Making Hope Useful
The biggest problem with hope is that it seems like a big, nebulous, wishy-washy concept. It can be more than just inspiration, hope can be useful.
Today I want to make hope useful for you.
The biggest problem with hope is that it seems like a big, nebulous, wishy-washy concept. I’m not knocking all the memes and needlepoints out there; I’m just saying that if we want hope to be useful, not just inspirational, then we need to break it down first.
C. R. Snyder was a groundbreaking psychology researcher who came up with (and extensively tested with scientific rigor) this:
Hope = Agency Thoughts + Pathways Thoughts
“Agency Thoughts” is the feeling that we can do something, that we have the power to make it happen. “Pathways Thoughts” asks whether or not we know how to achieve our goal: do we know what steps to take? Is there more than one way to get there? Whenever both of these are present, and to whatever extent they are present, we feel hope.
I’ll give a basic example. I want a cup of coffee. I know there are beans and a grinder in the kitchen, and my body works well, so I have no doubt of my ability (agency.) Plus, I know the steps to make it (pathways). My hope in making coffee is quite high— so high, in fact, that you might not even think to call it hope!
But what if I didn’t have any coffee beans? Or what if I had beans but suddenly remembered my grinder broke and the replacement hasn’t arrived? My pathways are still high, but a lack of agency has made me doubt my ability to make coffee!
Or, to round out the example, what if I’m at a friend’s house and all they have is a moka pot— no “normal” coffee maker. I know how to use a traditional coffee maker, and I even know how to do a pour-over. But a moka pot? What, does it, like, sit on the edge of a burner on the stove? Do the grounds go in the top or the bottom? In this case, my agency remains high, but my lack of pathways has seriously damaged my hope of coffee, at least until my friend gets out of bed.
Once you’re aware of it, agency and pathways pops up all the time in life. I’m a parent of elementary-age children, whom I love with all my heart. But I had no idea how hard parenting could be! There are so many moments when you don’t know what to do. Your sense of pathways run out, and you just start yelling. When that doesn’t work, your sense of agency takes a hit, too.
Then, at least for me, I read a book that helps me see my kids’ development in a new light. I’m a “thinker,” so when I start to understand why they do certain things, all of a sudden, I know better how to help them. Not only have I discovered new pathways in those moments, but the understanding gives me new agency. And, just like that, the lack of hope (agency + pathways) is transformed into real, tangible, experienced hope.
I’ll have many more posts in the future about hope in churches. But do you see the basics? So many churches have faced massive change and prolonged decline due to forces beyond our control. What’s worse, we don’t know what to do about it, and the ideas we do have rarely work. Our sense of pathways is low. Sometimes we spin our wheels, desperate for a little agency in a world of rapid change, but wheels can only spin for so long before our false agency comes crashing down.
I hope that last paragraph didn’t depress you; I’m just describing the world I’ve seen in far too many churches. But did you notice how just describing low agency and pathways made you feel hopeless just reading it? (I know I felt my hope dip while writing it!)
The good news is that if we know how hope works, then we know how to address the problem. It’s a little more complex than just saying, “go find some new agency.” I’ll talk much more about that in future posts. For now, long story short, that’s where God comes in: agency and pathways from beyond ourselves can restore our hope even when we’ve lost it. And God is never short on either agency or pathways!
Would you let me know if this makes sense to you? Does it resonate? How have you experienced agency and pathways waxing and waning recently, and can you feel its effect on your hope?
One last thing… In my very first post to this newsletter, I talked about how hope psychology can help many churches (and people), but no one knows about it! I’ve researched it extensively and feel a strong sense of agency. But how to spread the word of how hope works? My pathways were low and kept hitting obstacles. But word of this newsletter is spreading, making me think this is a pathway that is truly capable of growing true, deep hope in people.
But the greatest pathway for these ideas is you— if you find this helpful and see the great potential of “hope theory” to help people and churches, please, please, please tell someone you think would benefit! Or, at least share it on social media.
Let’s spread the real experience of hope!