Faith, hope and love as virtues for the journey


In today’s second reading, St Paul talks about faith, hope and love. This is one of the most beautiful passages in all of St Paul, and there is much in it. But what calls my attention today is the ways in which faith, hope and love are virtues that keep us going while we are still on life’s journey and not yet at our final destination, which is to be in full union with God and in perfect community with everyone else, in God.

We need not look very far in the news or in our lives to see we are not there yet. St Paul, too, is writing to a community in conflict (the Corinthians) and his words are meant to remind them: we may value all kinds of good gifts that are indeed beneficial, like knowledge or prophetic words. However, all that matters—truly all that matters—is how well we love one another. This is the “measure” by which God measures, or rather love is something unmeasurable, beyond measure and even beyond all naming because Love is God’s very self, and all love that we know in our human lives is something that leads us back to God—because God is Love. Our origin is Love and our final destination is total Love, too.

Meanwhile, we are not there yet and still on the journey to that final resting in God’s very self. The human heart longs for God when it knows itself and allows God to know it. The profound desire for God is itself a gift from God but can also be a source of anguish because it is not yet fulfilled. But it’s a longing we would never want to lose, despite its incompletion.

Paul says that faith and hope are necessary virtues that assist us while we still wait. Faith, Aquinas says, is an assent to what we cannot fully reason through and therefore we cannot assent to it on the basis of intellectual reasoning alone. We say yes to something not because it is completely proven to us, or known to us, but rather because we trust in it. (The Greek word, pistis, is the same for faith or for trust.) More importantly, we trust in the One who is the object of our faith.

Love is the basis of all faith. When I have faith in an ordinary person, too, for example, when I trust that another person whom I love, also loves me back, this is an act of faith in another that is grounded in love. If I love a person and desire for him or her to care for me in return, it is not the kind of thing that one “proves” through logical reasoning. I must see if it is reasonable to think that mutual care is present, and then make an act of trust–even if later my heart might get bruised or broken. If I get married and have faith that this other person will still love me back twenty or thirty years down the road, I do not know it, but I trust in its possibility given what I already know of him, and live my life as though it were true. So, too, is faith in God an act of surrender and an act of trust.

What is the basis of this trust? It is in God’s own self. God’s love is completely trustworthy because God is love, by God’s own unchangeable nature. This Love that is God is also the basis of all human love. God’s love grounds my capacity to love others well in freedom, as they are, and God’s love grounds my trust that others can really love me, as I am, too.

Hope is also a crucial virtue. When we look at our world and the suffering and evil in it, when we see how others experience injustice, or experience our own kinds of suffering or marginalization, we need hope. To hope is to continue to want what we desire, even in the absence of complete confidence that it will be attained.

Again, the basis of our hope is love. If I hope that in heaven, I will be completely and finally reunited with God, this is not the result of some conclusion I have reasoned through via a philosophical argument. Instead it results from trusting in the love that God has shown me in the past, and is a gift from God. Hope is related to trusting faith. If I hope that people will act to address climate change or racism, it is because I can trust (have faith in) the possibilities of the goodness in God and the goodness of other people.

In this way, faith, hope, and love are all intertwined, and Love is their firm foundation.

Faith and hope, however, are also incomplete, so incomplete that Paul says we will not need them in heaven, because then we finally will attain what we desire (so we won’t have to hope for it any more) and we will know God face to face (so we won’t rely on faith.

I can find this incompleteness hard to live with at times. Along with hope, we might have a degree of homesickness for God, insofar as our longing has not yet been completely met. Along with faith, we might have a degree of doubt or insecurity about our lives and the meanings of our relationships and work, because the complete “picture” is not visible to us yet.

I think this is why, in the end, faith, hope and love are not only individual virtues but also ones that a community needs. I am a person who loves solitude, and does not feel ‘alone’ in solitude. But I need other people to assist me in living out my life of faith. I need people to pray for me and to encourage me, to give me hope. Others presumably need the same, because they are human, too. So I hope that I can give a little bit of this hope, faith, and encouragement to others on the way Home.

We know God in the explorations of the interior movements of our own hearts, in that primary relationship of love with God in those moments of solitude. But we all also need other loving relationships in our lives, because God who is Love itself, is also known in and through others. We know God better when we love:  in the act of giving love and in the act of receiving love in our relationships with others. Yet because we do not love perfectly, we also need faith and hope to sustain others and to be sustained on our journeys back to God.