Redefining the Virtue of Hope

John Stonestreet | BreakPoint | Thursday, June 21, 2012

Redefining the Virtue of Hope

In his essay called “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell shared a crucial insight about the decline of language: “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

Or, as my friend Mike Bauman often says, “Sloppy language makes sloppy thought possible.” In Orwell’s 1984, the masses are fed redefining slogans like “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” and “Ignorance is Strength.”

The battle over cultures is often in the defining and redefining of words. Language has often been used to lower horizons and keep people from really thinking.

Today, as we discuss hope, we must confront bad definitions. It’s part of our ongoing series of the seven virtues. And don’t forget to watch the "Two-Minute Warning" discussion on hope I had with Dr. Timothy George at

We hear a lot about hope these days, from “the audacity of hope” to “hoping against hope.” Unfortunately, the word has been redefined — and, I must say, shrunken — by bad definitions.

Hope has been reduced to a kind of naïve optimism that things will get better. We hope for a changed situation, a new job, a better love, hitting the lottery, or LeBron James winning his first championship.

But real hope — biblical hope — isn’t hope for; it’s hope in: Hope in Christ — what He did for us on the Cross; and what He will do for us when He comes again and sets up His kingdom. A hope for is never better than wishful thinking. Hope in Christ is an expectation based on the certainty of who Jesus is and what He accomplished.

When hope is defined down to a limp, pallid and ultimately useless imitation of the real thing, people and cultures are unable to live above naïve optimism or heartless despair.

But real hope is neither optimistic or despairing, and one of Chuck Colson’s closest colleagues, the late Richard John Neuhaus, described why: “Optimism,” Neuhaus said, “is not a Christian virtue. Optimism is simply a matter of optics, of seeing what you want to see and opting not to see what you don’t want to see.”

Hope is different than optimism. But we also can’t despair. As Neuhaus added: “We have not the right to despair, for despair is a sin. And we have not the reason to despair, quite simply because Christ has risen.”  And that’s where biblical hope squarely rests.

This is no “pie in the sky when you die” kind of hope, but a hope that empowers us for effective service in this world right now.

For Neuhaus, hope involved calling the church to embrace the truth and power of the Gospel even in a culture he called “American Babylon.” For Chuck, it meant proclaiming the sanctity of human life, marriage and religious liberty.

And for us, true, biblical hope — hope in Christ rather than a hope for an improved situation — empowers us to keep on keeping on in the myriad battles to which the Lord calls us.

Next week we’ll wrap up our "BreakPoint" and "Two-Minute Warning" series on the seven virtues. We’ve received such great feedback we’ve placed Chuck’s final "Two-Minute Warnings" on a convenient flash drive for you, along with a study guide and many other resources.

As Chuck said, freedom will not flourish unless virtue does. Find out more about the Renewing the Virtues flash drive by going to and clicking on this commentary.

Publication date: June 21, 2012