The (French) Subjunctive and the (Christian’s) Surety

The indescribable French Alps from a backpacking adventure with a friend in June of this year

What do the subjunctive verb tense in French and the surety of a believer in Christ have in common? I will attempt to explain. From my understanding, anglophones and francophones have differing definitions of hope. But is hope an expression of certainty or rather an assertion of sentiment? Additionally, what is surety and why are we searching for it?

Humankind has been on this search throughout the ages, seeking certitude in life. From the uneducated to the highly educated, man, at some point in life, is asking himself these questions, “What is absolute truth? Can I stake my life on what I hold to be true? Is it as elusive as the world says? Is my hope in truth just an expression of my wishes or is it sure?” In E. Stanley Jones’ book, Christ At the Round Table, written about his discussions with prestigious religious leaders in India, he recounts these words from different Hindus, elaborating on the subject of reality, God, and the answer to life:

“Ultimately we find that all is illusion. To get out of illusion into the Universal is religion. There is a certain order in the universe and to get along with that order is my religion. In this connection I have to believe in a personal God. I am yet hesitant and do not know what to believe.”

“I have the end of life as the realization of the Universal Self. All my trouble will be ended when that is realized.”

“Life is a stream. I do not find a place of anchorage, and I do not know where it will lead to or whether I will find God or not.

“If God is impersonal and perfect, he is of no use to me; he will not hear my prayers; he will be supremely indifferent and let nature’s laws work. If he is personal, he is imperfect, but that is what I want him to be. I want him to set aside his law and forgive me. I want him in the imperfect state.”

Each of these men, and many others in the book, echo this common chord of man’s search for God (a personal, perfect God at that) and their certitude – or rather incertitude – of the quest. Jones referred to this theme as the “Dread Uncertainty.” In this sense, according to an anglophone, they “hope” their journey will lead them to the truth, but as yet, the truth has evaded them. But a francophone would not use hope in those terms. For a francophone, to hope is to express surety which leads me to an explanation of advanced French grammar.

The subjunctive verb tense in French is used in place of the indicative tense to imply that the content being spoken is of an uncertain reality. This includes, but is not limited to, subjects of emotion, wish, desire, doubt, and want. When phrases like these are used, the verbs following are conjugated in the subjunctive tense: “I wish that… I doubt that… I desire that… I believe that… I fear that…” One day recently, as I was studying this tense with my language tutor, I was shocked to come to the realization that “J’espère que” (“I hope that”) was not in the long list of subjunctive phrases. My teacher explained to me that hope in French is not used in the same way that it is used in English. In English, we use hope to express desires that may or may not come to pass. “I hope my cancer will stay away.” “I hope I will earn enough to make ends meet.” “I hope I can recover from this addiction.” “I hope to have children one day.” But in French one would not use the verb espérer to express the same desire. If it was used, it would indicate with certainty that these things would come to pass.

What does this have to do with the quest for verity? As I read Christ At the Round Table, I was struck with this “Dread Uncertainty” of intelligent and prominent men of various religions who had given their life to find the truth. They knew they had not yet found the truth and were unsure that they would find it.

In contrast to every other religion, the radical claims of Christianity are that what we hope for is a sure and steadfast anchor: faith in a personal AND perfect God (unlike the claims of the Hindu who stated that God could not be personal and perfect simultaneously), salvation through a suffering Savior from our failures and imperfections, promise of the redemption from our fleshly and sinful bodies in the life to come, and certainty of an eternity of perfect dwelling in the presence of our Father God and fellow Christ followers. It takes faith to believe these claims as it takes faith for those of other religions to believe their claims. The premise of Jones’ book is based on this question addressed to him by a Hindu friend, “‘I hear you speak about finding Christ. What do you mean by it?’… Here I saw a deeper demand than the one for an objective Christ… They want to know about this Christ of experience.”

So what is this Christ of experience? Is it a truth search that leaves one doubtful, discouraged, and without hope of finding it? By no means. In my search and by his grace (for truly He opened my eyes to such a profound mystery in the beginning) I have found peace unimaginable, answered prayer, strength to carry on when I had none to spare, comfort and assurance of pardon, the palpable presence of a Spirit working inside, ability to slay my sinful shortcomings, and a fulfilling joy that comes only from following in the footsteps of Jesus – even into paths of suffering, self-denial, and sacrifice. This is my Christ of experience, the power and hope to carry on.

Romans 5:1-5 says, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (English Standard Version, emphasis added)

On this subject, I refer also to some words from Samuel Rutherford, Scottish minister in the 15th century, imprisoned for his faith. “I rejoice in the hope of the glory to be revealed; for it is no uncertain glory we look for. Our hope is not hung upon such an untwisted thread as, ‘I imagine so’ or ‘It is likely’; but the cable, the strong tow of our fastened anchor, is the oath and promise of Him who is eternal verity. Our salvation is fastened with God’s own hand, and with Christ’s own strength, to the strong stoup [post] of God’s unchangeable nature…We may play, and dance, and leap upon our worthy and immoveable Rock; the ground is sure and good, and will abide the assaults of hell and the world.” (The Letters of Samuel Rutherford, pg. 99)

The battle rages within and without, but the believer has a firm hope. In this I take courage, for herein lies strength for today and tomorrow. Mercy indeed.

Psalm 39:7 – “And now, O Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in You.”


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