Remember the TV series, MASH? In one episode, someone asked B.J. Honeycutt why he didn’t give into temptation in the midst of the Korean War. He answered, "I live in an insane world where nothing makes sense. Everyone around me lives for the now, because there may not be a tomorrow. But I have to live for tomorrow, because for me there is no now." Without using the word, he was speaking of hope.
The word hope is in vogue today, and is found in everything from political campaigns to automobile advertisements. As a pastor, I am happy to see it used again, for it has not always been so welcome. There have been darker times in our history when we dared not hope, and brighter times when it seemed unnecessary. But when it is used, it lifts up our heads to envision something better than our present reality, often by the work of something or someone greater than ourselves.
However, when words are used often, they are often overused, or used badly. In the case of hope, it is often confused with "wish." Both words are good, but carry with them important differences. In the Old and New Testaments, "hope" appears roughly three times as often as "wish," and for good reason. Hope is God talk, and wish is human talk.
Hope differs from wish in that a wish carries with it no expectation of fulfillment. Hope has an expectant quality to it that wish lacks. We can wish for a trip to the moon. We can even wish the past had somehow been different. But when we hope, there is an element of faith that our hopes will be fulfilled someday. In "Paradise Lost," John Milton distinguishes between hope and wish when he describes the serpent searching the Garden of Eden for his human prey:
"By fountain or by shady rivulet he sought them both, but wished his hap might find Eve separate; he wished, but not with hope of what so seldom chanced; when to his wish, beyond his hope, Eve separate he spies…"
When Martin Luther King Jr. said, "I have a dream," he was not just wishing upon a star. He was inviting the whole world to join in his dream, not as fanciful wishing, but as hope born of faith. His hope was in the providence of God and the basic goodness of humankind. And that faith was based not only on scriptures, but on his personal experiences of God and humanity, good and bad.
When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he recognized hope as a gift, though not as great a gift as love (1Cor 13:13). This is not because love is somehow more powerful or important, but because it is more eternal. When our hopes are fulfilled, hope will melt away into joyous reality, but love will still remain. When Paul wrote to the Romans, he emphasized not the gift of hope, but its power to sustain us and give us peace. "Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ… and we boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us" (Rom 5:1-5).
These are not mere platitudes we can recite to affirm our faith. Hope is at times the only thing that keeps us alive. So when we read of miners in Chile trapped for months a mile below the earth’s surface, or of Pakistanis wading through waters sure to bring on dysentery, or of Haitians continuing their struggle for survival, or even of our next door neighbors fighting to avoid eviction, we can do more than wish. We can hope for them, and we can ask God to give them the greater measure of hope. It will sustain them in the darkest hour and energize us to action toward the fulfillment of that hope. May our faith and hope be set on God.
The Rev. Brian Dale is the pastor of Allen Memorial Methodist Church in Oxford.