Greg Carey: Hope Not Optimism

Imagine a marriage, a second marriage mind you, in which a seminary professor partners with a lawyer. Two people skilled in argumentation and paid for their opinions, each inclined to suppose everyone wants to hear those opinions. The professor lives in a nonprofit world, and the lawyer primarily serves businesses. The two professions reward different patterns of behavior: seminaries encourage active listening, while lawyers routinely talk over one another.

That would be my marriage, and it’s endless fun. Every once in awhile, my business-savvy spouse needs to remind me, “Hope is not a strategy.” Unless a business has an actual plan, built on a reasonable foundation of data, mapped out to a high level of detail, and with clear structures of accountability, that business is unlikely to achieve successful change.

“Hope is not a strategy.” It sounds so cold-blooded coming from her. Yet how obviously true. Nevertheless, I respectfully dissent.

Since I’m a professor, my disagreement rests on a technicality. The proverb, “Hope is not a strategy,” confuses hope for optimism. It is surely true that optimism is not a strategy. A few years ago, some students challenged the seminary community to train for a half marathon. Thirteen committed to the process, but nine dropped out within a few weeks. If you don’t have a plan, you won’t finish.

For Christians, however, hope is our most fundamental strategy. And Advent is the season for hope.

First, Christian hope has shape. It starts not with our fondest wishes but with the God who called Abraham and Sarah, delivered Israel from bondage, spoke through the prophets, and made Godself known to us in Jesus Christ. In other words, we know what hope looks like. It looks like God’s long intent to bless creation, God’s commitment to the most vulnerable, and Jesus’s ministry of gathering communities where healing and liberation happen. As Paul reminds us, hope manifests itself in our lives and in our communities through the work of the Holy Spirit: “Hope does not disappoint” (Romans 5:5).

Such God-centered hope is fundamental to Christian identity. It cannot be seen, Paul acknowledges, but that doesn’t make it inconsequential: “By this hope we were saved” (Romans 8:24). Only if God is the ground of hope can hope save us. Hope, we remember, constitutes the Big Three virtues alongside faith and love (1 Corinthians 13:13; 1 Thessalonians 5:8).

Second, because our hope has shape, it forms our living in the here and now. In this sense, hope is very much a strategy. John the Baptist held hope that God would redeem Israel from its bondage. Perhaps things weren’t looking good from prison, so John sent some of his own disciples to check in on Jesus. Jesus did exactly what we should do when we’re checking in on hope: he simply described his own activity:

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Matthew 11:4-5; see Luke 7:22)

Life, healing, and liberation — that’s what our hope looks like, and that is our plan.

Whenever we’re tempted to despair that our churches and institutions are in decline, we should aim not to save them directly but to live out our hope. That is, we should orient ourselves to the ministries of life, healing, and liberation. Our hope is our strategy.

Truly this has been a brutal year, so brutal the 2020 jokes no longer make us smile. The coronavirus pandemic has piled up a massive death toll, but that’s just the beginning: we don’t know how to measure how this virus has impacted the health of countless others, how isolation withers our spirits, or how economic dislocation will wound an already sickly society. Honestly, I’m just as worried by the signs of a broken society: distrust in the election, distrust in public health, and distrust in one another.

Plus, distrust in the church. With churches and Christian leaders hoping on partisan bandwagons, making outrageous claims, fueling division, and flaunting common sense public health guidelines, the church is embarrassing itself.

You can imagine that right now some smart Christians have scheduled a Zoom meeting to cook up a strategy. I bet they’ve set up some groovy Zoom backgrounds with plants, books, and contemporary art — good lighting too. “We know millions of believers are living grace-filled lives of service and sacrifice,” they’ll say. “We need to leverage that. We need a bold strategy.”

Nuh-uh. Our hope is our strategy. Life, healing, liberation. Doing what Jesus did. That’s all we have.

Writing from prison, Paul was thinking big thoughts. He wanted to know Christ and the power of his resurrection (Philippians 3:10). And he knew he wasn’t there yet. So Paul turned to hope for his strategy:

this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. (3:13-14)

That’s it. That’s the whole plan.

Do you still encounter people who practice “visualization and manifestation,” the Oprah-sponsored spirituality for the twenty-first century? If you just think it hard enough and clear enough, the prophets proclaim, you’ll reorient your life and your deepest longings will manifest themselves.

Nuh-uh. That’s empty optimism, and it’s never left the bestseller list. Hope sounds different. We know just one thing: God is faithful. The God who has formed us after the model of Israel and in the person of Jesus Christ, that God of life, healing, and liberation: that God is not done yet.

Hope sounds like this: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you [that’s plural, y’all] will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). Hope is our only path forward.


Greg Carey is Professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary and an active layperson in the United Church of Christ. His books include studies of apocalyptic literature, the parables, the Gospel of Luke, and the ethics of biblical interpretation. His most recent books are Stories Jesus Told: How to Read a Parable and Using Our Outside Voice: Public Biblical Interpretation. In addition to serving on multiple editorial boards, Greg chairs the Professional Conduct Committee of the Society of Biblical Literature and serves on the Leadership Team of the Open and Affirming Coalition of the United Church of Christ.

Facebook | @gregc666
Twitter | @Greg_Carey
Facebook | @LancasterTheologicalSeminary
Twitter | @LancSem


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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