What do faith, hope and wishful thinking have in common? Two are theological virtues, one is our human tendencies to try to control God’s plan. Throughout our lives we are constantly balancing faith and hope, all the while the temptation to wish for an outcome is always getting in the way. Of the three theological virtues it is said that hope must precede faith. St. Paul explained in his letter to the Hebrews that “faith is confidant assurance concerning what we hope for, and conviction about things we do not see” (Heb 11:1). He was telling this to a group of people only decades removed from the Resurrection; the singular test of faith for Christians living any time after the first century. Faith is the realization of what is hoped for, and evidence of things not seen. Faith comes from the Latin root meaning to trust. It is hard to trust if there is no hope in the outcome.
When does faith give way to assurance? Maybe when the disciples were hiding in the upper room they had faith, but it certainly didn’t seem so. When we read the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles it is from the perspective of people who witnessed the risen Christ, so can we say that they had faith?
It was not faith that sustained the disciples of Jesus during the horror of His torture and crucifixion, but hope. At the Last Supper Jesus foretells their lack of faith: “This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken.” But then He gives this little hint that their despair will be short-lived: “But after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.” Good Friday hope became Easter faith, and launched a campaign of evangelization that has lasted two millennia.
What we hope for is really what challenges our faith. We often hear the word “faith” brandished about in so many ways. “I have no faith in the Red Sox pitching staff.” “I have no faith that the Bruins will get through the first round of the playoffs.” “I have no faith in the American electorate.” This is human faith; not the faith of the three theological virtues. Human faith is the ability to trust another person, which is why it is so apt to let us down. Edgar Allan Poe said, “I have no faith in human perfectibility. I think human action will have no effect on humanity. Man is now only more active — not more happy — nor more wise, than he was 6,000 years ago.”
In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul ties together the need for hope that will anchor our faith: “We know that all things work for good for those who love God” (Rom 8:28). Hope is that which transforms human faith into something that will endure all the way to our final destination, which is union with God. Hope takes away despair and smashes the presumption that we can accomplish anything without God’s help. The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” tells us that 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.” Helen Keller puts it more simply: “Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.”
How does one muster up hope when in the midst of deep despair? This is the question that challenges the faith of even the most stalwart Christian. In his book, “Under the Influence of Jesus,” Joe Paprocki explains that “Christian hope recognizes and acknowledges pain and suffering (the perceived absence of God) but believes in a future that overflows into the present with the presence of God.” This is a great interpretation of St. Paul. It is not our faith that needs adjustment, but our hope.
Hope requires practice, just like any other virtue, but it also takes honest and open self-reflection on our lives. This is where we must fight the urge to grasp onto wishful thinking and allow God to transform our hope. So many stories of tragedy are filled with the evidence of wishful thinking transformed into God’s hope. The parents who watched their son get locked away in prison, drowning in despair that life for this man is over. They wished that this sentence would pass and he could be restored to his old life, but God’s response was to transform this man into something he could never become if he stayed in his old life.
The parents whose teenage daughter died tragically wished that they never had to enter that dreaded club of parents who lose a child. Their lives were transformed into advocates for young people. The man who lost his wife to cancer who wishes every day that his life with her could be restored became the nurturing caretaker for his family; a role he might never have entered while his wife still lived.
No matter what Good Friday we endure, we must believe that our wishful thinking will be transformed into good by the God Who earned our love on the cross. Happy Easter!
Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation.