What does the 16th verse of a 1st Century letter have to offer the 16th New Year of the 21st Century? Apart from presenting a problematic apocalyptic exposition and a vivid glimpse into the background of the early Christian community, the 16th verse of the 16th chapter of Saint Paul’s 2nd Letter to the Thessalonians provides contemporary faith-based leaders a vital attitudinal credo, namely, the importance of approaching the future with “good” (well-founded) hope.
(“May our Lord Jesus Christ and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.” ~ 2 Thessalonians 2:16)
New Year’s Day is the leeway of possibilities, an annual datebook for envisioning personal and professional modifications. Confident that character and context can indeed change, the onset of a fresh catalog of days provides the opportunity to craft a strategic framework for a more attractive future. Whether our aspirations include weight loss, the espousal of healthful habits, relational maintenance, and/or more prudent financial formations, success can only be realized when realistic resolutions are aligned to prudent mental postures, purposes, and pathways.
Herein lies the value of the 16th verse of the 2nd Chapter of Saint Paul’s 2nd Letter to the Thessalonians! Considered one of the more difficult exegetical passages of Holy Scripture, the text is best known for its introduction of a mysterious apocalyptic figure – the “man of sin” (2:3-10). According to the most important evangelist of the Apostolic Age, this man of “lawlessness” will precede the Second and Final Advent of Christ. As a proposed resolution to the adversities that will most assuredly characterize the temporary dominion of this “antichrist,” Paul exhorts his readers to “stand firm” to the truths they were taught by “word or letter” (2:15). The Epistle’s admonitions conclude with a Trinitarian-based prayer requesting that God encourage and strengthen the hearts of the Thessalonians to pursue a lifestyle of good deeds and words. All this, the evangelist insists, is only possible with a hope that is “well-founded” (2 Thessalonians 2:16).
Unlike Paul, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche opposed the notions of hope and optimism, referring to them as dangerous complex myths. “In reality,” the nihilist insists, “hope is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs man’s torments.” Expounding on the myth of Pandora’s Jar (sometimes identified as a box) that was filled by the mischievous Zeus with malevolent spirits (including hope), Nietzsche argued that hope must also be evil. Given the evil nature of the world, “optimism is senseless.” Hope, he insisted, can only “prolong” not rescind life’s inevitable anguish.
Contrary to Nietzschean opinion, modern research supports the notion, that hope can actually mitigate the levying effects of humanity’s difficulties. Data indicates that individuals that are dispositionaly optimistic are, indeed, happier, healthier, and more efficacious than their more “off-putting” counterparts. While unable to totally eradicate painful experiences, social experiments have shown that hope does, in fact, increase the ability of individuals to both tolerate and effectively surmount difficulties.
Research overwhelmingly indicates that individuals with high levels of hope do not react in the same way to problems as low hope individuals. On the contrary, such individuals view difficulties as challenges to overcome and swiftly devise alternate pathways to reach their aspirations. According to the International Journal of Scientific and Research Publications, (Volume 3, Issue 10, 2013) high levels of hope have been found to correlate with a number of beneficial constructs including academic achievement, professional confidence, and lower levels of depression. Meanwhile low hope is associated with negative psychological outcomes including a significant reduction in confidence and wellbeing.
George Bernard Shaw, a renowned socialist, critic and liberal philosopher, considered himself a victim of Nietzsche’s nihilistic perspective of life. In one of his last writings Shaw astoundingly bemoaned the consequences of his ill-chosen secular perspective. “The science to which I pinned my faith is bankrupt,” he lamented. “Its counsels, which should have established the millennium, led, instead, directly to the suicide of Europe. I believed them once. In their name I helped to destroy the faith of millions of worshippers in the temples of a thousand creeds. And now they look at me and witness the great tragedy of an atheist who has lost his faith.”
Hope, Saint Paul would argue, is more complex than any Greek myth, philosophical construct, or global economic theory can explain. Consequently, as good management must be distinguished from its poor equivalents, and good from destructive lifestyles, it would be prudent if 21st Century leaders could also learn to differentiate between good and bad expressions of hope. Humanity would benefit from leaders who are willing to courageously employ Saint Paul’s 1st Century scriptural proposition to confront contemporary complexities. Having recently completed a challenging year characterized by hazardous levels of divisiveness, distrust, and ever-increasing global tempers, the world is hungry for authentic leaders with hope-filled visions of the future.
Hope may be generally defined as “trustful expectation,” the “anticipation of favorable outcomes.” Hope is an optimistic attitude of mind based on the expectation of positive conclusions related to events and circumstances in one’s life or the world at large. As a verb, hope includes notions of expectation, confidence, desire, and anticipation. Dejection, hopelessness and despair are among its opposites.
Hope is also a significant Biblical word, so much so, that in several scriptural passages the words “faith” and “hope” are interchangeable. The psalmist encourages the troubled and distressed to “rest,” and “place their hope in God” (Psalm 42:11). According to Saint Paul, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Along with faith and love, hope is classified as one of the three theological virtues of the Christian religion. Finally, apart from its generic use, hope is additionally used to denote a strong and confident expectation of future reward in the afterlife.
