I’ve been reflecting, again, on the argument that hope is inversely proportional to the strength of one’s faith. Certainly, our everyday experience reveals that hope is greatest where faith is least. The example I’ve often used is that of the state lottery. When we buy a ticket, we hope, but do not believe we will win. Hope, not belief, keeps us coming back to the 7-11 to buy our next lottery ticket. Note carefully, however, that the virtue of hope (and it is a virtue) lies not in its possession, but in the behavior it motivates. For example, hope can be enormously destructive — as members of gambler’s anonymous would attest. On the other hand, hope can be ennobling. Parental sacrifice (or any sacrifice, for that matter) is based on the hope that their children will benefit. The take-away message about hope is neither good nor bad. Rather, the behavior hope motivates is what is good or bad.
In fact, the understanding of hope as a motivational force is exactly St. Paul’s understanding. He implies, in so many words, that the hope for personal salvation would be unnecessary if salvation were assured. As Paul argues, it is hope for salvation that motivates us to conform to God’s will (Titus 1:2; 3:7 and 1 Thess 5:8).
Conform? As many Protestant (and not a few Catholic clergy) claim endlessly, to conform to God’s will (obedience to God) is not necessary for salvation. Such a claim is grossly misleading if not completely wrong (see here for an explanation). In truth, serious moral reflection views obedience as a necessary, though insufficient criteria for salvation. Again, as St. Paul writes in Romans 6:23,
“For the wages of sin [are] death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our LORD” (NIV, KJV, NIRV).
I’ll express this slightly differently: while forgiveness is a gift from God, willful disobedience is tantamount to rejecting God’s gift of forgiveness (2 Thess 1:8-9; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21; 2 Cor 5:10) that leads to eternal life. We seek to conform our lives to God’s will because we hope that His grace will not be withheld. Faith in God surely saves, but the hope for salvation keeps us honest.
This is understood by secularists who are not troubled by the idea that hope keeps us faithful. For example, in their secular world, our civil liberties and our freedoms are gifts from our forefathers. However, by committing serious crimes, we may lose those civil liberties and those freedoms. Gifts can be rejected. God can be taken for granted. At the end of the day, we are moral agents and can choose life or death. As it is written,
“For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment,…” (Hebrews 10:26-27)
Now, go and study,