Talks given at an Advent Quiet Day
December 10, 2022
9:30: “Hope is a Habit”
Good morning. I’m very happy to see you all here.
We are here for renewal. Advent is a season in which we urgently look for the renewal of our hearts, which will arrive when the Lord comes. 1 John 3:2 says that “we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” In the present, we are God’s children, but we are still waiting to have our hearts re-fashioned to be like Jesus—and that will happen when he comes.
So “hope” is an essential Advent theme, since hope both looks forward to what God will do in us in the future, but is also a disposition that we have in the present. When God creates hope in us, that is a sign of his coming in the here and now. God lives in us through hope.
This is what St Paul means when he says in 1 Corinthians 13:13 that “faith, hope, and love abide,“ and will not pass away. Faith, hope, and love belong to eternity; they are the ways that we live in God in the present, but they are also the seeds of eternal life.
Treating hope as a way that we live in God is different than the way that we usually talk about hope. We think of hope as an emotion, a longing or wishing for something good in the future.
There are two important differences between hopeful wishing and the Christian concept of hope. First, Christian hope is not wishful thinking, but a confident expectation of something that has been promised to us by God. So it is akin to trust. Since we know and trust God, we can reasonably hope that we will accomplish for us all of the good things that he has promised in his word.
Second, hope is deeper than an emotion. Emotions come and go, but, if we have Christian hope, it is because we have cultivated a stable disposition of hope which stays with us whether we are feeling optimistic or pessimistic at any particular moment. Christian theology classically calls this a “virtue,” which means not just a “good thing that one does,” but a pattern of soul, a habit, a character trait from which we act.
Hope is a gift of God that transforms the quality of our hearts, and it is even God living in us. When God comes to us, he does so by joining himself to our inmost selves, the place deeper than our passing emotions and thoughts, and transforms us by creating in our hearts faith, hope, and love.
We can participate in the creation of hope in our hearts in two ways. We can make the space for God to do his work, by seeking the inner stillness of prayer and meditation, and clearing space in our lives and hearts for more God. We can also practice hope. Our hopeful disposition, like a muscle, will only be strong if we exercise it. We can participate in the growth of hope by actions which express hope and which demand a deepening of our hope.
Hope is a habit. That is where we will leave things for now.
For the next fifteen minutes or so, I encourage you to be quiet or silent, and to spend the time in prayer, in meditation, in journaling, in spiritual reading, or whatever other practice will help you make the best use of this time. There is coffee and tea at the back. I will ring this bell to give us a one-minute warning before we gather again for a few minutes of discussion before our next talk at 10:00, when you will have an opportunity to share your reflections and questions.
10:00: “Hope and Faith”
Using the three virtues of faith, hope, and love as a structure for the next three talks, this talk is titled “Hope and Faith.”
1 Peter 3:15 says, “Always be prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” A reason for the hope.
As we mentioned in the first talk, we use the word “hope” too often when really what we are referring to is optimism. The difference is that optimism makes an assumption that things will turn out well, even when it seems unreasonable to think that they will. Unfortunately, this kind of easy optimism is quite popular among Christians, because we like to be a positive presence, to put a smile on, to spread cheer. But as Saint Peter says, Christian hope is hope with eyes wide open; it is a hope that has reasons.
But here we run into a difficulty. If I’m supposed to have a habit of hope that stays with me regardless of the circumstances, how can I have a reasonable hope when the circumstances around me don’t seem hopeful? The solution depends on where we are placing our hope, and that’s a matter of faith. Faith is the foundation of hope.
Hebrews 11:1 tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” As Hebrews 11 goes on to list many examples of faith, it emphasizes how that their faith consisted in believing that God would accomplish what he promised. Their hope was not in what was seen, the difficulty of their circumstances, but in the unseen God whom they knew to be in control.
Faith is the reasonable belief that our trustworthy God will make good on his word. Our hope has “eyes wide open,” but those eyes are looking up to God.
So Christian hope has a limited scope: it is not a general optimism that we can apply to anything, but has to do specifically with what God’s word teaches. God does not promise that things will turn out exactly as we want them to. God does not promise that there will be no tragedies in our lives. Sometimes, it is reasonable to expect things to turn out badly in the here-and-now. But God does promise that, after all of the joys and struggles of life, “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).
That’s why it is possible to have a stable habit of hope. We can be constantly hopeful if we are constantly referring back to the bigger picture which we believe by faith.
That big picture is this: In Christ, God died for our sins to give us a clear conscience before God. God has called us to himself. God has placed faith in our hearts. God gives his Holy Spirit to those who ask. God gives the “peace which passes understanding.” God will ultimately wipe every tear from our eyes. God will complete his work in us, purifying our hearts to be like Jesus. Christ will return to right all wrongs. There is always a reason for hope.
