When Optimism Wears Thin
I'm not the news junkie I once was, but I still try to keep up with the news in the world around us. Like many Americans, I no longer subscribe to a printed newspaper, but my morning routine includes a cup of coffee and browsing the pages at CNN.com, Google News, and other online news sources. I want to be aware of as many points of view as possible, so I often visit slate.com, salon.com, the opinion page at the Wall Street Journal, or nationalreview.com. I also receive a daily news update from Christianity Today, which I have found to be valuable in putting things into perspective. Plus I read something called Presbyweb, which requires a subscription, but is the only reliable source for news of the PCUSA.
Maybe I shouldn't read so much. It has me depressed. The economy is a mess and no one seems to know what to do with it. I'm hardly enthused with our choices in next month's election (if you are, please tell me why – I'm ready for some encouragement). The culture war has deteriorated to World War I style trench warfare; the casualties are high and the prospects for peace are low. If the economy is heading towards a meltdown, our denomination has already arrived there.
The dictionary defines optimism as "an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events or to anticipate the best possible outcome." It's not a bad inclination to have, but sometimes favorable constructions and positive anticipations are not very wise. So, is our only choice pessimism, that inclination to emphasize adverse aspects, conditions, and possibilities or to expect the worst possible outcome?
What do I do when my optimism wears thin and pessimism is too unhappy a place to live?
The Bible knows that optimism is shallow and pessimism is destructive. Jesus told a parable about a man whose return on his investments had caused him to be quite optimistic about his prospects. His optimism turned out to be short-lived. Jesus told another parable about a man who was altogether too pessimistic about his possibilities. His pessimism turned out to be the end of him.
The Gospel offers something more reliable than flimsy optimism and more productive than cynical pessimism. The Gospel offers hope. Hebrews 6:19 calls Christian hope a "steadfast anchor for the soul." That's what I need when my optimism wears thin.
The Apostle Paul adds a rich understanding to the nature of our hope in Romans 8. He reminds us that our hope is based on the reality of the salvation that God has both given and promised in the work and person of Jesus. So, while our salvation is a present tense reality, it is also a future tense hope. We can't see it. Not yet. We wait patiently for it.
But Christian waiting is not passive. It is always active. Even as we are patient in hope, God is active in and among us; his Spirit interceding for us and working in us, his purposes sure and good in all things.
It's said that Americans among all the people of the world are the greatest optimists, and I'm glad we are. Optimism has served us well. It's not a bad inclination to have. But sometimes it wears thin. Sometimes it's foolish.
Hope is something different. It never wears thin, because it is not based on our ability to imagine favorable constructions or positive outcomes – something my imagination is not always up to. Hope, like a steadfast anchor, is lodged firmly in the rock-solid reality of God's character and purpose revealed not in my imagination, but in God's gift of his Son.
Christian hope is something you can count on no matter what the headlines say.
When Optimism Wears Thin