“Endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us” (Rom. 5:3-4).
The philosopher Aristotle wrote, “Hope is the dream of a waking man,” which captures a fundamental aspect of the virtue of hope. Hope looks forward to what lies ahead, like the person who wakes at the start of the day that has yet to unfold. The dream may be simple optimism, more or less well-founded: a dream for the day that may be fulfilled or not, depending upon circumstances. However things work out, though, there is always a new day with a new hope. In other words, hope is about the future.
St. Paul gives us a complementary truth about hope in our reading today, from the letter to the Romans. In this brief passage, the Apostle moves from glory to suffering. “We boast,” he says, “in our hope of sharing the glory of God” (Rom. 5:2); then he says, “Not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings” (Rom. 5:3).
Do you see what Paul is doing here? He’s rooting our hope in the here and now, the gritty and everyday business of life. Yes, hope is about the future, but its seedbed is today, in the ordinary agonies and disappointments that go with existence. Suffering doesn’t destroy our hope; but our hope springs out of it. Hope isn’t so much a dream of the future; instead, it’s the product of hard-won experience that refuses to be destroyed.
Here we have three words, in sequence, that act as directional pointers to the future. “Endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us” (Rom. 5:3-4). First, endurance. There’s not a person here who could not write a doctoral dissertation on the subject of endurance. We’re human beings, after all, so we know this territory. What’s endured is suffering, and God knows there’s been enough of that lately. Pandemic, war, mass shootings: tragedy writ large, not to mention the trials that are particular to each of us.
Endurance is a rejection of despair, a refusal to give up. You might think that sounds heroic, and maybe it is sometimes; but it’s also true that endurance is often more like holding on by your fingernails in a tight situation. It means not running away, even when there are options to do so. It means staying put, without accepting the awfulness of the situation. A hard tightrope to walk, between endurance and acceptance, and few there are who get it right every time. We’re dependent on grace, God’s power and presence in our lives, for the ability to endure.
Endurance produces character, as St. Paul says. Character is hard to put your finger on, though most of us know it when we see it. C.S. Lewis talks somewhere about the way in which our experiences, and our actions arising out of them, leave their indelible marks upon our soul. If your soul has a few nicks in it, a little bit of weathering, then you too are probably developing your character as a Christian.
To vary the metaphor, character is a kind of deepness of heart; joined to a capacity for reaching down within oneself to be in contact with the reality of God. Character is reliable, formed so deep within that it shapes our future actions. It’s constructed over time, and is not the creation of a moment; though it’s also true that each moment and action is significant. Character is shaped by grace. We take on the character of Christ himself as our lives are formed according to his image and likeness.
This brings us back to hope, which springs out of the suffering and endurance that has shaped who we are, in the here and now. Our confirmands today are re-affirming their faith in Christ, and testifying to the shaping power of grace in their lives that has brought them to this moment. They will receive grace for the days to come through the laying on of hands and the prayer of the community. All of us have had the same experiences, of suffering, endurance, character, and hope, that point the way toward our own future.
Some people have wondered whether we’re not experiencing a “hope deficit” these days. Maybe it’s a “supply chain” problem, and hope is stuck back in Los Angeles! Anxiety is surely high, and it’s easy to feel hopeless. It’s in that spirit that St. Paul, toward the end of the letter to the Romans, calls God “the God of hope” (Rom. 15:13). The basis of that claim is the person of Jesus Christ, the one who fulfills God’s promises, and who secures our future by his resurrection from the dead. In him, we can never be hopeless because he is faithful, even when we are not.
St. Paul ends with the love of God “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5). Again, not just a pious wish for the future, but a present reality that transforms us here and now. God’s love has power to move us, and to create a future for the anxious and hopeless. He shapes and forms us, and transforms us, fitting us here and now for the future that is to come.