The Substance of Hope

The title of this talk is taken from that passage in the Bible which says, "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen."

In our two trips in the last four years we have seen much that is disquieting and that has made us wonder how men could be so cruel to other men and how governments could go on building power that would seem to have no termination except in destruction. It is easy enough to be pessimistic and disheartened and to feel that the substance of things hoped for leaves little room for faith, and that if you have any faith, it surely must rest in the things unseen, for it would seem that the ocean of darkness and death all but overwhelms the ocean of light and love.

The Substance and Evidence of Hope

Some of you have heard me say that years ago when I went to college my father and I had a talk which I have never forgotten. We had been discussing the struggles you might encounter going off on your own for the first time, and at the end of the conversation he looked at me with great tenderness and said, "Dorothy, you will always find what you are looking for." He was thinking especially of people and groups and organizations. In the years that have followed I have learned that there is a great deal of truth in what he said.

Much of what you see does depend upon what you are looking for. But does that make it an illusion? My daughter has expressed the danger of refusing to admit the darkness and hopelessness if you are intent on seeing the things which make for hope. But in a world like ours, with journalists and politicians and men of affairs shouting gloom from every newspaper and broadcasting company or giving us words which send us first up and then down in our moods or elation or anguish, it is important that we not lose sight of the substance and evidence of hope. One’s faith helps one to see this hope, but seeing the substance of things hoped for also increases faith. It works both ways.

There is nothing worse than a sentimentalist who wears a forced smile and goes about being sugary-sure when the world seems tumbling about us. But there are those who select despair only, and they are just as hard to endure. It is necessary to be realistic, but that doesn’t mean blinding ourselves to the evidence of good in people or the world. Hope and vision are both necessary to keep the people from perishing.

I expect that one of the most difficult things for us as a young nation and for the young of our nation is to keep from insisting that unless good things come to birth and are realized in their lifetimes, they are of no use. I am not at all sure that modern young people would agree with Wordsworth when he says,

Enough if something from our hands have power
To live, and act, and serve the hour
And if, as toward the silent tomb we go,
Through love, through hope, and faith’s transcendent dower,
We feel that we are greater than we know.

To "feel that we are greater than we know" "through love, through hope, and faith’s transcendent dower" isn’t enough for people who want to see results here and now, or at least before they leave this life. It is hard to work for the good as if it were coming tomorrow, and at the same time to realize without losing heart that our goals may be years and even generations away, or that they may be known only in an eternal order of things. "There may not be time for this kind of future hope," we cry—not with all the forces of destruction we have at our disposal.

It is here that our faith needs to be strongest. If we can believe that there is a God working in the processes of history, that He is operative in our world and in our lives, and that He longs for our good, we can feel that we are in His hands, and that "in some good time, His good time, we shall arrive." Because of our faith in a loving, caring God who holds us in the midst of anything that may happen to us, we Christians should say as Paul said to Timothy, "God hath not given us the spirit of fear but a spirit of power and love and of a sound mind."

No Lost Good

I believe that more of us could bear the uncertainty of having positive goods come into being in our lifetime if we could feel that there is no lost good. I am not sure where this conviction of mine has come from. It probably is a composite of the Bible and Browning and a number of other books and persons who have strengthened my own intuition of the way a good God must work. But I believe with all my heart that every act, every word, every attitude and longing that is creative is caught up in the heart of the Eternal and is preserved. In this sense man is greater than he knows. He is more than he seems. What each one of us does is more important than it would appear, and hope can "spring eternal," for its triumph, if we are in the hands of God, is ultimate.

Faith in God

The "reason of the hope there is in you," as far as the Bible is concerned, comes from one’s faith in God. Do you remember how the psalmist cries, "Why art thou cast down, oh my soul? And why art thou disquieted within me? Hope thou in God?"

In the faith of everything that might happen to Israel, to the chosen people, in the face of all that cast them down and disquieted, the prophets knew that their hope lay in God. The people often strayed and sinned and fell short of His commandments, but with Him there was still hope of salvation.

God is our hope! But man is not hopeless as long as there is that in him which was put there by God, that spark of His own being which can be kindled and ignited and can burn with a flame that is not his own. Men and women with this flame have lived in every generation and have played their part in keeping men’s consciences uneasy about the evil and the suffering and sickness in the world about them; they remained uneasy until something was done to alleviate conditions as they found them. God will not let us go until we work not only to perfect ourselves but to perfect the world we are placed in, and to make it a comfortable place for others besides ourselves.

But often enough our minds and souls are besieged with numbing or nibbling fears, and pessimism holds us inert. And so we need to share the hope which we have with one another "and be ready," as the Bible says, "always to give an answer to everyone that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear."

In De Pury’s Journal From My Cell, which tells so graphically the substance of the prisoner’s hope, he says, "Despair consumes you, but hope is the stronger," and he goes on to say, "The Church is well-founded on the joy human beings take in sharing their hope."

A sick and faithless generation, just as a sick and faithless person, tends to select despair: "What will become of us, of me?" But those whose faith in God is living have a health that communicates itself to others, and a confidence which comes from confidence in God and His spirit operative in man.

Evolution in Awareness

We have progressed in our world to the place where many have caught a vision of the kind of world we might be living in. Our consciences have evolved. We have come to the place where we see not only that physical violence is abhorrent, but that psychological violence is also abhorrent. We feel this in many areas of our life, in child labor laws, in changed sweated-labor practices, in the treatment of the insane (although there is a long way to go yet in this field), in prisons, in discriminatory practices, in our uneasiness that war is the solution to conflict. There is this "evolution of awareness," as Claude Bragshaw says in The Delphic Woman, "an increasing realization, through fret and friction of time and space, of that which is timeless and spaceless," or, one might say, of that which is necessary, enduring, and good.

Lillian Smith, in her little book Now is the Time, reveals more clearly than I realized before in her writings the quality of her own inner motivation for the work she has done against racial discrimination and where she pins her faith. Speaking of an America which had its democratic roots in Christianity and yet practiced segregation and discrimination, she says, "We were torn to pieces. Here was a moral problem, an earth-sized ambiguity that would give our souls and our world no peace until it was solved. . . . The long cold war with our consciences had begun." And Lillian Smith shows her faith when she says, "The power of integrity and truth is so strong, even a few speaking out at a critical time can close off the wrong path and start men on the right one. . . . [This might be the great historian Toynbee speaking!] There is no situation in the world today that is too difficult to solve. If we could only believe it! Our difficulties east and west lie in our state of mind. . . . Faith in our moral strength will return to us too; as the old guilts grow small, hope will grow large.
This is the unrevised text of an article that appeared originally in Friends Journal, December 31, 1955.

Dorothy Steere

Dorothy Steere (1907-2003) was a writer on spirituality who traveled widely on behalf of American Friends Serrvice Committee with her husband, Haverford professor Douglas Steere.