In what ways does the biblical concept of hope differ from mere wishful thinking?
Most of the time that we use the word “hope” we do so in ways that indicate uncertainty. It’s used as an expression of desire whose outcome remains unknown. Like when we say, “I hope you have a good day today”, or, “Hopefully, it won’t snow again”, or, “I hope my team wins”.
But is that the sentiment that characterizes biblical hope? When we see this word or concept in Scripture, are we to think of Jiminy Cricket encouraging us to wish upon a star so that our dreams will come true? Or is something greater going on?
John Calvin once defined hope as “the sure and certain expectation of those things which faith believes to be truly promised us by God.” It is not uncertain but is expressly certain. It is a settled and firm conviction that God will do the things he has said he will do. Hope is not the projection of our untethered desires, but the conviction that comes when we firmly tether our desires to the promises of God. The certainty of our hope lies in the character of the one who has made those promises.
So when Proverbs 10:28 says, “The hope of the righteous brings joy, but the expectation of the wicked will perish”, it is reminding us that the righteous will experience the joy that the Lord has promised while the wicked will not experience what they had expected because they were seeking their own desires and not clinging to God’s promises.
Paul says, “hope does not put us to shame” (Romans 5:5) as would happen if we expected God to fulfill his word but he didn’t. We “rejoice in hope” (Romans 12:12) because it is grounded in God and we are not left wondering whether or not what he has promised will actually come about.
Our “faith and hope are in God” (1 Peter 1:21) because we trust (faith) and expect (hope) him to be faithful. We give thanks for the good news and mystery of the gospel, “which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). If Christ is in us by grace through faith, then there is no uncertainty about what lies in store for us (see Romans 8:30), for we have a “hope laid up in heaven” (Colossians 1:5). And so we “hold fast the confession of our hope” (Hebrews 10:23), which is something far greater than the projection of desirous possibility.
If we present the idea of biblical hope as if it were simply a synonym for wishful thinking, then not only do we affront the gospel by devaluing the promises of God, but we also undermine and weaken the confidence that believers are called to have in the God who promises us wonderful things in Christ. But if we recognize the character and nature of hope as it is expressed in Scripture, then we can (and should) rejoice in the expectation that God will do what he has said he will do.
With the psalmist, then, we can say: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.”