N.T. Wright makes an interesting observation on the differences between optimism and hope.
“Hope” and “optimism” are not the same thing. The optimist looks at the world and feels good about the way it’s going. Things are looking up! Everything is going to be all right! But hope, at least as conceived within the Jewish and then the early Christian world, was quite different. Hope could be, and often was, a dogged and deliberate choice when the world seemed dark. It depended not on a feeling about the way things were or the way they were moving, but on faith, faith in the One God.*
Optimism deals with positive circumstances despite whatever problems may exist. Hope in God takes us beyond the circumstances. The circumstances may in fact be bleak, but hope sees light in the darkness because of what God has promised.
Let me explain the differences with my own health situation. I’m optimistic about my multiple myeloma prognosis. I’m blessed to live in a moment of history where treatment options are what they are. Life expectancy is three to four times longer than what it was five years ago. I’m blessed to live in a city with cutting edge medical treatment. I have a great team of doctors dealing with my ongoing treatment and stem cell transplant. My hematologist says that with treatment I could live another 15 to 20 years. (I’m very aware there are no guarantees, and something else could kill me.) At my age, that puts me in the Psalm 90’s range of “seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty.” I also know that not all cancers are the same. Some cancers are terminal with short time left to the patient; other cancers are more like chronic conditions. In those cases, doctors talk about living with cancer. But with my physical health at the moment, I’m optimistic. Outward circumstances look good.
But my physical health will not always be optimistic. I will get older, and my disease will likely progress unless there is a cure in the offing. But there is no cure for old age and dying unless the Lord returns first. Mary Hornburger had multiple myeloma. When I found out, I had to look up what it was. My visits to her were probably always more encouraging to me than to her. She was a woman of great faith. I was seeing her near the end of her disease. She was weak, tired, and in many ways ready to die. Her physical health was no longer optimistic. The outward circumstances were not positive, but her hope saw light in the darkness because of what God had promised. She knew where she was headed.
Hope is not dependent on the outward circumstances of life. I’ve become convinced and have faith in Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, and that changes everything. Jesus has promised eternal life and place in his Father’s house to those who have faith in him. Paul was facing Roman execution, yet his words brim with hope (2 Timothy 4:6-8) for he knew the crown of righteousness that awaited him. Hope in Christian thinking is not wishful thinking but faithful expectation.
I like Wright’s phrase, hope is “a dogged and determined choice.” I must keep my faith strong and hold firmly to hope. Some stumble and fall on the Christian walk, but hope is worth the perseverance. Even when the circumstances are bleak, hope sees the light of what God has promised. Optimism will fail. Hope leads us home.
*N.T. Wright, Paul: A Biographyh, p. 45