A Perfect Brightness of Hope
“Hope is the only bee that makes honey without flowers.”—Robert Ingersoll
I can’t remember when I first felt hope, although I suspect it might have been an instinctive infant hope that my mother would pick me up, hold me, and feed me. According to what my father recounted, she often left me alone and unchanged in my crib for long periods, which may have been a prelude to the actual abandonments I experienced at ages three, five and eight—the last of which resulted in my being placed in a foster home until my father returned from the Second World War and rescued me. I remember saying to the people in whose home my brother and I had been placed, likely with doubtful hope, “My daddy’s coming home from the war and he’s coming to get me.” I never lived with my mother again.
What I didn’t know until many years after her passing from heart trouble at age fifty-one is that my mother began motherhood without much hope and therefore didn’t have much hope or love to give her children. On a trip to visit my maternal grandmother, my mother’s younger sister disclosed to me that their father, my grandfather, had sexually abused my mother well into her teenage years. With that revelation, the puzzle pieces of my mother’s life and my own early years fell starkly into place.
My mother’s deep woundedness, the stark poverty of the Great Depression, the immaturity of both my parents, and their consequent descent into alcoholism, led to a childhood characterized by poverty, marital instability, physical and emotional abuse, perpetual insecurity and, as noted above, periodic abandonment. If I had any hope during these years, it was grounded in my conviction, if not complete confidence, that, despite everything, my father loved me unconditionally. Bruno Bettelheim says that unconditional acceptance is the only thing a child needs to survive into adulthood with his or her sense of self intact.
I doubt that my sense of self was fully intact by the time my father finally came to get me after recovering from his war wounds in a veterans’ hospital in Oceanside, California. More likely, it was fractured and immensely insecure, but what happened over the next several years awakened a hope that has proved to be enduring. One of the first things my father did was teach me about God and Jesus, who had taken on new meaning in his life due to the horrors he witnessed in the South Pacific. Somehow, I immediately intuited that what he taught me was not only true but somehow significant to my young heart and mind. I recognized what I was later to understand as a “shock of recognition,” an immediate and indelible communication of truth to my soul.
For the first time, I understood that there was a God, and I was his child, and he loved me. That was the turning point of my life, the moment when I first began to hope that my life could be better. And although our family stability lasted only a few years—until I was fifteen—it was enough for me to know that I had a choice over my life and a hope that I could make a better life than the one I had inherited. The gift my father gave me took root and eventually blossomed into the deep and expansive hope that has characterized my life ever since
Everything begins in hope. Every beginning is premised on the hope that something will follow, will unfold into more, even if that “more” is uncertain or unknown. The entire universe is based on hope. In fact, there could be no universe without it. The first words of both Genesis and the Gospel of John are “In the beginning . . .” with expectation that something would follow that beginning. All creation begins, proceeds, and unfolds on the wings of hope, on the expectation that the formless void will be filled with form, on the premise that light always follows darkness, on the promise that every dawn will emerge to bless and brighten our day.
Everything begins in hope. All that the Gods voiced, every hopeful “And God . . .” is followed by “. . . and it was good.” What was good was that our Heavenly Parents created a world, and in that world a garden, a garden of hope for a future of fruitfulness and fecundity, of hope for a beginning where love would expand, flow outward to fill the universe, and overflow the bounds of space. And into this garden with infinite hope and love they placed our first parents, and they called it the Plan of Happiness. As premortal beings looking down from the heavens on that beginning, our hearts were filled with boundless, borderless light and love and with immense hope for what it all meant for us.
Our Heavenly Parents’ first acts of love in the garden set the stage for the great drama that would unfold down the generations. A Jewish Midrash tells of Heavenly Father braiding Eve’s hair in preparation for her marriage to Adam. Mormon Midrash might instead have the braiding done by Heavenly Mother and depict Heavenly Father weaving a garland of flowers for Adam in preparation for the wedding feast. Whatever transpired in that proverbial Garden, beginning with that first hopeful marriage, we know it was infused with love and hope, with the ultimate hope that eventually these bold beginners and all their progeny would return to the home of our ultimate beginning and endless becoming. Over the portal of Hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy are written the words, “Abandon hope, all you who enter herein.” Over the portal to the world beyond the garden, our Heavenly Parents have written, “Embrace hope, all you who enter herein.”
When they left the Garden and began to find their way in their new world, Eve and Adam learned, as eventually we all must, that each step they took toward the light gave them hope, just as it gave hope to heaven. By living with hope, we give hope to our Heavenly Parents, confirming their hope when they gave us life and agency. Our beginning, from whatever we were before we became the intelligent, autonomous, sentient beings we are now, was filled with hope. When they brought us forth out of unorganized intelligence, they infused our beginning with light. In the presence of their light, we grew in light, and in the presence of their love, we grew in love. To increase their hope in us and our hope in ourselves and in them, they imbued us with the Light of Christ and sent us into the world. And they sent him into the world to show us how to live by faith, hope, and charity, the latter of which Moroni defines as “the pure love of Christ” (Moroni 7:47).
The scriptures suggest that just as God gives us hope, so we can give hope to God. Since by the gift of agency we have the choice to disappoint all of our Heavenly Parents’ expectations, by that same agency, we have the power to satisfy their most fervent hope in us. By each expression of faith, by each act of love, by each quest for holiness, by each act of self-healing, we give hope to our creators: hope that we will use the light they have placed within us to dispel the darkness in our lives, that we will use the love they have placed in our hearts to create peace, and to give hope to others by lifting their burdens, by healing their wounds, and by working for justice. Each step we take toward the light, each act of love gives hope to our Heavenly Parents that they can trust us with more light, more love, and more holiness. As Rabbi David Wolpe states, “By each act of love, by each expression of holiness, we give hope to God.”
Speaking of faith, Paul says: “Though I have all faith so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). But Paul doesn’t say the same of hope. Rather, he says, love “hopes all things and endures all things” (13:7). The essential difference, I believe, is that the power of love gives us more confidence, more hope, than the power of faith. The faith of others can inspire us and give us hope that we too can live by faith, but the love of God and the love of others is indispensable for us to hope we can endure all the challenges, hardships, and disappointments of life.
The greatest gift of God that inspires hope is the life and mission of his Son, Jesus Christ. Every lesson the Savior taught, every example he set, every act and miracle he performed was designed to give us hope—hope that we can heal, repent, change, and keep hoping. Jesus went into the dark night of Gethsemane in the hope that he could take upon himself the sins of the world. His victory there and on Calvary gives us hope that we too can triumph over sin and death. Mormon asks, “And what is it ye shall hope for? Behold I say unto you that ye shall have hope through the atonement of Christ and the power of his resurrection” (7:41). That is why Paul says, “if in this life only we have faith in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (1 Cor. 15:19). Hope that does not extend beyond time and the grave is a mockery of hope.
Nothing engenders hope more than love. The world rests on our success or failure in manifesting and multiplying love. What gives us the most hope is the realization—and it is one of the great gifts of Joseph Smith’s religion-making imagination—that we have Heavenly Parents who are crazy about us, who will do anything in their power to help us fulfill the hope they placed in us. One of the reasons I like the Jewish Midrash is that it presents God as tender-hearted, vulnerable, and loving. It shows him, like earthly parents, losing sleep over his children.
Ours may be the most hopeful religion in the world. With its teaching of an embedded premortal hope, with its optimistic theology of the necessity of mortality, with its promise not just of exaltation but of universal resurrection and near universal glorification, and especially with its concept of loving and infinitely patient Heavenly Parents, Mormonism constitutes the ultimate hopeful news that, as Job says, God has set his heart upon us (Job 7:17). Our Parents’ ultimate hope is that we will set our hearts on and return to them—that we will make it home, back to the birthplace of all the hopes that yearn within us.
Bob Rees is a scholar, poet, and humanitarian and the co-founder and vice-president of Bountiful Children's Foundation.
Artwork by Duccio.