Like the word love, hope has become a misnomer: “I hope my mom doesn’t have cancer.” “I’ve been hoping for a raise at work.” “My life is beyond hope.” We say we hope for something as if the virtue of hope were somehow synonymous with wishing for a specific outcome to our thoughts or prayers. Hope truly has nothing to do with this superficial desire for temporal happiness or favorable conditions in our lives. Instead, hope involves both an act of our will and God’s grace.
The virtue of hope is directly related to our goal of Heaven. When we long for eternal joy and maintain the focus of our thoughts on Heaven, we exercise hope as one of the theological virtues. But no one can hope without the direct intervention of Divine Grace, however. Most of us, at least from time to time, drift our longings from eternity to earthly desires. We become distracted from thoughts of our everlasting home by putting too much credence into the opinions of others, what we have or have not achieved, how much (or little) we have acquired in material wealth or possessions, etc. If we fix our hearts on such matters for too long, we may fall prey to despair.
Despair occurs when we put too much stock in our own abilities rather than in God’s plan for our eternal happiness. Over time, we become disillusioned from consistent disappointments as others inevitably fail to meet our expectations. Even life in general can fail to meet our expectations, which is why the virtue of hope is so crucial in combating this type of spiritual paralysis or even regression in faith.
When you are in the thick of darkness in the form of discouragement, despondency, disappointment, or despair, how can you find the light of hope? Is it possible to choose to hope? Can the virtue of hope replace or significantly reduce our tendency toward despair? Here are five suggestions on how to grow in this virtue and, yes, choose to hope rather than give in to hopelessness.
1. Combat fear with fear of the Lord
Paralyzing fear and fear of the Lord are two sides that compete for despair or hope, respectively. Satan uses fear to spiritually cripple us into avoiding suffering, resisting total trust in God, and detaching ourselves from self-pity. Fear of the Lord, however, enters into that wound of fear to bring about an awareness that our suffering has merit when united with Jesus, that trusting God means knowing He will care for the details of our lives especially when we don’t see how or what He is doing, and that when life is lived as a mystery in the midst of Mystery, then we will truly thrive.
Fear of the Lord eradicates the devil’s attempt to keep us holed inside of ourselves, too fragile to consider sharing our vulnerability with others. When we fear God, we admit our wretchedness and see it more abundantly, yet instead of despairing over our lack of perfection, we turn to God’s mercy and recognize that His everything will engulf our nothingness. Hope is the virtue that intercedes in this way, transforming fear that shackles and enslaves us into a fear that liberates and heals. Fear of the Lord draws on the tiniest flicker of fortitude that may remain if we have lived far too long in the shadows of slavish fear. Hope is what opens the curtains of our hearts and allows the light to dispel the wounds created by the darkness of fear.
Fear reveals who we are without God. Fear of the Lord reveals who we are in relation to and in light of who God is. Hope is the grace that allows us to see ourselves as we really are while facing the God of Mercy who heals us.
2. Focus on God rather than on yourself or others
In order for hope to prevail in our lives over its corresponding vices, we must first deliberately elevate our minds and hearts to God and Heaven. Hope moves beyond mere thought, however, and it must be supplied with sufficient action that moves it into offering encouragement to others.
Since hope is a virtue that operates in the will, we know that we can choose to hope, but how? Every time you find yourself spiraling into thoughts of discouragement or emotions that lead to disappointment, consciously draw your will into thinking of God – who He is, His promises for your life, etc. A good way to do this is through prayers of gratitude and reading Scripture verses that remind us of His mercy and love. Draw your strength from His grace, even if you simply cannot utter a prayer.
There may be times in your life when you wonder if you’ll ever emerge from the clouds of darkness and all of the temptations toward despair. But if you exercise your will to hope, it will be ignited in you by the Holy Spirit. If all you can muster is a desperate, “Help me, Lord. Increase my hope,” be assured with confidence that He will grant it. You must first will it, then keep your thoughts on Heaven rather than on your disappointments.
3. Pray for an increase in faith and charity
The theological virtues interlock so beautifully with one another, often strengthening each other when one may be lacking or weakening. In the case of a frail hope, we can return to the virtue of faith, which is the foundation upon which hope and charity are built. Ask yourself if your faith has been waning, and it’s likely that if you are struggling in the virtue of hope, then perhaps you are also struggling with doubts. Though this may not concern a tenet of the Faith, you might doubt God’s love for you or that He has beautiful plans for your life. Revisit that in your prayers.
Then pray for your faith to be strengthened. We must remember the words of St. Paul, “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance” (Romans 8: 24-25). This is a beautiful example of how faith and hope operate together. Faith doesn’t see with the physical eye, only with the eye of the heart – and sometimes faith must rely entirely on trusting in God’s word when there’s no evidence to suggest to our senses that He will fulfill His promise for good in our lives. Hope is the virtue that longs for what faith provides – faith believes, and hope perseveres in the waiting.
Charity is when we love God because He deserves to be loved. Often we increase our praise and gratitude when God somehow “proves” Himself to us by answering our supplications, but charity puts into action what we believe and long for through fidelity to God, especially in times of spiritual drought or emotional desolation.
4. Encourage someone else who is doubting or despondent
One of the best ways to remove the haze of self-pity is by offering your time to someone who is convalescing, lonely, home-bound, or struggling. While this may seem uncomfortable or impractical to many of us, I’ve discovered that it’s immensely (and mutually) beneficial to step away from pondering our pain.
The times in my life when I’ve been vacillating between discouragement and despondency often coincide with grace-filled opportunities for me to step outside of myself. When I answer the phone or open the door to an unexpected visitor, or when I engage in awkward conversation with the stranger who is asking a million questions about Sarah, there is something incredibly healing about those encounters. I find that God uses my experience with suffering to bring hope and encouragement to those with whom I’m speaking, but the greater (and more humbling) gift is that I walk away encouraged myself.
Don’t underestimate how the Holy Spirit may wish to use your brokenness to ease someone else’s burden.
5. Choose to endure hardships with patience
It’s unthinkable to consider “boasting of our afflictions,” but revisit the sage words of St. Paul again: “We even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5: 3 – 5).
Boasting of our afflictions implies that we find purpose and value in them. When God permits the hardship of emotional tumult to afflict us, it’s because He wants to refine endurance, or perseverance, in us. When we allow Him to purge us in this way, we may discover that we have grown in fortitude by enduring our struggles with patience.
Hope is the virtue that sustains us through hardship. Recall that hope operates on the belief in what we cannot necessarily see or foresee. Because of that, hope as a grace and virtue resolves our will to persevere through difficulties and intense trials without guarantee of reprieve. The mysteries of life grant that suffering is unavoidable, and the mysteries of faith enable us to press through them without a timeline of victory.
Hope reminds us that victory will be achieved, whether in this life or the next, and for that reason alone we do not give up the fight.
When darkness clouds your ability to see light, remain rooted in choosing to hope, not necessarily feeling hopeful. One may, in fact, possess or exude this virtue without the emotional affinity of hopefulness. Rely on your will rather than your heart in such dire circumstances. Remember that feelings are fickle and fleeting, but hope as a virtue must be tried and refined through times of prosperity, spiritual or emotional aridity, or intense hardships.
Do not give up hope, for it will strengthen your resolve to believe in our benevolent God’s promises and thus assist you in expressing a constant and true love for God – for His own sake rather than what He does for or gives you.