Hope and the phantom of feelings

Rev. Read Hennick

Act versus feeling

Of the three theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity), we very much undervalue the second. More often than not, faulty assessment stems from misunderstanding: we tend to conflate the supernatural virtue of hope with its emotional namesake: the sentiment of hope. We accordingly “hope” for heaven as we do, say, an English victory in the World Cup (more than that I hope). Our approach to each suggests insecurity: the hoped-for outcome is not absolutely assured. We inevitably reduce the virtue to a wishful thinking of sorts, an optimism with regards to the afterlife. But the hope God gives is no mere feeling, it is a commitment.

Supernatural act

Hope transcends temperament. Supernatural hope operates just as well within the melancholic’s pessimism as it does within the sanguine’s optimism. God imparts hope, not our biology or conditioning. At baptism, God infuses into our will the power to trust with complete certitude in the attainment of eternal life and the means necessary for reaching it.

Motive of hope: Divine assistance

The Catholic Church insists that her children hope without fear of disappointment. How is this possible?

Our confidence in God is certain precisely because it is placed in God and not in ourselves. Left to ourselves, salvation is impossible: “but with God all things are possible.” (Mt 19:26)

Yet hope’s motive is not simply the omnipotence of God, that God can save us. A man in despair could believe, for example, that God Almighty can save anybody from ultimate ruin, but that He will not save him. Such is the prospect of faith unsupported by hope! Rather, it is the actual exercise of that power on our behalf which is our assurance that our hope is not vain. In short, we hope in God’s saving power being applied to us.

Hope’s certainty, then, is rooted in the infallibility of the Faith: our Triune God is all-merciful and all-powerful to accomplish His mercy in us. Nothing can prevent our salvation except our rejection of it, and even such hardness of heart can be overcome if we ask God for His help. “Create a clean heart in me, O God: and renew a right spirit within my bowels”, writes King David (Ps. 50:12).

That said—lest we engender another misunderstanding—true hope is not something passive: God expects us to do our part. God can and will give us the power to do our part, and even the actual doing of our part, if we ask Him in hope. Thus the gravity of despair: it cuts off the believer from begging God’s intervention, without which salvation is impossible.

Occasions of despair

The thought that God cannot save us is foolish enough; what is curious, however, is how most, in despair, abandon God’s saving power on account of—in the grand scheme of things—less serious sins, even if still mortal. How quickly people are tempted to despair over, for instance, a physical addiction as opposed to blasphemy, the gravest of all disorders.

A preoccupation with emotion is the culprit. Just as sentimentality befuddles our understanding of hope, so it does of sin. In reality, the more spiritual the sin, the more malice therein; but the less corporeal the sin, the less we feel its weight. Indeed, malice and remorse are often inversely related in us.

Today’s epidemic of despair is predictable: if we construct our hope on a foundation of feeling, how is this house of cards to stand against the onslaught of shame?

Such insecurity is unworthy of Jesus Christ, the only secure foundation for hope. No matter what obstacle we erect, God is not at a loss. “[T]o them that love God, all things work together unto good” (Rom 8:28). To this St. Augustine adds, “even sins,” so far as they are an occasion of making our soul more humble, vigilant, and yes, more hopeful.

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