“I cannot be an optimist, but I am a prisoner of hope.” These words spoken by Dr. Cornel West of Harvard Divinity School obviously assume a conceptual difference between optimism and hope. What is the difference? Are Christians called to be optimists or people of hope? Can we be both, or should we choose one over the other? On the one hand, according to Webster, optimism is an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events or to anticipate the best possible outcome. On the other hand, “to expect something with confidence” would be a simple definition of hope. Let me quickly simplify the difference between these concepts: an optimist looks through rose colored glasses for evidence that something will turn out great while hope believes in a better future without any evidence.
If I’m correct about the difference between hope and optimism, Christians are people of hope. The bible is full of it. Think about Job. He had lost everything: his possessions, his health, and even his family. All that Job had left were his so called “friends” Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. Job had no indication whatsoever that his life would turn around for the better. Yet, while Job had lost almost everything else, he never lost his hope. In perhaps one of the most beautiful passages of the Old Testament, Job breaks out in a doxology: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25 and 26). In other words, to have hope is to believe the promise of God even when the fulfillment of the promise seems like an impossibility, as it did for Job.
Optimism sounds like this: “Every Day a Friday.” This is what hope sounds like: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life…nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8: 38, 39). Ultimately, our hope is not a fuzzy feeling about things merely improving. Instead, the substance of our Christian hope is that a person—Jesus Christ himself—is making all thing completely new not only for us but for the whole world.
Rev. Will Wilson is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Kilgore. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.