Genuine Hope

Genuine Hope

Second Sunday of Advent. Fr Robert Verrill invites us to embrace true hope, not blind optimism.

If you’re a natural optimist, then by definition, you’ll obviously think that there’s a lot going for you. And there’s some statistics to back you up. An optimistic man will tend to live 11% longer than someone who lacks this disposition, and for optimistic women the advantage is even greater: they can expect to live 15% longer than their less optimistic counterparts. There is also evidence that if you assume you’re going to really enjoy a good holiday or a meal, then you’re more likely to have a pleasurable experience than someone who doesn’t expect the holiday or meal to be anything worth writing home about. But as the recent collapse of a multibillion-dollar cryptocurrency business suggests, misplaced optimism can sometimes have disastrous consequences.

Jenni Russell’s article in the Times on the demise of the FTX empire points out that misplaced optimism is very common. Brain research shows that some regions of our brains tend to become less active when presented with negative information so that we are less able to process it. And faced with a complex situation with details we can’t quite grasp, we tend to put a positive spin on the situation and assume that there is going to be a positive overall outcome. Hence the many FTX investors who are now having to come to terms with losing vast sums of money.

Now given our natural aversion to negative information, we may find it rather difficult to process today’s Gospel. For in today’s Gospel, St John the Baptist says some very negative things. He calls the Pharisees and Sadducees a brood of vipers, he tells them not to presume to tell themselves “we have Abraham for our father”. And he tells them that the axe is laid to the roots of the trees, and that any tree which fails to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire. So repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.

Given our natural difficulty in processing negative information, we may tend to gloss over this negativity in the Gospel and criticize anyone highlighting it as a doom- and gloom-monger. For although there are some bad people in the world, surely John the Baptist wouldn’t say to me that I belonged to a brood of vipers. Surely I’ve produced lots of good fruit; surely he would congratulate me on all the repentance I’ve already done in my life so far. So surely I can carry on as I am, confident that I will be counted among those whom God will gather into His barn rather than those He will throw into the fire that never goes out. Now I hope I’m right, but if our hope is not to be misplaced, it can’t be grounded in some thoughtless optimistic outlook. Rather it can only be grounded in the fact that we have a saviour, Jesus Christ.

That we have a saviour in Jesus Christ is indeed Good News – it is at the heart of the Gospel. But if we are not to be indifferent to what Christ has done for us, then we also need to recognise the bad news – that it is possible for a loving God to condemn someone to everlasting punishment. Traditionally this possibility has been explained in terms of God’s antecedent will and His consequent will. Under the aspect of His antecedent will, God desires the salvation of every single person, and so offers them all the grace they need to be saved. But at the same time, because of God’s profound gift of human freedom, God respects all the decisions of His creatures in their acceptance or rejection of saving grace. Thus, although God’s antecedent will is that all people be saved, His consequent will is that we be allowed our choice to accept or reject saving grace. So we can only be saved because of the grace of God; and we can only be damned by our persistent and final refusal of grace. Thus, God is responsible for the salvation of all that are saved. He destines no one to end up in hell, so if we suffer damnation, then we will only have ourselves to blame.

So during this Advent season, we need to hear the voice of St John the Baptist, the voice that cries in the wilderness preparing the way for the Lord. For if we can recognise how much we are in need of a redeemer, then far from having a misplaced optimism, our heart’s will be open to a genuine hope, a hope that is grounded in Jesus Christ, a saviour who so desires our redemption that He suffered and died for us on the cross.

Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10 | Romans 15:4-9 | Matthew 3:1-12

fr Robert Verrill  lives in the Dominican Priory in Cambridge, where he works at the University chaplaincy while completing a Doctorate at Baylor University, Texas.

Comments (5)

  • Dcn John Cruz

    Rev Verrill,

    Thank you for thoughts. As a hopeless analytic, I appreciate your antecedent will/consequent will usage. Happy Advent! Pax!

    • Fr.M.justin

      very much thought provoking.

  • Alan Perry

    A fine piece! Thank you Fr Robert

    I always hesitate before trying to interpret the INTENTIONS of the Creator, mainly because one of the most perplexing mysteries of Creation is the existence of an enormous amount of innocent suffering, not only amongst humanity but also in other species. It seems to me that people are wrong to say that such suffering proves there is no loving God: in order to say that they have to pass judgment on God and his Creation, which is manifestly an absurd and presumptuous thing to do, given our own creaturely status and the utter disproportion between our intellectual powers and the Divine Mind.

    Nevertheless we can and do know at least those aspects of the WILL of God that are divulged to us by Revelation and Grace. I think I can see that in terms of logical priority one can talk of antecedent and consequent divine will in the way Fr Robert explains. Better to develop my own understanding of his distinction, I come up with the [intrinsic?] idea that in the Divine scheme of things the antecedent will about all ‘being saved’ carries the implication that to be saved all humanity would respond IN FREEDOM to God. Formulated in those terms the idea does indeed seem to me to be the logical ‘antecedent’ will to a logically ‘consequent’ will that humanity must have the freedom to choose.

    If I’ve misunderstood I would be grateful to be corrected.

    • Michael Glover

      A good homily for me is always faith enhancing and thought provoking – like this one – thank you Robert.

      And for me the value of your reflection Alan takes me even deeper into it. Like you suggest, I too am challenged to “develop my own understanding of his distinction”.

