at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church in Germantown, Ky., April 25, 2020, the day of their nuptials amid the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS Photo/courtesy The Record)

From today’s Gospel reading for Mass:

I have told you all this that your faith may not be shaken.
They will expel you from the synagogues,
and indeed the hour is coming
when anyone who kills you
will think he is doing a holy duty for God.
They will do these things
because they have never known
either the Father or myself.
But I have told you all this,
so that when the time for it comes
you may remember that I told you.

There’s some hope cropping up these days. Hope about flattened curves and opening up and so on. Plus, it’s spring. Hard to repress hope in spring.

But just a reminder: hope is not the trust that everything will be back to normal soon. Hope is not trusting—even in  God—that tomorrow will be a better day. Hope is not optimism that everything will be better soon.

Hope is a theological virtue:

Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit…

…The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man; it takes up the hopes that inspire men’s activities and purifies them so as to order them to the Kingdom of heaven; it keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment; it opens up his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude. Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity.

I think a decent goal to work for in preaching, teaching, sharing, and just living the Gospel is to not present a paradigm that will, at some point, invariably ring hollow. In other words, to try not to be Job’s friends.

O Fortuna! 

Life is hard, weird, and mysterious. Twenty-first century beneficiaries of varying degrees of global prosperity and material ease are at a disadvantage here, because it’s so easy to hide from that truth. To beat my usual drum, Jesus lays this out frequently: all your stuff and comfort is an obstacle to finding God. Why?

Because it tempts you to misplace your hope.

No, we’re not French or Russian troops dying by the tens of thousands during Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, or the peasants inconveniently in their way; we’re not in London living with the deep uncertainty of the Blitz; most of us have more than a few months to live. Probably.

But who knows?

And that’s the point.

Jesus tells us over and over: ultimately trust and hope in him, not anyone or anything else. That means don’t let your peace and confidence in who you are and why you’re here and where you’re going depend on anything else: your current health, your abilities, your achievements, what other people tell you about yourself, your sense of what the future holds materially.

Because look back up there at that Gospel reading. What is Jesus promising? That “things will be better” tomorrow? Or that the suffering of the present moment will disappear? That their lives will get more comfortable soon—they just need to wait it out?

No, that doesn’t seem to be what he’s saying.

More and more, I’ve come to believe that the greatest sea-change and challenge to Christian faith over the past century has not been Communism or Nazism or any other sort of authoritarianism, or some generic “liberalism,” or really any “ism.” I’m convinced the greatest challenge is general material prosperity, flexibility, mobility, technological advancement, and choice. Would I rather be living without any of that? Of course not!

But I also recognize the temptation—the temptation to place my trust and my sense of ultimate meaning in all of that; to operate under the assumption that because, thanks to all of that, I no longer seem to be a victim of my circumstances, I have more agency in the cosmos and greater power over nature, that I don’t need God. At least not quite so much.

That I have all of this in which I can place my hope. God: optional.

Tragedy tends to shake you up on that score. It forces you to re-evaluate and to look at whatever or whoever has been lost and say, Well. Maybe I did rely too much on that for my sense of happiness. And look at that. It—he—she—is gone. Just—gone. Where can I find hope now?

The trouble is that popular Christianity let us go on our merry way forgetting, and it even encouraged us to forget. It encouraged us by cutting us off from history and from the tradition that had grown organically in times of helplessness and hope; it encouraged us by preaching various forms of prosperity gospels, whether those are centered on “name it and claim it” or on “you follow God best when you follow your dreams.”

This pandemic has indeed been a great tragedy for some, and at the very least, a great shaking-up for others. For most of us, it’s not at the level of various other horrors that human beings or nature are capable of piling on. Read some history, or even just get some awareness of the great poverty in which so many around the world live today, to get perspective.

