The Will and Ways of Hope
Article by Scott Barry Kaufman (2011)
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What is the Science?

There are a lot of variables that go into success: skill, passion, grit, and optimism are just a few traits that play a part. One variable, however, might play a bigger part than all of these: hope. In this article, hope consists of two things: personal determination and a viable path to success. Research on hope has considered two forms of hope: situational hope and a general state of hopefulness. Together, people with high levels of hope believe they can reach their goals and have the skillset to back up that belief. Those with higher levels of hope tend to have higher grades in school, perform better at divergent thinking, and experience well-being. One study even found one’s level of hope was a better predictor of success in law school than the LSAT! Much research remains to be done, but it appears that the importance of hope is quickly being recognized by many in the scientific community.

Hope: The state or trait of having both personal determination and a clear path to achieve one’s goals.

“Hope allows people to approach problems with a mindset and strategy-set suitable to success, thereby increasing the chances they will actually accomplish their goals.” – Scott Barry Kaufman

What is the Theology?

Hope is something we talk about often. We hope we hit green lights on the way to work; we hope we will get that promotion; we hope our kids do well on their test. Christian hope, however, is a much deeper hope. It is a hope placed in Jesus Christ – and neither our will power nor our skillset will help us reach that goal. We cry out with the father of the demon-possessed child: “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24 NRSV). And we meditate on Jesus’ words that, “apart from [him, we] can do nothing,” (John 15:5). Nonetheless, we can be a part of God’s great plan for the world by the power of the Spirit. We can be as resolute as Moses who was sustained by the continued presence of God, and as skillful a leader as Paul who gloried in his weakness because it illuminated God’s strength (2 Cor. 12:9-10). As we participate in God’s mission to the world, we can have Spirit-enabled determination and Spirit-enabled strategies to do the work of God.

If personal willpower and skills are not sufficient to help us reach our ultimate goal, how can this research on hope enter into conversation with Christian theology? And how can it be used in a sermon? For Christians, hope is an essential Christian concept. We are a hopeful people who bring hope with us as we encounter others. This hope permeates our life as we journey through seemingly hopeless situations. For when our purpose in life is conformed to what God is doing in the world, we already know we will reach our goals. Things may not work out exactly like we had hoped, but when Jesus returns, we know our hopes and dreams will find their fulfillment as all of the earth is made new. For this reason, we can have hope; we can have personal determination in the power of the Spirit; and we can rely upon our Spirit-enabled gifts. This should make a difference in our lives, and that difference can be measured by scientists who study hope.

What to Consider

  • What are some things for which you hope? Do you see a viable path to seeing these hopes fulfilled?
  • How do you define hope? How does that compare and contrast to the definition of hope in this article?
  • How do you understand the relationship between the Christian hope in Jesus and our temporal hopes in life?
  • What are some examples of hopeful people in your life? How might hope have helped them? How might hope have hindered them?

How to go Deeper

  • Using Hebrews 11, pick a character or two and reflect upon how faith, hope, and purpose interacted in their life stories.
  • Preach a series on Esther that focuses on how personal determination and a clear strategy worked together to give Esther and the Jewish people hope and success. Consider the role of God in giving Esther and Mordecai hope in this book that makes no mention of God.
  • Discuss the role of the Holy Spirit in developing a clear pathway to success, a vital component of hope according to this article. You might bring in stories from the Bible that show different levels of Spirit-dependence and success. Jonah, Esther, Isaiah, the early church, and Jesus may be some places to start that provide diverse experiences.

Relevant Scripture

All references in parenthesis refer to Lectionary readings. For more information on what the Lectionary is, please click here. For additional Lectionary resources click here.

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About the Author:

Zach is currently a PhD student at Fuller Theological Seminary researching the role of leaders in congregational change. His calling in life is to train and equip pastors to faithfully lead local congregations. When not studying, he'll most likely be watching Sporting Kansas City score goals or hiking with his wife and two kids.


  1. June 28, 2017 at 1:26 pm

    “In this article, hope consists of two things: personal determination and a viable path to success.”

    In translating this into the terms of Pauline theology:

    personal determination = perseverance in sanctification

    viable path to success = Christ himself, who has gone before us to reconcile us to the Father and to assure us of eternal life in Him.

  2. August 9, 2017 at 3:31 pm

    I’ve thought a lot about the concept of grit/ resilience in the Christian faith, but after reading this article I think that the element of hope is extremely important. Lots to think about!

  3. Rich Gideons August 13, 2017 at 11:13 pm

    As a Christian I agree that our hope is much different than what the world believes and we need to dwell on our hope in Christ so we can always be ready to share why we have that hope in us 1 Pet 3:15.

  4. Reed Metcalf September 12, 2017 at 10:06 pm

    I find this study fascinating, but I think its point of contact with the Christian faith might be a bit more complicated. As noted in both the write-up and the article, hope as defined by the study is personal determination and the utilization of different strategies to reach a goal. Christian hope, however, I think is best defined as expectation of future fulfillment; this at least seems in line with what Paul says in Romans 4 (regarding Abraham’s hope in the fulfillment of the promise of God), Romans 5 (the believer’s hope of sharing in the glory of God), Romans 8 (the hope of the redemption of both our bodies and the cosmos), Colossians 1 (the hope of the fulfillment of the gospel), and what Peter says in 1 Peter (our hope in the resurrection and vindication in spite of suffering). In these representative examples form the New Testament–though by no means exhaustive–humans have a “passive” hope, whereas the study defines an “active” hope. By “passive,” I mean that our hope relies on the actions of God in and through Jesus Christ, where the “active” hope of the study is about one’s own grit and cunning to accomplish a goal. I think what we have here is a funny overlap in the English language: the study uses “hope” to mean our creative actions and determination, whereas many English translations of the New Testament use “hope” to mean assurance. I think ultimately, the study doesn’t directly touch on our “hope in Christ.” I imagine that our assurance does give us many of the same same benefits that grit and cleverness give us, but I think we are a bit in danger of being fast and loose with language in a way that might deceive us. This is like equating an orange and an apple; both may be good for us and both may be called “fruit,” but they are ultimately two different things with two different sets of benefits.

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