According to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, “without hope, humanity finds itself in a dark world, facing a dark future.” In his 2007 Encyclical Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope), Benedict suggests that Christianity does not champion a message of social revolution. Unlike the ill-fated Spartacus, whose struggle for political liberation led to so much bloodshed, the self-sacrifice of Jesus, the Pontiff insists, inaugurated something totally different. According to Benedict, Christianity announces the Good News of “an encounter with a hope,” a force “stronger than the sufferings of slavery . . . a hope that transforms life and the world from within” (Spe Salvi).
Contemporary leaders would do well to espouse such a “good” and “well-founded” model of hope – one that emphasizes spiritual development and ethical values as well as professional achievement. A careful examination of Scripture reveals that good hope does not focus on what is hoped “for” as much as it emphasizes what is hoped “in.” Here, hope is understood as a dynamic “inheritance,” a living faith “more precious than gold” (1 Peter 1:3-9). As it’s sustaining power does not originate in self, hope should subsequently not be understood as a motivational tactic and/or capacity of personality that can easily be acquired and expanded. As Pope Benedict wisely suggests, good hope is rooted in the divine-human relationship. Valued in such a fashion, faith-based leaders should consider themselves “stewards” rather than exploiters of hope’s attributes!
The hard hail of unexpected adversities will inevitably threaten our fragile New Year possibilities. There will always be occasions of difficulty, confusion, and levels of distress in the upcoming year. Such occasions may also be compounded by feelings that God is impassive and distant. Like the disciples, however, faith-based leaders have the responsibility to help their constituents overcome life’s struggles by relying on the life-sustaining power of hope. Nothing can be more reassuring than to be comforted by a mature leader who, while avoiding Pollyannaish quips, challenges negativity with mature and courageous action. In the end, whether these complexities stem from personal loss, relational exploitation, financial instability, physical and/or emotional distress, only a “good” hope provides the requisite spiritual underpinnings for effectively enduring the effects.
“False,” or “ill-founded” hope, on the other hand, generates optimism that is built entirely around fantasy. For the most part, such hope has little chance of coming to fruition. Contrasting good from false hope, the Book of Proverbs warns that, while the hope of those who are “right with God is joy,” the hope of the sinful “comes to nothing but eventual despair.” (10:28). Unfortunately, the exploitation and creation of false hope in other people for material gain can be found in medicine, politics, religion, economics, law, and many other fields.
What are the distinguishing characteristics of “well-founded” optimism? And how can one differentiate “good” from false expressions of hope?
Unlike its “illusory” manifestation, a well-founded praxis of hope must concede four primary essentials: (a) purpose, (b) pathways, (c) posture and (d) problems. Whereas purpose delineates goals, objectives and endpoints, pathways are the routes that must be identified and successfully navigated if a leader is to achieve his/her desires. Posture, on the other hand, may be understood as an individual’s (or organization’s) dispositional thoughts and perceptions about the cogency and legitimacy of the pathways required to reach a given purpose or goal. Problems are, finally, the obstacles that appear to block the attainment of purpose.
There are many parallels that can be drawn from Saint Paul’s 1st Century exhortations and today’s circumstances. When faced with unexpected obstacles, we too will be tempted to capitulate our grand societal aspirations and personal New Year’s resolutions. Rather than cower to “apocalyptic” difficulties, and proponents of “lawlessness,” we too should heed the admonitions of Paul and persevere along the pathway of faith-based hopefulness. It is here important to note, however, that the attitudinal qualities of optimism and confidence are not the same as hope. While a valuable trait, confidence without hope frequently deteriorates into self-absorption. Without the benefit of realistic pathways, the motivational capacity of optimism, on the other hand, oftentimes results in operative malfunction and personal disappointment.
Hope resets the belief in finding solutions to problems. It supports self-confidence and inspires the capacity of achievement. Hope is the platform of fresh thinking and new choices. It recalibrates our mindset and amplifies emotional intelligence. Hope translates complexity into clarity and, thereby promotes vision, empowerment, and charity towards others. It propels towards goals and aspirations.
“A world without God is a world without hope” (Spe Salvi). Accordingly, while a well-founded hope requires the aforementioned prerequisites, for Christians, faith in the abiding presence of a personal God is an additional, yet essential, element. Such faith strengthens hope and, thereby, promotes a lifestyle of selfless service. It creates a “passion for the possible,” a perspective that enabled the Roman Catholic religious sister and missionary Mother Teresa (1910-1997) to provide charity and comfort to the destitute and starving in Calcutta, when others could only see hopelessness, calamity, and death.
The billboards of contemporary “brokers” of hope promise a “better future” through the manipulation of science, politics, medicine, and post-traditional spiritualties. As Nietzsche, Shaw and their ilk have discovered, such “hopes” are, at best, deficient and, at worse, deceptive. Reaching into such jars will only serve to negatively add to Pandora’s problems and thereby contribute to making the world and mankind less human.
“The dark door of time . . . of the future . . . has been thrown open” (Spe Salvi). Humanity will not be able to successfully navigate the future possibilities that the newly opened door of the 16th New Year of the 21st Century provides by gullibly relying on deceptive canards. On the contrary, the 16th year of the 21th century will require leaders who retain the spiritual reserve to cultivate authentic hope in the minds and hearts of their followers.
Pope Benedict is right, “the one who has hope lives differently. The one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.”