I can be a bit of a chronic optimist. When my graduate school roommate would ask me about my day on a scale of 1-10, I’d usually respond 8 (anything below 6 meant the day was a catastrophe). I have a tendency to overestimate my work capacity and underestimate my sermon length; to say, “Great!” when I really mean “good”; to find silver linings before the cloud is even fully formed. And that’s fine; nothing’s wrong with optimism, and like any life outlook it has its benefits and disadvantages. It can be very helpful in, say, coming up with great plans to climb several mountains in a day; it can be less helpful in, say, estimating how long it will take to get down the mountain (and how lost you definitely will not get).
But optimism has its limits. “Look on the bright side,” “It’ll be okay,” or “It could be worse” are not the types of things you say to a friend grieving at a funeral. Optimism’s fine and helpful under the right circumstances, but it can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution.
A global pandemic is one of those cases. “Look on the bright side” not only lacks oomph in the face of major shutdowns and anxiety about illness, it is downright disrespectful in the face of lost life and grieving loved ones. Optimism – the giddy, can’t-touch-me, “this pandemic isn’t so bad, I get to stay home and watch TV and not even feel bad about it” type of mindset is not only lackluster, but can be hurtful in the face of those who are suffering. It’s not wrong to be optimistic during this time – to say maybe the virus won’t be as bad as thought, to focus on the good things coming from a hard time – but it’s also not enough.
Often, throughout the Bible, Christians are commanded to be hopeful. I think, however, when we hear “hopeful,” we can tend to conflate it with “optimistic.” I often do; but as I’m reflecting today, I’m thinking the two words have some key differences. Optimism looks on the bright side; hope recognizes that sometimes there doesn’t seem to be a bright side, but that one day, there will be. Optimism says, “It could be worse, but it might get better.” Hope says, “It is really bad, but it will get better.”
The reason for this, I think, is the source of each outlook. Optimism depends entirely on what we can see and predict. I can be optimistic that the virus will get better because the warmer summer months might slow transmission, or that social distancing measures are producing positive results, or other countries are succeeding in flattening the curve. Hope, however, depends entirely on what we can’t see or predict. Paul makes that clear in Romans 8:24-25. Referring to our adoption into God’s family as our redemption from the broken world, Paul says, “For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
I encounter the hope/optimism dynamic every day. I work for a wonderful church that wants to bring back young families and make a difference in its community, that wants to see more people come to know Jesus and grow in their own faith. But trying to just hang on to the optimistic side gets dry pretty fast. If you stack your hopes in new visitors coming to church, attendance might be down the next week; if you place your hopes in a new family, there’s a chance they’ll find a different church; if you find the courage to share Christ with someone, you might get rejected. Optimism runs dry; it has a finite capacity.
The same is the case with my life outside of church. When I get discouraged, lonely, frustrated, or any of the other consequences of working a job with no job description and living alone in a 3 bedroom house as a catastrophic extrovert, I can be optimistic. “It’ll get better – I’ll figure it out!” “I can go to a coffee shop and do my work there instead!” “I have friends I can go spend time with!” But when a global pandemic arrives that makes having friends illegal and shutters coffee shops – optimism dries up fast. My usual sources for a pick-me-up are removed, and I’m left staring my frustrations and challenges in the face. Optimism has a finite capacity.
Hope does not. Hope can look at a declining community going through economic hardship, a 200-year-old church that isn’t even meeting together because of a global pandemic, and say, “Yep. Looks tough. But Jesus promised not to abandon his church, and that even the gates of hell won’t prevail against it.” Optimism desperately clings to the idea that if we do all the right things and everything breaks our way, the church won’t have to close its doors. Hope stands firm that, even if our church crumbles off its foundation and never meets again, God will use the ministry of our church for his kingdom, because his kingdom is like a mustard seed that grows mysteriously. Optimism proceeds from the source of our own willpower; hope, from the source of God’s promises. If my job as a pastor at this time is to be optimistic, I call people and check in on them and give them some platitudes and make them feel a little better; if it’s to be hopeful, I call people and check in on them and pray for them and give them the hope of Jesus Christ, who transforms evil into good.
This morning in Daniel 2, I read of King Nebuchadnezzar threatening the wise men with death because they couldn’t predict his dream. Daniel asked for time, and immediately turned to his friends and pleaded for them to pray with him. When God gave him the answer to the dream, Daniel praised, “Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his…I thank and praise you, O God of my fathers: You have given me wisdom and power.”
Daniel1 tells us Daniel was wise and strong on his own, but neither his wisdom nor strength would have been enough to predict the king’s dream. He recognized his only source was the promise of God, who offers to give wisdom to all who ask in faith without reproach (James 1). We are commanded to be people of hope – but that hope cannot be found within us. That’s just optimism, which has finite resources and runs dry when it runs out of clever ideas. The source of hope throughout Scripture is never us, but God. God’s promises we cling to; the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and what it means for our eternal life; the power of his Holy Spirit present in us who gives us hope. That is our source of hope.
In The Reason for God, reminding us that our entire hope as Christians is based on the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and the eternal hope that gives us, Tim Keller quotes from Lord of the Rings. Samwise Gamgee sees Gandalf again and exclaims, “I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue?”
And Keller elaborates, “The answer of Christianity to that question is – yes. Everything sad is going to come untrue and it will somehow be greater for having been broken and lost.”
Optimism can look at the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on the world and say, “It could be worse, it might get better, just have fun staying home and watching TV!” Hope can look at the pandemic and say, “I have no idea how, when, or where, but I know God sees this horrid evil, and I know he’s a God that works evil into good. I know that one day, because of the Resurrection of Jesus, this will all be made new, and I have no idea how, but God is at work even now.”
That is our call to Christian hope in a time like this. Not optimism that we can see; but an unseen, faithful hope, resting on the promises of God.
Romans 15:13: “Now may the God of all hope fill you with joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
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