French’s Two Words for “Hope” Helped Me Endure the Pandemic

By: Syntyche D. Dahou

 In the midst of uncertain times, here’s what I’m learning from “espoir” and “espérance.”

During a recent exchange with a colleague I knew to be quite ambitious, a few of his words stuck with me: “I would rather live a difficult present with my resources than continue to save resources for an uncertain future. Who knows? The way things are going, the world may end tomorrow.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many to think that it is difficult or even impossible to continue to dream and believe in a better future.

Like my colleague, many around us have abandoned projects and are touched by various levels of depression that keep them from looking toward the future. Some have succumbed to suicide when they saw no other way or because they could not imagine living without their close family members who were tragically taken away by the virus. Many hopes have been dashed.

In my country of Benin, many businesses have been forced to cut back on work hours, which has resulted in staff layoffs. Some families have struggled to provide for their basic needs. Certain products that are now difficult to obtain.

And that is not all. The International Labor Organization announced last year that “global unemployment will reach 205 million people by 2022.” How can we not lose hope when faced with these challenges?

Two kinds of hope

Unlike English, which uses the word hope broadly, the French language uses two words that derive from the word espérer (to hope): espoir and espérance. Both can first refer to something hoped for. In this sense, the word espoir usually refers to an uncertain object; that is, someone who hopes for something in this way does not have the certainty that it will happen (“I hope the weather will be nice tomorrow”). On the other hand, espérance describes what, rightly or wrongly, is hoped for or expected with certainty. It often refers to a philosophical or eschatological object (“I hope in the goodness of human beings”; “I hope for the return of Jesus Christ”).

When we speak of espoir or espérance, we then have in mind different types of objects hoped for. This difference matters, because both terms also commonly refer to the state of mind that characterizes the hopeful. And this state of mind will be different precisely according to the object hoped for.

Having espoir for an uncertain yet better future in these difficult times may be a good thing, but it is not enough. Such hope can be disappointed and easily fade away when our wishes and expectations (our hopes) do not materialize.

The opposite is true with espérance, which is deeper than our desire and wish for an end to a crisis or a future without pain and suffering. To face the trials of life, we need peace and joy in our hearts that come from expecting certain happiness. This is what espérance is: a profound and stable disposition resulting from faith in the coming of what we expect. In this sense, it is similar in meaning to the English word hopefulness.

If we have believed in the Son of the living God, we have such a hope. It rests on the infallible promises of our God, who knows the plans he has for us, his children—plans of peace and not misfortune, to give us a hope and a future (Jer. 29:11). By using the two meanings of the word, we can say that the espérance that the fulfillment of his promises represents (the object hoped for) fills us with espérance (the state of mind).

God is for us the source of an unfailing hope. That’s reassuring! So how do we live out that hope in the midst of trials?

Several months ago, my sister participated in a training program in a country where the number of pandemic victims was constantly increasing. She was about to return home when many governments decided to close their airports. Exiled in a foreign land, in a country under the pressures of a pandemic, in the midst of her fears, she decided to trust in God.

“A stranger helped me reach out to the organizers of the training I had attended. He put me in touch with a man of God who then provided me shelter. The times of meditation, prayer, and sharing, with my sister from a distance and with my host family, were a real support to me during the moments of general panic,” she said after she returned home.

I have lived with my sister for almost six years. We have faced many situations together. The worries of one immediately become subjects of prayer for the other. She was finally able to return and resume her job, but the five months of her absence for the training and confinement, with all the uncertainties of these times, were a real test of my faith also. Yet with our hope in the Lord, I was able to overcome the loneliness, and we stood firm despite very real financial and professional challenges.

By paying attention to God’s faithfulness in times of joy or difficulty, we learn to make hope our way of life. And this prepares us.

We each have our trials of varying intensity. There are many who have been tested much more heavily than we have during this crisis, who have seen their expectations crumble. But what we have experienced on our own scale has drawn my attention to the crucial importance of an espérance-like hope.

In a CT article titled “Our Nostalgia Is Spiritually Dangerous,” Jeremy Sabella points out, “Hope, in its full biblical sense, arises out of hardship: ‘suffering produces perseverance; perseverance produces character; character produces hope.’ This hope endures precisely because it is the work of the Spirit: ‘hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us’ (Rom. 5:3–5). Hope takes root when the people of God follow the Spirit’s prompting to face the present trial.”

Hope manifests its depth when it remains active in the midst of trials. The hope of which the Bible speaks, that which Christ has placed in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, is a constant support that will never fail.

Syntyche D. Dahou is an administrative assistant. She is involved in the Groupe Biblique des Élèves et Etudiants du Bénin (GBEEB), a member movement of IFES (International Fellowship of Evangelical Students). She is passionate about Christian literature and is interested in ministry through Christian publications.

Translation completed by Sarah Buki

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