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The Content of Hope

December 3, 2012

Prof. Gomes.

Address given on December 7, 1995, by the Revd Prof. Peter J. Gomes at Morning Prayers in the Memorial Church, Harvard University.1

And you will have confidence, because there is hope; you will be protected and take your rest in safety. You will lie down, and none will make you afraid.2

HOPE is such a slippery word, cheapened by easy use, something of a moral cliché especially at this time of year. Alas, what most Christians and others of goodwill mean by “hope for the future” is little more than a “return to an idealized past.” That, I fear, is the essence of most political versions of hope, and, as well, the inner stuffing of most popular and personal theology. This is nearly always a form of wishful thinking, where we substitute the act of hoping for the content of hope.

An illustration from the realm of grammar abuse may help. Some of us still maintain the now nearly lost battle against the dreadful misuse of ‘hopefully.’ We know what it means when we say, “Hopefully, we will get to sing the last hymn.” We don’t mean what it actually says, which is, “Full of hope, we will get to sing the last hymn,” which is a perfectly good sentiment. We mean, “It is to be hoped that we will get to sing the last hymn.” The trouble with ‘hopefully’ in its now common use is that there is no subject, no object, no content: we express the act of hoping, but in nothing and in no one.

‘Hopefully,’ in the sense of ‘It is to be hoped,’ is the secular version of a much older form of a providential wish known to an earlier generation. Where we say “hopefully,” they once said “Deo Volonte,” which means “God willing,” or “If the Lord wills.” Thus, hope was not merely the act of hoping but of hoping that what one wished for was also what God wanted and had in mind.

Naturally, I like “D.V.” It reminds us that Christian hope, the hope of which Advent speaks, is not merely the act of hoping: Advent hope has content and direction, it has a subject, a verb, and an object. Christian hope has as its content the sure conviction that God will keep his promises: that mercy, peace, and justice will reign, that the kingdoms and democracies of this world will become those of God and of his Christ, and that he shall reign for ever and ever. The basis of that hope us not in the future but in the past, and in the present: what God has done in our creation and redemption and is doing in sustaining us in this very moment is the basis of our confidence, which is what hope is, in God’s future and in ours.

Our hope in the future, therefore, is based on an experience long past, a present not finished, and a future not yet arrived. When poor old Job found himself in the middle of his dung heap, he did not lose hope in the present, because he remembered the providences of God in the past, and therefore could not only endure but overcome the present, and thus could look forward to the future. That is why in the midst of his troubles he could say, “I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day, and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.” When Jesse Jackson says, as he so often does, “Keep hope alive,” we know what he means, but the opposite of it is in fact the truth and the content of our hope: it is hope that keeps us alive.

Hopefully – that is, full of hope – we await a future such as we have not known before, for hope is the substance of our faith: we hope, therefore we believe.


1. Peter J. Gomes, More Sundays at Harvard: Sermons for an Academic Year (Cambridge, Mass. : The Memorial Church, Harvard University, 1996), 175-177.
2. Job 11:18-20

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