On Christmas morning of 1964, I wanted to find only one gift under the tree—a guitar. That year the Beatles had taken the USA by storm as the vanguard of music’s British invasion. Like scores of other young American boys, I wanted to be the next great guitarist. Early that Christmas morning, I ran down the steps to the living room, my eyes searching for something in the shape of a guitar. But there was none. Instead, I found a dictionary.
It is hard to put into words the disappointment I felt. My hopes of future musical greatness had been crushed under the weight of hundreds of pages of definitions.
But my parents proved wise. As I reflect on the disappointment of that Christmas, I realize I have little use for a guitar, but I am constantly dealing with words and their meanings.
Today, few words more desperately need a clear definition than the word hope. And not only do we need to understand what real hope is, we also need to understand what the hope Christ gives us is not.
What Hope Is Not
Far too often, hope is relegated to the level of wishful thinking, a positive approach, or mere optimism. We hear hope used in ways like these: “I sure hope the economy will turn around soon.” “Here’s hoping that Brazil will win the World Cup.” “My doctor hopes that they will get all the cancer.”
These statements show the concerns of someone’s heart. While this kind of hope isn’t wrong, it isn’t the hope the Bible offers.
Hope that is reduced to the level of wishes and dreams can be like soap bubbles that look beautiful to the eye but disappear at the slightest touch. As King Solomon said: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” (proverbs 13:12).
Perhaps this is why Nietzsche reacted so strongly against the concept of hope. Dreams tantalize us and appeal to our heart’s desire. But if there is nothing concrete about them, they guarantee our disappointment and heartache.
Hope must have genuine substance. It must have a firm foundation.
So what is real hope?
What Hope Is
Even dictionary definitions show that hope should be more substantial than mere wishful thinking. One dictionary defines it as “a desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfillment.”
Hope can be an expectation and anticipation that rests in what we believe. This means that for the child of God, hope can be as strong as what we have learned about God’s goodness and faithfulness. Just as important, it can show the presence of the Spirit of God in our lives.
This is the hope Paul holds out in his letter to the Romans. One of the Bible’s most comprehensive statements on hope is Paul’s crowning comment on the subject in Romans 15: “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (v. 13).
This marvelous prayer reveals two significant reasons why hope is such a priority. First, God is “the God of hope.” Our joyful expectation isn’t without foundation. Hope’s foundation is not a theory or a philosophy; it is a person. Paul wants us to embrace hope as a reality rooted in God Himself, not as something we have to work up in our own strength.
Second, Paul wants us to “abound in hope.” As God’s children, we have been given His Spirit and the powerful hope that comes from Him.
Hope should be a vital characteristic of the follower of Jesus because God is the foundation of hope and because He has given us His Spirit. Genuine hope is one of the greatest distinguishing characteristics between believers and those who do not know Christ. Writing to the Christians at Ephesus, Paul reminded them what life was like before they received their salvation. “You were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (ephesians 2:12).
The last phrase is crucial. They had “no hope” because they were “without God in the world.” Those who put their faith in God are the glad possessors of hope. That makes all the difference in how we live. Our challenge is to live in awareness of that hope.
One scholar says that for those who don’t know Jesus, hope is a verb. But for the Christian, hope is also a noun. This is an important distinction. Hope is not simply something we do, with teeth gritted and fingers crossed. Hope—joyful expectation—is something we have. We possess hope because we know the God who is the source of and the reason for our hope.
True hope is not the equivalent of whistling through graveyards “hoping” everything will turn out. True hope is dynamic and powerful because it considers the circumstances of life realistically—and then confidently rests in the promises and character of God.
What Real Hope Looks Like
Why is there so much confusion about the true nature of hope? One reason is because hope, like faith and love, looks different in different situations.
In 1 Corinthians 13:13, the apostle Paul wrote, “But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.” These three great pillars of joyful living are all critical, but all three adapt appropriately to changing conditions.
In times of abundance, faith can express trust in God by smiling with grateful humility. In times of loss, it will grieve—but not like people without hope (1 thessalonians 4:13). As it works, faith can express itself through great effort and urgency. At rest, it can relax in the presence of the One who says, “Cease striving and know that I am God” (psalm 46:10).
Love too is adaptable. To seek the good of others, sometimes it must be gentle and patient. At other times, it must be firm—even tough.
Likewise hope can also flex to fit to various situations. Because it relies on the goodness and faithfulness of God, it has many faces to respond fully to the different experiences of life.
Paul noted that hope is courageous: “Having such a hope, we use great boldness in our speech” (2 corinthians 3:12). He also said that hope is patient: “We give thanks to God always for all of you . . . constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father” (1 thessalonians 1:2–3).
Hope is expectant: We are “looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds” (titus 2:13–14).
The writer of Hebrews viewed hope as a source of stability: “This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil” (hebrews 6:19). John the disciple added that true hope actually has a purifying effect. “Everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure” (1 john 3:3).
Hope is remarkably versatile. With hope followers of Christ can confidently engage the world. Genuine hope will strengthen us for the wide variety of challenges we face because we see those challenges through the lens of God’s character.
So how do we cultivate such a resilient and adaptable hope? And where does it come from?