“Hope” is a word that can mean different things. It can mean looking forward to something good that might happen in the future. One might hope for good weather on the day of an upcoming picnic. It can mean thinking that something good is likely to happen. One might be hopeful that the Mets will win the World Series next year. “Hope” is also a word that we use in our speech about God. We hope that God will do good things in our future. This kind of hope goes hand in hand with prayer and is usually about something important. We might pray for good weather or Mets victories, but we’re more likely to pray for sick loved ones. Our hope for the weather or the Mets is based mostly on natural, this-worldly causes. Our hope for the healing of those we love can also be based on natural causes, but very often it is also based on the help we seek from God.
Hoping in God can be about specific things we desire, like the healing of a loved one. But it can also mean something more. “Hope” is one of the three “theological virtues” by which we relate directly to God. In this sense, “hope” means confident reliance on God to faithfully fulfill His promises to us. In this way that we hope for our salvation, meaning that we look forward with confident expectation to the fulfillment of God’s promise to save us. That doesn’t mean our salvation is assured or guaranteed, because we remain capable, by virtue of our free will, of rejecting God’s saving grace. But though we must “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12), we have certain hope that God will do His part by giving us every saving grace that we need.
So hoping in God can mean two things. It can mean hoping that God will bring about a natural good, like the healing of a loved one. Or it can mean hoping that God will give us supernatural gifts, like saving grace and eternal life. The first kind of hope concerns good things that God has not promised. For example, God has not promised to give each and every person the bodily healing they desire. The second kind of hope – theological hope – concerns things that God has promised and can therefore be hoped for with certainty.
What does this mean for us? In particular, what does this mean for someone who prays to God for the healing of a sick loved one? It means that we can and we should hope in God in both the ways I have described. We can and should hope and pray that God will grant bodily healing to us and our loved ones. And we can and should hope and pray that God will fulfill His promise to bring us and our loved ones to everlasting life in His Kingdom.
Moreover, we can and should hope in God in both these ways at the same time. We don’t have to give up hoping for a cure before we can begin hoping for eternal life. It is right and good to desire both the good things of this life and the good things of the life to come. Saint Paul shows this when he says,
To me life is Christ, and death is gain . . . and I do not know which to chose . . . I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better. Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit. (Phil 1:21-24)
Saint Paul had good reasons to want to go on living, as do so many who are sick and in danger of dying. But Saint Paul also longed for the fullness of life in Christ that would be his after death. And this should be our desire too. Both the goods of this life and the goods of the life to come can and should be objects of our hope.
We do not, however, hope for these things in the same way. Our hopes for the natural goods of this life are conditional upon the will of God. In His unfathomable wisdom, God may not want for us the good things we pray for. That was the case for Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane when he prayed, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt 26:39). He hoped for the preservation of his mortal life, but that hope was conditional upon his Father’s will, which he desired even more than life. Our hopes for the supernatural gifts God has promised us are unconditional. We know that God “wills everyone to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). So we have sure and certain hope that God will grant us His saving grace. This “theological” hope is not only more certain; it is also directed to what is greater. As Saint Paul said, “To depart this life and be with Christ . . . is far better.”
So let us hope in God for the goods of this mortal life and, at the same time and with even greater longing, let us hope in God for eternal goods and for the life that is to come.