Wishes, Hopes, or Promises?

Jaco J. Hamman

Ever since Adam and Eve disclosed their longing to be transformed into the likeness of God, we find ourselves driven by three powerful desires: promises, wishes, and hopes. These forces intensify in times of crisis – and during election seasons – when we urgently seek creative solutions and new outcomes. Yet these three practices are distinct, and their differences have consequences in the life of faith and the work of democracy.

Promises are pledged verbal assurances, declarations of responsibility for our future commitments and actions. We promise ourselves and we promise others, though prudently enough we do not promise the moon. We work to build realistic futures on the foundation of promises, even though we know they often fail.

Wishes direct the mind toward something we believe will satisfy, something typically not attainable by our own power. To wish is to disclose a craving or yearning for an object or situation that someone else has to provide. Because wishes are tied to personal need, wishing knows exactly what it wants, or thinks it does. We keep wish lists. We communicate our wishes to others. Despite being warned to be careful what we wish for, our wishing abounds.

Hope, as a third powerful desire, shares traits with promises and wishes. All three combine desire and expectation. To hope is to have confidence that a future scenario will unfold. Like wishing, hoping has an object or a situation in mind. Unlike wishing, however, hope keeps an openness, possibly even an uncertainty, about the outcome. Hope is more powerful than either promises or wishes. It is one of the three foundations of the Christian life, along with faith and – greatest of all – love (1 Cor 13:13).

The boundaries between wishes, hopes, and promises are often confusing. When my daughter says: “I hope to get an iPad for my birthday,” as she recently did, she is actually expressing a wish cloaked in hope language, while anticipating the promise of a gift.

Hope vs. Optimism

For Christians, hope is more than a mere optimistic attitude or buoyant confidence about a positive outcome. Rather, to hope is a risky affair – I am asking God to enter into my reality, my life. I can trust that the experience will be loving or blessed, but otherwise I do not know the specific ways God’s intervention will unfold. Who would have imagined a Savior in Jesus who turned the other cheek and loved his enemies?

The British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes helpfully about the dynamic between promises, wishes, and hopes. He identifies these powers and desires as “forms of persuasion” that enable “us to see how we could think and feel otherwise than we do.” They are rhetorical devices and emotional practices that describe our preferred worlds. For Phillips, a passion for literature and the pursuit of psychoanalysis are two rhetorical practices to help us feel “otherwise.” Sports, money, politics, and religion also function in this way.

As forms of persuasion, promises and wishes especially induce tension within us. They awaken both our desire for change and yet our resistance to future uncertainty – who has ever embraced change without misgivings? Here hope is superior: It gives courage to overcome unexpected obstacles.

Phillips warns that forms of persuasion easily spill over into forms of intimidation when mutuality breaks down and coercive and unilateral power enters into relationships. Hope also “intimidates”: God’s vision for the world rarely reflects our own, but God’s covenant with God’s people is never coercive. A people with hope, history has shown, always intimidates the principalities and powers of this world.

Promises, wishes, and hopes directly address the moral arc of future time. Theologian Jürgen Moltmann writes that we are poised to experience the future in two different ways, either as futurum or as adventus.2 Futurum speaks to what will be, whereas adventus speaks to what is coming. As Moltmann describes it, futurum is driven by our own specific planning, predictions, and programs – endeavors that rarely call upon or inspire a sustaining hope, for they create a future outcome that soon becomes a past, passé, out-of-date.

God Breaking In

Adventus indicates a very different future expectation. In adventus moments, what is coming is something we can scarcely conceive or expect, something qualitatively different from the familiar present: God breaks into our reality. Adventus moments have staying power – a decisive experience of transcendence that fuels hope, for it redefines both the past, the present, and the future. It is not that we minimize or reject the futurum to embrace the adventus, but rather we recognize that the futurum – the futurum of our well-honed wishes – is not the force that truly determines our lives. Rather, God breaking in is what we long for.

“What about dreams?” you may ask, for dreams are closely tied to promises, wishes, and hopes. “I have a dream …,” Martin Luther King Jr. said, hoping for the liberation of entire peoples in a democratic society. By contrast, the dreams that accompany us in our sleep or the visions we receive are deeply personal and so often apolitical. Phillips sees our personal dreams as the working out of a “relationship conducted in silence … Democracy, by definition, is very noisy.” Democracy thrives when all voices are honored at the table.

Ultimately, promises, wishes, and hopes disclose contrasting moral universes. Since politics literally means “the shape of the city,” we should discern carefully the forms of persuasion that reach us in times of great public yearning or pain. We recognize that promises fail and wishes often reflect fickle personal desires rather than communal need. Living faithfully, we are compelled to see that hope asks something different from us: We are called on to invite God into our future.

There was a time when the shape of the city was discerned with God in mind, when being true to oneself meant being true to God, and for God. Today’s public forms of persuasion lack such vulnerability, trust, and wisdom. Politicians often promise the rainbow’s pot of gold and sound persuasive by tapping into our deepest longings – our wishes – without ever having the means or know-how to bring about a changed, hope-filled future. Few leaders open themselves to a future shaped by acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly (Micah 6:8).

A politician who can risk stepping out of a carefully planned futurum is more likely to create the possibility for a hopeful future of adventus moments. Today’s forms of persuasion, not unlike the fateful moment Eve and Adam experienced, demand our careful scrutiny.

Jaco J. Hamman is Associate Professor of Religion, Psychology, and Culture at Vanderbilt Divinity School, where he is director of the Program in Theology and Practice. A native of South Africa, he lectures widely on research interests that include the formation of pastoral leaders, psychology of religion, and humanity’s deepening relationship with technology. His books include A Play-Full Life: Slowing Down and Seeking Peace (Pilgrim Press, 2011) and Becoming a Pastor: Forming Self and Soul (Pilgrim Press, revised 2014). Growing Down: Human Nature for Virtual People is forthcoming from Baylor University Press. Hamman is also co-founder of the Nashville Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Housing Group (http://www.nashvilleiddhousing.org/).


  1. Adam Phillips, Promises, Promises: Essays on Literature and Psychoanalysis (Faber and Faber, 2002), p. 365.
  2. Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God, the Gifford Lectures, 1984-1985 (Fortress Press, 1993), pp. 132-34.