At the beginning of the 1999 academic year, I found that I had to teach a class of 24 low-ability teenagers of whom 12 had made up my class in the previous school year. The reason for having to teach twice as many students was that one of the teachers from the previous school year had left. Teaching that class of unmotivated pupils was tough and I resented having to do it. But then God showed to me that I was in an attitude of despair - I had decided in advance that this would not go well.
In his book Lieben, Hoffen, Glauben (München: Kösel Verlag, 1962), Josef Pieper, a German theologian and philosopher, explains that there are two potential enemies of hope.
Despair: Enemy of Hope
The first enemy of hope is despair. Hope says that in the end everything will turn out alright for us all as human beings and for myself. But despair says that it will all end with a negative outcome for us and particularly for myself. It is a decision in advance that something bad will happen in the end. This decision works like a self-fulfilling prophecy. It negates the belief that the great God of the universe is in control of everything and that he loves us and has good things in store for us. “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life” (Ps 23:6).
Despair is also the anticipation of non-fulfillment. As humans we exist from birth to death but we are always in the state of becoming. We haven't reached our ultimate goal - our true fulfillment - yet (Phil 3:13). There is still the possibility of failing to attain the final goal. This means missing the target (one of the definitions of the word "sin").
We live in a tension between the "now" and the "not yet". The anticipation of non-fulfillment means a siding with the "not" in the "not yet" of human existence. In my case, I wanted to have a good relationship with these teenagers and to work well with them in class (this was my hope) but then I unconsciously decided that my hope would not be fulfilled. I had decided that it would not turn out well for me.
Presumption also an Enemy
The second enemy of hope is presumption. This is the decision in advance that all my desires will be met. It is a sort of magical thinking that, maybe after a certain time of special prayer, God will fulfill all my hopes at once.
Presumption is the anticipation of fulfillment. It takes things we desire as already existing and negates the "being on the way" characteristics of human life. It unrealistically believes that it has already got everything (e.g., healing) in principle, that it has reached the goal of eternal life and fulfillment already. Presumption means a siding with the "now" in the tension between the "now" and the "not yet" and it gives in to a perverse human longing for security in life. It really freezes what is truly human in a person. It is a self-destroying delusion that takes things not yet fulfilled as if they were fulfilled.
Both forms of hopelessness, despair and presumption, are not just "moods" which happen to us. They are willful decisions we set for ourselves. They may vary in depth and in consequences for life. But they are both sinful as they conflict with reality - the reality that there is a way to fulfillment, a way to eternal life which is Christ. And in that sense it is a decision against Christ and a proud negation or rebellion towards his redemption. The evil in this decision is the fact that it is a judgment against me being made in the image of God and against the character of God.
If we detect aspects of despair or presumption in us, we need to repent and to confess this as sin and receive cleansing through the blood of Jesus Christ on the cross.
Both despair and presumption are also obstacles to real prayer. Prayer is the language of those who hope. The person in despair does not pray because he takes the non-fulfillment of his prayer requests for granted whereas the presumptuous person only appears to pray - there is no real reason for praying because ahead of time he takes the fulfillment of his prayer request for granted.
Despair and presumption are also a consequence of picturing God in an inadequate way. If we only look at God's righteousness, we have every reason to despair and to turn away from him. If we only focus on God's mercy and grace, we become presumptuous and see him as a ‘sugar daddy’ who should do what we want him to do. God's grace is then turned into "cheap grace" (as Bonhoeffer phrased it).
The Virtue of Magnanimity
The opposite of hopelessness is the virtue of magnanimity. Magnanimity means literally the courage to be or to become great. It implies a stretching to the greatness God has put into us as well as into our pupils as image-bearers and not to be satisfied with less. We expect to find in us and in them this God-given potential and we make us and them worthy of it. Magnanimity means that we as teachers as well as our pupils are crowned and ennobled to develop all the virtues.
But there is also a nobility which a person cannot achieve on their own - an ultimate fulfillment of all a person can be. In 2 Peter 1: 4 it is called God's divine nature that is within us. This means that God dwells in us through his Holy Spirit and he calls us to participate in his divine nature.
So there is a supernatural lifting of us up to God's heights - to the nobility of being God's children - God's sons and daughters. “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, he seats them with the princes, with the princes of their people.” (Psalm 113:7-9) to which God has called us”
There is the sin of acedia. This is a kind of fear of the greatness to which God has called us. This person does not want to be as great and noble as he is in objective reality. Or he has not got the courage to accept the obligation that comes with this ennobling. Acedia is a perverse kind of humility. It does not want to receive good things because of the fear of having to live up to the standards that seemingly accompany them.
Humility: Its Twin Virtue
Beside the virtue of magnanimity there is humility. Humility is not a self-belittling attitude towards God or others. It means a certain clarity and a positive acceptance of reality that there is an inexplicable distance between the Creator God and his creatures. This acceptance leads to the acknowledgement that we need God and that we are not perfect yet. Humility is like the river banks to the river of magnanimity. Humility is a truly inner decision of the will. In the virtue of hope we accept ourselves as God's creatures (humility), we accept ourselves in the wonderful way God has made us (magnanimity).
Hope is God's gift and in order to receive and to develop this supernatural hope we need to develop and foster these virtues of magnanimity and of humility. And they need to be infused by God himself. Through our own fault we can lose our supernatural hope by a lack of magnanimity or by a lack of humility.
Humility and magnanimity are the twin virtues that accompany hope whereas despair and presumption are its enemies. Supernatural hope plants in us a seed of the "not yet" which cannot exhaust itself. This leads to a new "youngness" and new strength. Natural hope goes along with being young people with a long stretch of future ahead of us and only a short period of our lives past. That is why natural hope gets tired with age, the "not yet" has turned into the past and into the "no longer". Supernatural hope gives us an incredible long stretch of future so that even old age may appear to us as a short period of the past. Paul says: "There we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed [made young or rejuvenated] day by day" (2 Corinthians 4:16).
I finish with a Celtic prayer:
“Encircle me, oh God,
Keep faith within
And pride without.
Encircle me, oh God,
Keep hope within
And despair without.
Encircle me, oh God,
Keep love within
And hate without.”