All of us have desires; some of us have a confident expectation that these desires will see fruition. When desire and expectations coincide, we have hope, yet it’s a rarer quality than we might think. Too many of us seem to lack confidence in ourselves or in the basic goodness of the world. Some of us become discouraged with trying; some even sink into despair. As a humanities instructor, I am painfully aware that much of today’s art—paintings, novels, cinema, television, and theater—focuses repeatedly on the meaninglessness of life, with despair and frustration as recurring themes. As a citizen and neighbor, I am even more painfully aware that many people would define their lives in the same way.
But as a member of the Church, I am profoundly and happily aware that the gospel, properly understood as the “good news,” is designed as a vital reason to hope. It blends both halves of our definition of hope by stimulating proper desires in us and by assuring us that these desires can be fulfilled. It builds confidence both in ourselves and our world. It teaches us reasons to be happy with ourselves and with our lot in life. Devised to provide peace and wholeness, it not only teaches us joy in the fact of our being, but provides an anchor for our souls in those inevitable times of trouble.
Why then do significant numbers of us, even members of the Church armed with this knowledge, become discouraged with ourselves and with our lot in life? What causes us to lose this hope that we all need so desperately? And perhaps, even more importantly, what can we do to gain more hope in our lives?
These are important questions for our times, questions that I have thought about from changing perspectives for years. Why do some members of the Church—good members who are living the commandments—become discouraged?
One reason may be that we see ourselves both as the person we really are and also as the person we could potentially be—the real and the ideal. The two never become one—a mixed blessing since the frustration this creates can overwhelm us, but the distance between the two can also spur us toward new growth.
A second reason why we may become discouraged is our razor-sharp consciousness of what others think of us. Hoping to win friendship or acclaim, many of us try desperately to cover up any frustrations or inadequacies we have and project only our positive sides.
There’s nothing wrong, of course, with emphasizing the positive. The problem comes when we do not realize that almost everyone else is doing the same thing, and if we conclude that no one else has ever felt our type of nagging frustrations gnawing away at their psychological innards. We see everyone else’s accomplishments, but live daily with our own feelings of failure. As a teenager, I often longed to be grown-up, feeling that adults didn’t suffer the same inadequacies I felt. As an adult, I now realize that everyone can succumb to these same feelings of “everyone else is doing so well—what’s wrong with me?”
One frustration that may, however, be more intense for adults comes from feeling fragmented. How can one individual possibly cope with all the roles we are each expected to play in life—as members of a family, as breadwinners for families, as homemakers (and this one breaks down into taxi-driver, cook, laundress, and dozens more), as officers and teachers in Church auxiliaries and in community organizations. Constantly juggling responsibilities, we sometimes find ourselves with far less time than we seem to need.
Most of us try various remedies for our discouragement—but almost none of them works. Gossip and defaming others, for example, is an attempt to pull people back to what we consider to be our level. Others of us accumulate big cars, elaborate homes or other expensive signs to signal “I am a success.” 1 Another technique that almost never works is trying to convince ourselves and others that we “don’t care” about succeeding or failing. Of course we do.
Our inner feelings are tremendously important because we all live so much in our own inner world. It is what we know best. It virtually dictates everything we attempt. If our feelings about ourselves are positive, we can lead happy, productive lives. If they are not, our ability to love and to accept love is seriously stunted. We will not be able to give of ourselves because we feel we have nothing to give. In other words, without hope, charity (love) is bound.
And it works both ways. If our self-image is negative, we will not allow others to love us because we feel unworthy of such love. The inevitable spiral from such lovelessness is isolation, leading to increased despair.
There may never before have been a time when mankind has needed hope more. Perhaps the teachings of the Master and the prophets have never been so meaningful before. Yet how can we embrace hope and experience its effect more fully in our lives?
Paul may give us the most important clue when he links hope with faith and charity. (See 1 Cor. 13:13.) Charity is defined in the Book of Mormon as “the pure love of Christ” (Moro. 7:47). It is, I sense, importantly connected with hope. I grew up with a sense of well-being and a certain degree of confidence in myself, born of the love of two parents concerned for my welfare. I felt their love and confidence in me; yet more importantly, they taught me that the Master also loved me, even though I had to learn for myself what that love meant later in my life.
I experienced my own greatest need for hope during my passage from adolescence to the adult world, a difficult time for many. I realized that someday I would have to prove my worth to the world and that realization made me question my worth as an individual. I wondered if I really had a contribution to make to life. I wondered if others outside my family would ever love me. I was tormented by all of those doubts and fears we’ve discussed. In short, I was experiencing a major crisis of self-confidence that so many of us undergo during adolescence.
In this turmoil of doubts and fears, sustained by the love and teachings of my parents, I began to rediscover hope because of the growth of my childlike faith in Christ’s love. The agent for this resurgence of hope, in my case, was the book of Hebrews. I still recall my excitement when its message broke into my consciousness. At that moment Paul seemed to speak to me: he was so vitally concerned with the message of Christ’s love for us and his identification with us and our plight.
I was struck by the beginning of this epistle of hope which establishes Christ’s majesty. Paul identifies Christ as the maker of the world, as the perfected image of his Father, as the heir to all things. (See Heb. 1:1–3.) In short, I was left with no doubt that Christ was the single most important person in the history of the earth.
