Believing and Hoping

A Twilight Musing

Two related contrasts came up in my devotional times this week:

  1. the distinction between optimism and hope (particularly Christian hope); and
  2. the profound difference between the popular saying, “Seeing is believing,” and the reverse of that, “Believing is seeing.”

The first of each pair is an expression of a secular, humanistic interpretation of reality, and latter of each pair embodies reality seen through the eyes of faith.  I would like to expound a bit on both pairs.

Optimism and Hope

Both optimism and hope go beyond the visible facts of the situation to which they are applied, but whereas optimism is a chosen attitude, hope is the embracing of confidence in what somebody has said.  Optimism can be merely the expression of a sunny disposition, or perhaps of a kind of naiveté; but hope is the conviction, based on a reliable source, that things are being engineered in a certain direction.  We can choose to be optimistic that the stock market will go up and the economy will prosper, but we can have hope for these developments only if we have inside information that we trust.  Optimism is subjective, whereas hope is grounded in the assurance that a promise will be fulfilled.

When the Bible speaks of hope, it is always connected with faith, and it is never merely a subjective choice to see things in the most positive light.  The Psalms are full of references to hope based on trusting God.  (All biblical passages are from the NIV.)

  Ps 33:20-21
 We wait in hope for the Lord ;
he is our help and our shield.
 In him our hearts rejoice,
for we trust in his holy name.
Isa 40:31
 but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

Rom. 4: 18-22 shows the extreme of hope that perseveres because of belief in God’s faithfulness and the surety of His promise:

 Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, "So shall your offspring be."  Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead — since he was about a hundred years old — and that Sarah's womb was also dead.  Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.

Heb. 6:17-19 makes clear that our hope in God’s promises is anchored in the Absolute Truth of Yahweh Himself:

Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath.  God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged.   We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.

Seeing is believing/Believing is seeing

All of us have encountered, at some time or another, the practical skepticism of someone who says, “Well, seeing is believing” (or some expression of that sentiment).  Applied to some situations, such as hearing the promises of someone who has proven himself to be untrustworthy, this response is appropriate and understandable.  But for some people, it becomes the expression of a materialistic epistemology, based on the assumption that the only questions worth asking (or answering) are those subject to rational, scientific investigation.

For a person of active faith, this aphorism has to be inverted: “Believing is seeing.”   The contrast between the two statements is very instructive about what is involved in living a life of faith.  At the center of this contrast is the implicit assertion in the first that only seeing can validate and inform believing, while the inverted statement affirms that believing is the foundation for truly seeing.  Augustine articulated the contrast by saying, “I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but rather, I believe in order that I may understand.”  Later, Anselm reinforced this idea with his maxim, “Credo ut intelligam,” which is a reflection of the scriptural statement that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7).  The core meaning of the biblical idea is that one must go beyond the narrow boundaries of what can be established merely by human observation and analysis and accept that the Source of all knowledge is the God Who gave us the power to think.  If we are to have a deep understanding of Truth, we must be grounded in a simple act of faith that accepts possibilities beyond what we can see.

As Paul says in Rom. 8:23-25, we “groan inwardly” in hope of “the redemption of our bodies.   For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has?   But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.”

Image: "Hope" by P. Herjolf. CC License. 


Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)