      The framing of understanding universal salvation within subsequent and consequent categories can be easily overlaid with the barbarism of the blasphemous crucifixion chosen by Jesus for me and it’s totally unpredictable mind boggling and wound bearing Resurrection. The one Jesus. Thankfully!

  • Alejandro Clausse

    Thank you, Robert, for the provoking analysis presented in this homily. However, I should confess that I am somehow unease with the analogy between naive optimism and the hope that one will not be condemn to hell. I understand it if it is directed to counteract the extreme doctrine of salvation through faith only or to extreme universalisms that denies that anyone will be condemned. But, alas, I do not feel that this is clear in the homily. Also, it should be pointed out that the antecedent and consequent divine will is quite difficult to swallow, let alone understand. At the very least, it requires the acknowledgement that God is subject to a sort of “«time», because otherwise, the question remains of why God would create persons that he knows will be condemned. All in all, the doctrine is an attempt to calm down our eagerness to understand what God is by projecting our way of understanding things upon Him. We have no other way, of course, but we will never completely capture his essence. As Timothy Radcliffe said, a true dogma is always open. It seems to me that those cases I mentioned in which that the analogy is valid are, in certain way, wrapped, closed, not open. But from this perspective, the antecedent-consequent divine will, is also a little wrapped in.
    If I may, I would offer a humble complementary perspective of the issue, which is target people that try to do their best and deserve the hope that Jesus brought us, like most of us. A problem for us is that the image of a God that condemns sinners is scary, I mean really scary. Especially for children; sometimes educators do not realize this. Another problem is psychological, in the sense that being an imperfect analogy, if wrongly applied can lead to wrong patterns of behavior, to say the least. I will just cite a paragraph of Henri Nouwen’s Discernment:

    “What is the greatest temptation? Money, sex, power? They seem to be the obvious ones, and we are easily caught by one or all of them. […] But over the years I have come to the conclusion that the greatest and most destructive temptation may not be any of these three. I wonder if the greatest temptation is self-rejection. Could it be that beneath all the lures to greed, lust, and success rests a great fear of never being enough or not being lovable? Instead of taking a careful look at the circumstances or trying to understand my own and others’ limitations without rejection or judgment, when I fall into temptation, I tend to blame myself—not just for what I did but for who I am. My dark side says, «I am no good. I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned». Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us God’s beloved. Being the beloved expresses the core truth of our existence.”
    “How do I discern the voice that says “be humble” from the one that says “you’re nothing”? Humility has nothing to do with self-rejection. You can only be humble if you have a deep self-respect. Self-rejection cannot form the basis of a humble life. It leads only to complaints, jealousy, anger, and even violence. It is a most dangerous temptation. I know this from my own experience. Every time I start to experience myself as worthless or useless, a «nobody», I know I am on the slippery slope to isolation and dark emotions.
    I have found that Saint Teresa’s call to focus on the goodness of God when I need to discern helps me fight the demons of despair, self-rejection, and fear, and has overcome the powers of darkness with the power of God many times. I have often prayed the prayer of Saint Teresa, «Solo Dios basta» (God alone is enough) when I have needed to discern whether what I was hearing and experiencing was of God or not. Praying these words slowly and out loud can help me enter into God’s presence, where there is peace and certainty that God is always with me and loves me.”

    As for the first problem I mentioned, the scary image of God that the theory of antecedent-consequent divine will tends to project upon our minds, I found a much more tender alternative interpretation in Herber McCabe’s Faith within Reason (ch 11), where he gave an insightful interpretation of hell:

    “It is the great characteristic of sinners that they do not know that they are sinners, that they refuse to accept and believe that they are sinners. On the contrary, they have found all the ways of justifying and excusing themselves. The whole conversation in hell consists of the damned telling each other how it is all a terrible mistake and they should not be there at all because they are righteous and virtuous. The desperate boredom of this must be the pain of hell, but the thing that constitutes hell is that God can’t be seen. All that can be seen is this vengeful punitive god who is Satan.” […]
    “[God] doesn’t care whether we are sinners or not. It makes no difference to him. He is just waiting to welcome us with joy and love. Sin doesn’t alter God’s attitude to us; it alters our attitude to him, so that we change him from the God who is simply love and nothing else, into this punitive ogre, this Satan. Sin matters enormously to us if we are sinners; it doesn’t matter at all to God. In a fairly literal sense he doesn’t give a damn about our sin. It is we who give the damns. We damn ourselves because we would rather justify and excuse ourselves, and look on our self-flattering images of ourselves, than be taken out of ourselves by the infinite love of God.”

    Finally, I would like to note that the parable of the Prodigal Son can give us a hint of whom are the ones that John the Baptist addressed his harsh words to: those who want to wrap and define what is good and what is wrong, which are represented by the older son. And as Pope Francis said in Gaudete et Exultate (42): ” Nor can we claim to say where God is not, because God is mysteriously present in the life of every person, in a way that he himself chooses, and we cannot exclude this by our presumed certainties. Even when someone’s life appears completely wrecked, even when we see it devastated by vices or addictions, God is present there. If we let ourselves be guided by the Spirit rather than our own preconceptions, we can and must try to find the Lord in every human life. This is part of the mystery that a gnostic mentality cannot accept, since it is beyond its control.”


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