Something Better than Optimism

by Derek Brown

For the last eleven weeks, the Brown Family Five have made it a priority, nearly every day, to go on a walk around our neighborhood after lunch. On our typical route around the block and through a couple of cul-de-sacs, we walk past a house with a large white sign planted in the dirt near the garage. The sign reads, “Resilience: Together we can beat this.” Another sign, strung between two palm trees in front of a home a block down and across the street, proclaims to the neighborhood: “This too shall pass.” Obviously referring to our present situation with COVID-19, these signs are intended to nourish each passerby with a healthy dose of optimism.

Optimism is Better than Pessimism, But…
I appreciate people who have an optimistic outlook on life, and I generally prefer optimism to pessimism. Unceasing reports of doom and gloom are a burden to the soul. For the first few weeks of the pandemic, nearly every article I saw that was related to the Coronavirus seemed to be an iteration on some worst-case-scenario: the world-wide death toll could reach the multiple millions; the cumulative loss of the global GDP could reach $9 trillion; the U. S. economy will revert to Depression-like conditions. To see or hear someone express a positive viewpoint on the pandemic was like a refreshing drink of cool water in a desert of disaster and despair.  

But optimism can be misplaced and mistaken. A naively optimistic attitude can lead one to ignore hard truths because hard truths don’t make us feel so good. We prefer to remain blithely positive about the future because that’s what keeps us happy. But it’s no use to be carelessly confident about the immortal character of the Roman Empire when the Vandals have just sacked Rome and your government is imploding. At some point, your happiness must face reality.

Something Better than Optimism
But God gives us something better than optimism; he gives us “hope.” Throughout the Bible  Christians are constantly drawn back to the hope they have in Christ Jesus (Rom 5:2-4; 8:24; 12:12; 15:4, 13; 2 Cor 1:10; Eph 1:12; 4:4). But “hope” in Scripture is not merely an emotion you feel when you really want something to happen like when I say, “I hope the Warriors go to the playoffs in 2021,” or, perhaps more accurate: “I hope the NBA will schedule a few games this coming season.” This kind of hope is simply a desire for fulfillment in the near future that may or may not occur. It’s possible that there won’t be any NBA games this year, and even if there are, it is not certain the Warriors will go to the playoffs (the return of Klay Thompson notwithstanding).

Biblical hope is immovable, sure-to-happen, and unfailing. Our inheritance is sure (1 Pet 1:4); our future with Christ is certain (Phil 1:21); sin and suffering will one day be completely eradicated through God’s infinite power (Rev 20:1-4); and believers will soon enjoy the fullness of God’s presence and spiritual pleasures forevermore (Ps 16:11). For the Christian, all of these promises will be fulfilled. 

Hope is also of an infinitely higher quality than optimism because it allows us to look squarely at the troubles of life in this fallen world precisely because our happiness isn’t ultimately dependent upon this life in this fallen world. There are some hard truths we must reckon with during our time on earth. Sin is real. Disease is real. Death touches all of us in some way, and no amount of optimism that earthly life will get better can erase these painful realities. Optimism tethers our happiness to an uncertain immediate future; hope anchors our happiness in a sure heavenly future.

Hope is also superior to optimism because it is rooted in God, not ourselves. The sign I mentioned above that says we can together beat this pandemic is well-intended but wrong-headed and presumptuous. Frankly, I don’t know what the final outcome of all this pandemic will be. I really want to see an end to the Coronavirus and all the civil restrictions that local governments have recently implemented. I don’t want the U.S. or global economy to collapse into a decade-long recession. And I certainly don’t want to learn that anyone I know or you know has succumbed to COVID-19.

Yet, while I can study statistics, listen to financial analysts, reassure myself that national and local leaders will act reasonably, and take sensible actions to decrease the spread of the disease, the truth is that I can’t have certainty of our immediate future. Besides, when and how we emerge from this pandemic will coincide with, but never ultimately depend on our own efforts. Our deliverance lies in the mercy of God alone.

How to Think Clearly
So, while there are flickers of optimism on the horizon, let me encourage you to rest your heart on something much better than positive thinking about the immediate future. Indeed, in order to face our unpredictable present circumstances with mental clarity, Scripture tells us that we must fix our hearts on something certain: our heavenly future in Christ. “Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 1:13).

In order to think clearly amidst the swirl of confusing, sometimes contradictory information, the apostle Peter tells us that we must set our hearts firmly on our future hope in Christ. In other words, preparing our minds for action and setting our hope on Christ must happen simultaneously: if you fail to rivet your hope on Christ’s return, you’ll find yourself without the spiritual resources to remain soberminded in circumstances that demand clear thinking.

In his letter to Titus, Paul called the return of Jesus Christ our “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13). Interestingly, Paul doesn’t conclude that a certainty of a heavenly future would diminish active Christian living. In fact, Paul links this hope of Christ’s return to an earthly life characterized by godliness and good works:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

Titus 2:13-14

We must conclude, then, that hope is powerful. Optimism may keep our spirits up when times are tough, but only Christ-centered hope can enable us to think clearly, pursue holiness, and remain fruitful in good works for the glory of God.

As our local governments are now transitioning us to greater freedoms after ten weeks of heavy restrictions, let us make sure that we are placing our hope firmly on the future we have in Christ, not in the immediate future we may or may not experience in the Bay Area. I close with a final word from the apostle Peter.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 1:3-7

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