Pope Saint John XXIII once said, “Consult not your fears but your hopes and your dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what it is still possible for you to do.” In a world full of trials and tribulations, it is easy to focus on what is lacking or where you have failed. The quiet truth of our ultimate end with God is easily trampled by the loudness of the disorder and chaos of our modern lives. Yet we are called to hope—we are implored to hope—for as St. Paul tells us, “In hope we were saved.” So what is hope? And how does the gift of hope help to transform the way we view the world and live our daily lives?
The Christian Understanding of Hope
From a young age, we are taught to hope. The idea of an underdog defeating the assumed victor, of David overcoming the Philistine Goliath, is something that speaks to all our hearts. Hope is the belief that we can encounter goodness despite our suffering or human difficulty. The theological virtue of hope stems from this understanding, and as the Catechism says, “each one of us should hope, with the grace of God, to persevere ‘to the end’ and to obtain the joy of heaven, as God's eternal reward for the good works accomplished with the grace of Christ.”Hope then, is the understanding that even when faced with life’s most challenging obstacles, including death itself, we can attain peace.
Is the call to hope really something that we should strive for, or is it simply a Christian exhortation to not face reality? German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.” His view of hope stemmed from his view of the world. He did not think that life had meaning because of an ultimate end, but instead because of the possibility of fulfillment in the present moment. His worldview disregarded an all-knowing, benevolent Creator who created the world good and gave life purpose. Instead, Nietzsche replaced God with the ever-growing philosophy of individualism. The meaning of life would then be whatever one wanted it to be, and suffering and hardship were to be avoided at all costs because they prevented self-defined, individual fulfilment.
What Nietzsche did not account for is the reality of a God who is love. The Christian understanding of hope is not simply a lie we tell ourselves, but a gift and the grace to help us achieve greater well-being. It is a confidence in the fact that we are willed, that we are desired, and that we are loved amidst all the trials and difficulties of this life. The supernatural understanding of hope is based on our knowledge of and desire for heaven. In the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Christian hope is “an encounter with the Lord of all lords, an encounter with the living God and thus an encounter with a hope stronger than the sufferings of slavery, a hope which therefore transformed life and the world from within.” The Christian meaning of hope does not eliminate suffering, but it also does not prolong suffering in naïveté, as Nietzsche suggests. Christian hope transforms the mind and heart of the Christian, helping them to see challenges, goals, and desires through a purified lens—that we are willed for eternal life with God and that our suffering can bear meaning by uniting us closer to him. While this hope is primarily based on the supernatural knowledge that we are loved, willed, and have a purpose, it effects both our supernatural and daily life.
The life of St. Josephine Bakhita is a perfect example of Christian hope in the midst of suffering. St. Josephine’s understanding of God's love and mercy, and her eternal salvation, radically transformed her life. She was a member of the Daju people and was kidnapped by Arab slave traders when she was about eight years old. For twelve years she was bought and sold as a slave, ultimately finding herself in Italy. She was horribly mistreated during these many years, being beaten and left with 144 scars. It was as a slave in Italy, that St. Josephine learned about God. Pope Benedict XVI described this in Spes Salvi , writing, "Up to that time she had known only masters who despised and maltreated her, or at best considered her a useful slave. Now, however, she heard that there is a ‘paron’ above all masters, the Lord of all lords, and that this Lord is good, goodness in person. She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her—that he actually loved her. She too was loved.” This knowledge that “[s]he was known and loved and she was awaited” and that, “this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now he was waiting for her” gave her a hope that was intimately united to her personhood. She was no longer a slave to her suffering. Through her hope, she gained an interior freedom she had never known.
The Importance of Natural Hope
Hope, however, is not simply a Christian notion. While our supernatural hope directs us to our ultimate end, Heaven, hope can also be understood and practiced on a natural level. Modern research in psychology is finding that hope is necessary for reaching goals and for human flourishing, and that it is key in determining if people are motivated to pursue their goals. Those with an expectation for ultimate success are not only able to meet their desired goals, but they are able to more easily persevere through difficulties along the way.
According to research by Snyder, Rand, and Sigmon, natural hope is the result of two concepts: pathways and agency. To be able to find a “pathway” is to be able to find multiple solutions or routes to achieve a goal. When people skilled in finding pathways encounter an obstacle or difficulty, they can persevere because they understand how to find different ways to reach their goals. Agency refers to the belief a person has that they can realistically reach their goal. Agency is influenced by a person’s belief that they have the motivation, or could become motivated enough, to achieve their goal. Natural hope, then, comes when someone believes they have the ability to achieve their goals, and that they will be able to overcome any obstacles they face in achieving them.
This modern research shows that those with natural hope enjoy many benefits. They are, “happier and enjoy greater life satisfaction” than those who do not, they have more self-confidence, and they are more easily able to face challenges with determination. The health consequences are astounding, too, with natural hope helping women with breast cancer to experience “less distress…and faster recovery from surgery.” People with hope are seen to have stronger immune systems and patients that believed they would get better quickly have better health outcomes. The secular research is clear—having hope leads to a better quality of life.
When trying to grow in natural hope, think of it as “stretching your hope muscle.” The more you practice setting concrete, measurable goals, the more you can grow in your agency because the progress you make will show you that you can actually achieve the goal. Like all habits, the more you practice setting goals, the easier it will become. That does not mean everything will be easy. But in the face of challenges, greater agency will help you find alternative pathways.
An Integrated View of Natural and Supernatural Hope
What does natural hope have to do with supernatural hope? As Catholics, we know that we are an integration of mind, body, and spirit, and that these things cannot and should not be separated. When we look at the life of St. Josephine Bakhita, we see this integration beautifully. Her supernatural hope and realization that she is desired, loved, and willed for heaven transformed her natural hope. Pope Benedict XVI expressed this saying:
God is the foundation of hope: not any god, but the God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end, each one of us and humanity in its entirety…His love alone gives us the possibility of soberly persevering day by day, without ceasing to be spurred on by hope, in a world which by its very nature is imperfect. His love is at the same time our guarantee of the existence of what we only vaguely sense and which nevertheless, in our deepest self, we await: a life that is ‘truly’ life.
With supernatural hope, we recognize that we are loved, that God wills our good, and that he does not abandon us. This means that he will provide the grace we need to have agency over our lives, and that he will help us find the pathways to achieve our goals. Let your daily challenges, struggles, joys, and dreams be transformed by this supernatural hope, enabling you to live with natural hope. As it gave St. Josephine freedom, let it give you freedom. Face your daily challenges and stressors with it, and let it help you embrace being the best version of yourself—the person God desires you to be.