The Joyful Realist and the Disillusioned Optimist

smileyI used to be an optimist by nature. That is to say, my natural frame of mind was to expect good things to happen, pretty much all the time. I suppose in the back of my mind I knew that something bad might possibly happen – but with enough planning and foresight the bad thing could probably be avoided, and undoubtedly with enough hard work and pluck, the bad thing could definitely be overcome.

I’m not that way anymore. I guess you could say my nature has been changed – now I am a realist, rather than an optimist.

This is not going to be one of those “I got my education in the school of hard knocks” stories that grizzled old men like to tell, so don’t be alarmed. I do think experience is a teacher, but I also think that we are not wise enough on our own to draw the right conclusions (most of the time). Without Christ leading us through life’s difficulties, we are just as likely to become bitter or angry or disillusioned as we are to become any wiser.

What’s Wrong With Optimism?
The problem with optimism is not that it is naive, or that it is too “pie-in-the-sky” unrealistic. The problem with optimism is that it is unbiblical. Jesus clearly teaches that “in this world you will have trouble”. But so many of us have bought into a lie that goes like this:

IF I get saved and live a clean life…
THEN I will be protected from harm and blessed with material abundance

It’s as if our optimism is based on our own goodness – we will be protected from bad things happening to us as a reward for our good behavior. But does Jesus say anything like this? Where do the New Testament writers say anything like this? (If you know of even one NT scripture that supports this understanding of the Christian life, please send it to me.) Optimism is at best a wishful hope that cannot be fulfilled, and at worst a deliberate refusal to see this life for what it is. Optimism leaves us without a solid emotional framework for the deep challenges life brings. When inevitable suffering comes, optimism leaves us standing naked against the storm. Just as inevitably, our illusions are shattered as we realize that we had bought into the lie that being a “good Christian” would somehow shield us from suffering. There is no one quite so forlorn as a disillusioned optimist.

A Changed Nature
We have a tendency to think that our “nature” is unchangeable. For example, if we say something like “Grandfather was gentle-natured” or “Aunt Bea is just grouchy by nature”, we generally mean that those are more-or-less permanent character traits. But Jesus proposes something very radical – He proposes to change our very nature into one like His own. In other words, we should not think that our nature is unchangeable – rather, we should anticipate having our nature changed as we allow the Holy Spirit to do His work in us.

One of the ways that the Spirit changes us is by replacing our misplaced faith in our own good behavior with a true reliance on the promise and ability of Jesus Christ to carry us through hard times.
Paul put it like this:

…for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
– Phillipians 4:11-13

This attitude of confident reliance in “Christ who strengthens me” is what I am referring to as joyful realism. It is realism because it sees the reality of what life is – existence in a broken, fallen world where sin, decay and death are ever present. And it is joyful in the sure knowledge that Jesus has already won the victory over sin and death, and that this broken world is not our home.

Beware of Realism Without Joy
As optimism is transformed to realism, we need to carefully guard our joy by keeping the promises of Christ ever before our mind’s eye. Realism without joy descends into cynicism – a joyless, sarcastic expectation of constant failure and defeat. Cynicism and apathy are the twin diseases of the modern soul. Even in its fallen state, this world contains much God-given beauty. We must not lose sight of these good things, and continue to thank God for His generosity in giving beauty to us to enjoy.

Jesus is Our Model
In this as in all else, Jesus’ own life is the example for how we should live. He had a brutally realistic understanding of where His own life’s journey would end, but He did not shrink from it. He did not mischaracterize the nature of the suffering He would endure, or minimize the severity of the sin in those around Him. He encouraged His own followers to count the cost of their choice to follow Him, as it would only lead to suffering and persecution at the hands of those they were trying to help (Matt. 10). Now as then, this joyful realism is what He calls us to, and what He intends to establish in our hearts today.

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