So for the Church to take this moment of tentative re-opening and present “Whew! We got through that! Better days ahead!” as the core spiritual lesson would be almost criminal. For while there may be hope of staving off absolute economic collapse, or while more of us may be able to go out to eat or gather for worship or just go outside without fear—what’s still going on? The impoverished are still going without, and now even more so. Cancer and other diseases still eat away at bodies. Children are still born weak and compromised. The mentally ill still struggle. Abuse, exploitation, loneliness, addiction, fear. Wars and the threat of war still lurk.

Do your words on “hope” take that into account?

Because if you’re steeped in the Word of God and in traditional Christian spiritual thinking, they will be. You’ll understand and be able to communicate something more profound than, “Here we are all together again! Ain’t it great!” 

When you read Christian spiritual writing, from the Scriptures on through history, what you see is that at every turn, the, er, “thought leaders” of the past—with all their diversity and differences—all understood the danger and temptation of false hope. And they encouraged all to see whatever they were experiencing at any given moment—good, bad, pleasant, or difficult—as an invitation to go deeper, to strip one’s life down, and gradually to let everything fall away except the One who will be all that’s left at the end.

Are these good times? Praise God, the giver of all that is good. Are these bad times? Trust God, pray for help, and hope in eternal life.

Therefore, we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal.

This experience has been something, that’s for sure. And perhaps—like the  fender-bender you had that was minor, but was also just the wake-up call you needed to understand that yes, maybe you should be paying more attention, or like the (ahem) bike accident you had that could have been a lot worse and that reminded you that you’re not invincible—it’s enough to lead to conscience-jostling and re-evaluation of priorities and an honest answer to Jesus’ challenge above: Do we remember what he told us?

(Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on the “Charlotte was Both” blog in a slightly different form.)

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About Amy Welborn 27 Articles
Amy Welborn is the author of over twenty books on Catholic spirituality and practice, and has written extensively on gender issues at her blog, Charlotte was Both.


  1. The problem with your theory is that Jesus did things that actually, really, physically made people’s lives better in the here and now: he cured the sick, gave sight to the blind, raised the dead, created food for the hungry. So where is that power now? Or is it all made up, and the hope of heaven is hung over people’s heads to make them stay in the Church? If there’s no benefit now, if there’s no good result now, if the Gospels are essentially false because they don’t apply to making life better here and now, then what’s the point?

    • Actually, the list is pretty long. One point can be this: faithful mother do not consider vacuuming children brain as liberation.
      You can see Jesus still curing the sick and dispelling demons.

      • Corey: You ask “what is the point”, and in this do make a good point.

        Try this—In the post-Christian West, under the influence of Descartes and such, our predisposition is to impose an abysmal dichotomy between things material and things spiritual. Instead, however, in his infinite simplicity God both is what he does and does what He is; God IS love (John’s gospel and letters) and DOES love his own creation, so much as to enter into it and to elevate it from above into a new creation. As you note, he feeds the hungry (but not only this). Von Balthasar makes much of this harmony.

        You ask, “what is the point” if hope is only (!) a theological virtue? For our finite minds in a fractured world the distinction still remains. And the point from theology is that the Good that/Who pervades all, and above all also beckons and awaits, is totally and infinitely disproportionate to our disrupted path. So, we both hope and pray. Christ the incarnate One is the point. We are not alone. Hope always more than disappointed optimism.

        Fr. Cantalamessa made this point on good Friday:

        “The cross of Christ has changed the meaning of pain and human suffering—of every kind of suffering, physical and moral. It is no longer punishment, a curse. It was redeemed at its root when the Son of God took it upon himself. What is the surest PROOF that the drink someone offers you is not poisoned? It is if that person DRINKS FROM THE SAME CUP BEFORE YOU DO. This is what God has done: on the cross he drank, in front of the whole world, the cup of pain down to its dregs. This is how he showed us it is not poisoned, but that there is a pearl at the bottom of this chalice.”

        The Scandal of the Cross, and the hope (1 Cor 2:9).

