Lesson 5: Hope

HopeHope, the third theological virtue, is based on God’s promise to make all right in the future. I am suggesting it has a practical side-affect that is helpful in overcoming personal suffering. Hope gives us confidence that God is working with us to overcome suffering and make a better world. Because there is so much modern Christian nonsense and heresy about this positive attitude, it is necessary to qualify what I mean.

Modern popular theology teaches an optimism that is quite different from Christian hope. It traces its roots to Norman Vincent Peale’s “Power of Positive Thinking” that began trying to correct the loss of self esteem caused by some ideas of sin’s corruption. It ended interpreting faith as the confidence to develop your potential and achieve your personal goals.

In the second stage, Robert Schuller called for a modern Reformation based on self-esteem rather than justification by grace through faith. In the third, Joel Osteen preaches a “Prosperity Gospel” that believes “all things are possible with God.” In other words, you can achieve anything you want, if you put your mind to it. You just have to use the proper techniques, such as an “expectation to get God’s attention.” If you do, God will grant you what you desire, providing “breaks and promotions.”

This conception of faith dominates modern popular theology so much that nearly 3 out of 4 Americans believe God has a plan for their lives, and that 2 out of 10 think it involves making them millionaires in the next 10 years. Obviously, something got short-circuited somewhere along the line. So let’s look at what Christians have traditionally meant by hope.

Christian hope is based on what God promises rather than on what I want. It prays, “Thy Kingdom come; thy will be done”. Its content is based on Jesus’ picture of the Kingdom rather than my understanding of success. God’s actions rather than mine guarantee the outcome.

Perhaps most critical, Christian hope promises peace and justice for all, a better world that will include a better me. It is always prophetic, calling for repentance and change of mind, as we work together for a better way to live. The optimism of popular theology, on the other hand, accepts the values of this world rather than God’s coming kingdom. It champions competition rather than co-operation. Wanting to leave behind any “negative thinking”, Osteen advocates looking back and saying, “I done good!” Biblically, the repentance prompted by hope begins by acknowledging how my sin obstructs God’s will for the common good.

Recognizing all these qualifications, we nonetheless see that Christian hope gives us confidence that God is with us. The Risen Christ heals us just as he healed 2000 years ago. He grants courage now just as he granted courage to the early Church as she faced persecution and martyrdom. And God is engaged in healing the injustice and violence that cause us all to suffer. Beyond this confident, positive attitude, Christianity offers very specific teachings about overcoming suffering and evil. We’ll look at these next week.

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2 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Bob Nordvall says:

    The Religion of Positive Thinking. Prosperity and Profits

    Calvin Coolidge said “the business of America is business.” I’ve found that non commercial aspects of American culture often are best understood through a business paradigm.

    If you want to sell someone a product tht is not a necessity, there are two ways to do so. One is to show that the product will make his life better. The second is to show that his life may be worse without the product. So you show that the after shave lotion attracts the beautiful women and that the man without fire insurance on his house is running too great of a risk. The religion of positive thinking, prosperity, and profits promises you individual benefits. On the other hand, the religion of hellfire and brimstone warns you of the terrible things that will happen to you if you don’t buy the product.

    Pastor Hybels, founder of America’s largest megachurch started his project by doing a consumer survey in the neighborhood that asked people “what would a church have to offer to you to get you to attend.”

    Now compare this “commercial” approach with one that says as a Christian community we work together to try to bring the kingdom of God on earth. This does not promise you any direct personal benefits. In fact you may have “crosses to bear” on this journey. Mainstream religion does not talk much about stoking the fires in hell if you don’t believe in and follow Christ. So we aren’t offering a direct personal benefit, and we are not threatening horrible consequences for those who don’t follow the program.

    Given the pervasiveness of the business model in the USA, it is probably inevitable that popular religion will take on this commercial cast. One can always argue that if you get people in the door to the church with these oversimplified strategies, you can later bring them to a truer and deeper Christianity, but I don’t see popular religion following this path.

  2. Rita says:

    How apt a topic for the first week of Advent. I never forgot the retreat master who said years ago that if you can light at the end of the tunnel, that’s optimism. Abrahamic hope is not seeing the light but believing in it anyway. Real hope is closely aligned with faith, and as you point out, with true charity. Happy Advent.

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