Trading Optimism for Faith

The French philosopher Voltaire once wrote that “Optimism is the madness of insisting that all is well when we are miserable.” This view is not widely expressed in our culture, as we regard optimism as a trait to be emulated and optimists to be the best sort of people. We often look down at their negative counterparts, the pessimists, as the necessary evil required for the optimist to exist, the most intolerable other side of the emotional coin. This is expressed in many of our favorite cultural proverbs, such as “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!” It is of little wonder why the message of the Gospel falls on such deaf ears in our culture today. Our view of God is corrupted by such blind, illogical optimism, resulting in people that feel “everything will be alright”, in spite of God’s message to mankind, which is fundamentally to the contrary. While not inspired, Voltaire seems to be more and more right these days.

What is interesting to note is that the concept of optimism is not found in Scripture. Optimism is typically defined as “a disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome.” This decision to look at the “more favorable” side of things is just that, a decision, a choice to regard a situation or condition as positive. In scripture, we cannot find a man or woman who is told to look more favorably towards the positive side of an outcome or to look less favorably at a negative possibility. This idea is a relatively new concept, when compared with the Bible. The word “optimism” in English literature is almost never used between 1600 and 1850 (.0000183 % of the time), but by 1970 it is over 34 times more commonly used (.000637%).

What is interesting to note is just how foreign the concept of optimism would be to the Biblical accounts. How meaningless and frankly disrespectful would it have been to tell Abraham to look on the bright side of things as he was walking up the mountain with Isaac in tow? (Genesis 22) How about David when in mourning for his soon-to-die infant son? (2 Sam. 12) Why didn’t the Israelites just “make lemonade” when they were weeping near the waters of Babylon when they remembered Zion? (Ps. 137) The simple fact we must recognize is that we cannot simply “make lemonade” out of the lemons in our life. To do so is to ignore the obvious facts of our daily lives, and to insulate ourselves (futilely) from the truths of the world. Eventually, your life will hand you a lemon so large, so bitter, so overwhelmingly sour that no amount of false emotional positivity will sweeten it.

What is overwhelmingly found in scripture is faith in God. In no way does God or any of His prophets advise men or women to simply “look on the bright side”. If anything, men and women of the Bible are shown just how weak, how hopeless, how utterly lost they are on their own. (Examples: Joshua 7, Judges 16, etc.) They are, however, asked to look at and seek after God. It is only through Him that Joshua was told to have courage: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go." (Joshua 1.9) Joshua is not told to look or think positively on his own: He is told to trust in His God for the victory. Someone might be willing to hold up Psalm 27.3 as proof that there is optimism in the Bible: “Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident.” One need only look at the first verse of that Psalm to understand this is not optimism, but faith in Almighty God! “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”  

You see, it wasn’t optimism that motivated Abraham to go up the mountain that day with Isaac. It was faith! “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, "Through Isaac shall your offspring be named." He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.” (Heb. 11.17-19) It was faith that kept David from forsaking Him, even at the cost of his son! “Then his servants said to him, "What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while he was alive; but when the child died, you arose and ate food." He said, "While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, 'Who knows whether the LORD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?'” (2 Sam. 12.21-22) It is faith in God that kept the Israelites hopeful of a return home to Zion! “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!” (Psalm 137.5-6)

In our world today, Satan has taken many of the positive aspects of true faith in God (peacefulness, calmness, an assurance of ultimate safety and security, and victory), removed the (excuse the term) “pesky” requirements of submission, obedience, and trust in God, and packaged it up as “optimism”. What better way to lead people to their ultimate destruction than to convince them to think positively about their situations, even when their “broad way” (Matt. 7.13) leads to their eventual doom! We need more men and women willing to tell the truth about their own decisions and situations first, and then be willing to communicate it to others!

The truth of the matter is that Voltaire is right. Insisting that “all is well”, telling the same lie to ourselves over and over until we eventually forget how miserable we are being separated from our God is indeed Madness! What good are the tasks we are able to accomplish in this life by thinking positively if we leave God out of the equation! What victory is there over our circumstances, our disabilities, or ourselves if we lose our souls to Hellfire? “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matt. 16.26)

So am I saying think negative thoughts instead of positive ones? No. Reject both for spiritual thoughts. Consider how your choices can glorify God rather than yourself. Consider how you may approach any situation, good/bad, easy/hard, encouraging/depressing, with the mindset of pleasing God and it will not matter what you encounter. Stop trusting in your own ability to withstand passing of loved ones, financial struggles, emotional battles, family crises, and other trials based on the power of your “positive thinking”. Instead, have faith in the Creator of this world, the Savior of those who turn to Him in loving obedience, the One who cannot lie (Numbers 23.19), or forsake us (Heb. 13.5). Take hold of the faith in God found in the scriptures rather than the constructed, frivolous gods of this world. “And those who know Your name will put their trust in You, For You, O LORD, have not forsaken those who seek You.” (Ps. 9.10)