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What Is Hope?

How does one put "hope" into words?

One of my favorite poets, Emily Dickinson, described it this way:

"Hope" is the thing with feathers -
that perches in the soul -
and sings the tune without the words -
and never stops - at all -

Hope is a delicate, persistent, quiet triumph—like birdsong floating from the treetops. Hope is essential to our human experience. It allows us to overcome tragedy, to persist in the face of suffering, and to make this world a better place.

But... what IS it? How should we describe it? And even more important, where do we find it when we've lost it? In writing my first book, When It Hurts to Hope, I spent a lot of time wrestling with these questions. Let's take a look at some answers.

What Is Hope?


Hope has two basic elements: desire and anticipation. We want something to happen, and we have a reasonable belief, or at least a small expectation, that it will happen. Hope looks to the future and expects good things.


But the chaos and disappointment of life teach us to feel uncertain about our hopes. If you’re in a new relationship, you might find yourself thinking, “I hope he’s the one. If a loved one is facing a scary diagnosis, you might say, “I hope she gets good test results.”


Sometimes, hope feels about as reliable as a coin toss. Why? Because hope is only as good as its object. If the object has been proven trustworthy, hope is a reasonable choice. If the object is unreliable, then you're wise to keep your guard up.

From Rachel Miller's blog called What Is Hope? An Image that says, "Your hope is only as good as its object."


What Does the Bible Say About Hope? 


Throughout the Bible, we see examples of “hope” communicating both desire and anticipation. In the Old Testament, one of the Hebrew words for hope, yāḥalis also translated as “wait.” For example, Noah waited (yāḥal) in the ark for seven days before sending a dove out to test the waters. Yāḥal is also used throughout the Psalms to describe putting one’s trust in God, as in this verse:


“Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us, even as we hope (yāḥal) in you.” Psalm 33:22 (ESV)


There are other words translated as “hope” in the Old testament, like miqvê, which connotes a specific outcome or thing hoped for. The word tôḥeleṯis also translated as “hope” in verses like Proverbs 13:12, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.”


In the New Testament, the Greek word for hope, elpisalso communicates a sense of expectation. However, it also carries a nuanced expression: “Joyful and confident expectation of eternal salvation.” (source) All of the apostles who wrote in the New Testament wrote about the elpis—the hope—that comes only through faith in Christ, and anticipation of the work he is doing and will continue to do.


While our experience of hope can be full of uncertainty, this New Testament use of hope is quite different. It’s assured and grounded and confident‚ because the object of our hope is the unchanging character of God. It’s a rock-solid conviction that God is who he says he is and will do what he has promised.


Look at 2 Corinthians 1:20-22:


“For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ... Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.”


Paul uses the metaphor of a “deposit” to describe the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives. Every homeowner knows that the down pay­ment is the first of many payments (unfortunately). It’s the promise that you will pay everything you’ve agreed to in your mortgage.


In the same way, the Holy Spirit is God’s deposit in our hearts, a pledge that every single promise of his will one day be “yes” to those who are in Christ. We can feel confident as we wait for him to fulfill the promises he has made to us.


How to Hope When Life Feels Uncertain 


While our hope in God and his promises is certain, our hope in the things of this earthy experience is not. None of us are guaranteed a perfect family, a perfectly healthy body, and unending fulfillment in our careers. So how do we navigate this tricky terrain?


One way to approach this puzzle is to shift our thinking: while you can (and ought to!) hope for good things in this life, do not hope in them. Hoping for good things is a joyful expectation that you hold loosely in open hands. It’s constantly surrendering and asking. It’s allowing that unmet longing to ride next to you on the road trip as the miles stretch forward.


Hoping in something, on the other hand, is an all-in attitude toward a certain outcome. It’s a reliance and an assurance. It’s put­ting all your chips on the table.


All Shall Be Well 


Deciding to be a person of hope is not easy. It doesn't make you naïve—quite the opposite. It takes a mental toughness to fix your mindset and attitude on an ultimate hope instead of being pushed and pulled by the empty promises of life. The world invites us to become bitter and resentful, or to take every opportunity to indulge our desires. Hope, on the other hand, requires a high degree of self-control.


But there is good news: we don’t have to muster up this tough­ness inside of us. As we rejoice in suffering and become a person of hope (Romans 5:1-5), he will work in and through us to remind us of our identity, giving us the perspective we need to hold on during the scary parts of life. At the same time, Transformation is a mysterious process of co-laboring with God. We must choose to align our thoughts and actions to God’s truth. We must examine where we've placed our hope.


Having the audacity to hope grounds us in the reality that the best is yet to come. We can trust that all will be set right, every tear will be wiped away, and as the mystic Julian of Norwich wrote, “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

[If you liked this post, continue reading and learn why I wrote my book, When It Hurts to Hope!]


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