10:30: “Hope and Courage”
The title of this talk is “Hope and Courage.” I said at the start of the last talk that I would be following the pattern of “faith, hope, and love.” Our last talk was about faith, so now we will talk about hope itself.
Hope has been defined as “supernatural courage.” This definition comes from medieval Christian philosophers, especially Saint Thomas Aquinas, who were trying to draw together the wisdom of the pre-Christian world with the Bible. In the ancient world, philosophers talked about four cardinal virtues: temperance, courage, prudence, and justice. But from the Bible we get three virtues: faith, hope, and love. How do we relate the two sets of virtues?
Part of their answer was that the three theological virtues correspond to the the cardinal virtues, but are oriented to God rather than to the visible world. So, for example, prudence is the habit of judging well about what is right and reasonable to do in light of the information you have; in short, thinking well. Faith is like prudence, because it is about the habits of our understanding, but it is concerned with invisible things rather than visible. To have faith is to believe God’s word and to build the rest of your thinking on that.
Courage corresponds to hope. Courage is about facing danger boldly for the sake of a goal, but true courage isn’t reckless. It isn’t courageous to expose yourself to a threat which you don’t have a reasonable hope of overcoming in the circumstances. Like courage, hope is about taking bold steps for the sake of the thing you hope for. But unlike courage, hope doesn’t look to circumstances to determine whether an action is reasonable, but looks to God’s promise. Where God tells us to go, we can go not only with courage, but with a confident hope that God’s word will be accomplished, even if in the present it seems foolish.
Two great examples from Christian history of this supernatural courage come to mind: the martyrs and the ascetics. The martyrs refused to deny Christ even under torture and the threat of death, because “their hope was full of immortality” (Wisdom 3:4). From a natural perspective, their courage was at best rashness—what could possibly be gained by their deaths? But from the perspective of God’s word, their hope was reasonable, since they knew that God would be their consolation and reward, and that their relationship with God was worth more than their bodily life and safety.
We can also think of the ascetics, the Christians who left everything behind and embraced poverty for the sake of the kingdom of God. St Anthony, the first monk, was a rich young man who one day heard the Bible verse which says, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven.” So he did it; he left everything, moved into the desert to live in caves, and devoted the rest of his life to prayer. He had a confident hope that God would make good his word and give him treasure in heaven.
From the perspective of the world this is foolishness, not courage. But in fact it was the highest form of courage: courage to undertake the actions which lead towards the attainment of God’s promises, in spite of every natural incentive to the contrary.
The challenge of this for us is to see how hope requires boldness. We cannot claim to have hope unless we are willing to act in hope, to seek the attainment of God’s promises even when the circumstances make doing so uncomfortable, unpredictable, and frightening.
11:00: “Hope and Love”
Just as faith is the foundation for hope, so hope is the foundation for love. When St Paul discusses the three virtues of faith, hope, and love, he concludes that although all of them last into eternity, “the greatest of these is love.” Christian life, in the last account, is about the cultivation of love.
But what is love? In a similar way that hope often gets distorted as cheap optimism, so love also gets cheapened into warm feelings and positive regard. Remember that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). This means that everything that God does, including giving laws and instructions, passing judgement, allowing his people to pass through times of terrible difficulty, all come from his heart of love.
The golden thread running through all of these acts of love, as well as God’s other acts that we have less difficulty understanding as love, such as forgiving sins and bestowing blessings, is “good will.” The same theologians who taught that hope is a virtue defined love this way: “To love is to will the highest good for another person,” that is, to love is to desire that another person receive what is best for them.
The best thing that any of us can receive is perfect communion with God, unimpeded by any hesitancy, or lukewarmness, or guilt. That’s why sometimes God’s love involves sternness. We urgently need to have whatever gets in the way of our relationship with God taken away.
Our love for the people around us has the same goal: true love desires that everyone we encounter experience the joy of intimacy with God. To love is to desire our neighbours to be whole, and healthy, and satisfied in body and mind, fully alive as God intended them to be.
What does this have to do with hope? Hope is the foundation for love.
We have said that hope is like courage, as we trust God’s word. Another way of putting this is that hope is the courage that comes from trusting God’s promises of love toward us. Hope involves confidence that God’s will for us is good—trust that the things he promises in his word are life-giving, and that he has the will not only to promise them but to deliver.
So, when it is our turn to love others, you might say that our love is just an extension of our hope in God to them. We have confidence in God’s good will toward us, so we also have confidence in God’s good will for our neighbours. We hope for them, as for ourselves, that they will receive all the riches of God’s mercy.
So we begin to treat them as people loved by God. At this point, God’s love for our neighbours takes up residence it our hearts. It is no longer only we who love, but God who loves in us. Hope has blossomed into love.
We will now enter our final period of meditation, after which we will have lunch.
To conclude, this blessing is from Romans 15:13: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.“