On this foundation, Paul builds the rest of the epistle: He speaks of Christ’s deep concern for us and our need to develop faith in him. Hope apparently comes in connection with that faith, for as Mormon points out it is impossible to have faith unless it is accompanied by hope. (See Moro. 7:40.)
Paul points out that Christ, the son of God, suffered, learned the deeper significance of obedience, and was tempted as we are tempted. He came to understand totally our plight in life; he experienced our pains and frustrations; he came to feel deeply for us. (See Heb. 5:8; Alma 7:11–12.) I’d been feeling that no one understood me; now I realized that the Lord understood me totally. His path in life had been like an arduous climb through the thorn-infested, rugged mountains of hardship, so much more difficult than my own, and through it all his empathy for us—for me—remained a consuming passion in his life.
Later, according to Paul, Christ in his role as the great high priest entered into the presence of his Father where we remained his concern. (See Heb. 4:15.) Struggling to find my personal bearings, I liked to imagine that our fears and concerns, our trials, seemed foremost in his mind as he pled our case with the Father. His love for the truly penitent and his intercession on their behalf gave me hope.
Through the efforts of good teachers I had been very conscious of his trial in Gethsemane, of the pains and indignities of his crucifixion, but somehow his day-to-day experiences of trial and temptation had eluded me. As I read Hebrews, the power of this message struck me, not just intellectually, but deep down in the center of my consciousness as the Spirit bore witness to the written word. I sensed in a new way that if Christ, who knows all, was still deeply committed to my welfare, I must possess some good qualities somewhere. Further, he was not only concerned about my welfare, but he deeply loved me and wanted me to be with him.
Everyone enjoys having important friends, and I was no exception. I was excited that the central figure in the history of the world was personally concerned with me. John’s statement, “We love him, because he loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19), also took on new significance. My understanding of the atonement moved from my intellectual understanding to my emotional realm, and changes began to occur. I wanted to become what I sensed Christ knew I could be. Hope began to filter into my life, and my self-confidence increased. Paul’s statement, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” made sense in this new context (Philip. 4:13). As my faith in Christ increased, my hope for my own situation also increased.
My capacity for charity increased with my increase in hope. Having received love myself, I found it easier to give in return. As I came to suspect that I had something to offer, I came also to realize not only an obligation to serve, but a desire to serve. I felt, consequently, a new sense of worth. With each new success, my faith in the Master and his way of doing things increased.
Somehow these three principles—faith, hope, and charity—seemed closely integrated and inter-related, each drawing strength and reinforcement from the others. I had hope: not only desires for the future, but confidence that these desires in righteousness would be fulfilled. All of the right relationships seemed to be falling into place. I felt good about God (faith), I felt good about myself (hope), and I felt good about others (charity). More than that, I experienced a deep inner peace, a feeling of oneness and unity in life that gave me a sense of the total reconciliation that the atonement (literally at-one-ment) represents.
In my own case the change was not total or even immediate. The process begun in adolescence still continues. I still have moments of disappointment and frustration, moments when I lose confidence in myself and my abilities. I imagine most people do. Sometimes, listening to lessons or sermons in church, I almost buckle under the realization of all the things I should be doing that I am not doing. The path toward perfection sometimes seems so long, my ideal so far away from my real, and my pace so slow—at best a slow plodding toward my goal—that I wonder if I will ever make it. Sometimes I even wish that we did more in our lessons and sermons to encourage plodders like myself.
But somehow that flame of hope, rooted in my faith in Christ and my love for him, keeps burning through it all; as long as that doesn’t flicker out, I still have some light to illuminate the way back to God. I still believe he wants me there. My hope in Christ leads me to recognize that I will succeed as long as I don’t give up. I know he will never give up on me. I know also, in at least one sense, that the universe is on my side and I hurt within for others who lack this conviction. How difficult their way must be!
Sometimes I feel myself groping towards the further dimension of hope—that dimension relating to life beyond this. Paul points out also that “if in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (1 Cor. 15:19). The mistaken idea that life ends with death can cause untold anguish and despair. If it were so, this life would truly be filled with injustice, meaninglessness, and senseless pain unless, in a life beyond, justice rights all the injustices of this life, pain is comforted, and past pain can be seen as a means of learning obedience and compassion in the same way the Savior learned.
During those few occasions that I have confronted the death of a loved one, I am grateful that self-confidence based in hope can reach beyond this life, that I have the satisfaction of knowing that my plodding toward perfection has meaning, that it is possible somewhere down that infinite path for my real self to become my ideal self.
I will always be grateful to my parents and those teachers who pointed out these reasons for frustrations in our life, thereby helping me to shield myself against them. I shall always be grateful to Paul who helped me to develop a reason for hope by testifying of the Master’s love for me, and for all of us. But at this Eastertide and forever, I am most grateful to the Savior who through his life and resurrection and his intercession in our behalf made it possible for all of us to hope with greater certitude. In that hope lies the anchor for our souls in times of trouble.
Lowell L. Bennion discusses some of the false ways we try to gain self-confidence in an article that was influential on my thinking when I read it as a college undergraduate, “‘Thou Shalt Love … Thyself,’” Improvement Era, Apr. 1962, pp. 248–49, 277–80.