    • Your concern is legit but needs unpacking. JESUS said: “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father”, (John 14:12). What that means is not that we would be able to Save and Redeem the world as JESUS did on His Cross and Resurrection, obviously, but that WE are to continue His work on earth until His return in Glory with the New Jerusalem of Heaven (a real place, not living in clouds playing harps, which is just a caricature).

      That work of JESUS on Earth done by us would not be a self-gloating Pride Parade where we get all the glory while serving others, Nature, etc. but a sacrificial life: “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church”. For you to live FULLY, you have to ask yourself “Who and What am I willing to live, suffer and die for?”.

      For you and me and everyone to be able to do this we need TRUE HOPE OF HEAVEN, which has sacrificially and successfully driven Christians for 2,000 years to the envy of the whole sinful world, which then creates impostor hopes and spiritualities, and ridicules True Christian Hope and Spirituality. This ridicule is mostly based on the false belief that God should be a lot more concerned with our self-gloating comfort than with our Salvation.

      But JESUS said: “And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?”, (Mark 8:36). Remembering our obssesive addiction to earthly comforts in Hell will only intensify our suffering by reminding us that we lost the biggest prize forever: Heaven. JESUS stands Supreme above all spirituality founders because He never promised sentimental, delusional lies: “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world”, (John 16:33). That’s our most powerful and REAL HOPE, as we don’t wait for God to be our senile, compliant, Divine Butler, catering submissively to our every whim, but we take heart in serving others sacrificially like JESUS, knowing that HE HIMSELF will be our reward in Heaven and that’s what: ““No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him”, (1 Corinthians 2:9). God will give us infinitely more than what our puny, comfort-seeking human hopes will ever dream about!! Glory be to His Holy Name!!

    • JMJ
      Corey, friend, Jesus is still doing “things that actually, really, physically [make] people’s lives better in the here and now: he [is still curing] the sick, [giving] sight to the blind, [raising] the dead, [creating] food for the hungry.” As to, “So where is that power now?” We answer, EVERYWHERE. Jesus is the only source of good, and there is good taking place in this world all the time, maybe not as much as we would want, but if it were not for His good, this world would have finished long ago. But by no means are we saying that sometime soon, there will be no human misery, no. That is precisely the challenge for those of us who are not sick, not blind, not hungry, to help others.
      It is not easy to understand how God’s plan works for each one of us personally, but your questions are interesting and should, if you seriously attempt to find out as much as God allows us to find out, help you along the path to true hope.

  2. I don’t get it. Why would God create a world with so many good things just to tell us to reject those good things for a future promise we can’t experience right now, just based on hope? It’s like people who have lost at life are trying to convince themselves that they’re really winning while the winners are losing.

    • Maybe these two thoughts will help.

      First, when one truly marries a spouse exclusively and indissolubly, he is deciding against all other alternatives. A kind of asceticism within the abundance of creation. A version of giving up all in order to gain all.

      Second, Christianity is distinctly different from paganism or the later global religion of just having it all (in possessing, to be possessed by!). Jean Guitton summarizes this kind temporizing as the root of what is now the crisis of Islam:

      “Islam has not wanted to choose between Heaven and Earth. It proposed instead a blending of heaven and earth, sex and mysticism, war and proselytism, conquest and apostolate. In more general terms, Islam proposed a blending of the spiritual and the temporal worlds which neither in Islam nor among the pagans have ever been divided” (Great Heresies and Church Councils, 1983).

    • JMJ
      Douglas, friend, God did not “create a world with so many good things just to tell us to reject those good things for a future promise we can’t experience right now, just based on hope…”
      Rather, God created a world with so many good things for his children, you and me, to rationally, morally, use, enjoy, take advantage of in order to live decently.
      Unfortunately, our Original Sin allows humans to abuse the use, the enjoyment, the comfort, of technology, modern comforts, and then forget that hope, that is, REAL hope, is not “God, please make things better tomorrow,” but rather, “God, please help me to make things better for my eternal soul.”

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