Friday, March 6, 2009

Christian Optimism and Positive Living

L.Dwight Turner

More than a few Christians go through their days as if dark clouds were hanging over their heads and exhibiting a countenance that indicated they began each day being baptized in vinegar. This is not how God intended those of us who consider ourselves followers of the Master Jesus to live. On the contrary, I firmly believe that being a Christian is synonymous with being an optimist.

Both scripture and common sense screams that negativity and pessimism are not what God intended for his children. The Christian life was meant to be a joyous affair instead of an ordeal to be endured. Granted, life will always have its difficulties, but even when we face trials, I believe that God desires that we do so with as much optimism and hope as possible.

Personally, I have come to believe that one of the fundamental keys to a life of Christian optimism is to have positive expectations based on scripture and the integrity of God.

Think about it. In Romans Paul tells us that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God. In and of itself, that promise should keep us in a positive frame of mind, even during times of difficulty and trial. In case you are not familiar with this passage, or if you have forgotten it, let’s take a look at what Paul says in Romans 8: 38-39

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow – not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below – indeed, nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. (NLT)

If we trust God and believe what scripture tells us, then we have every right to be completely optimistic about the present and the future. This is not a false, “pie in the sky” optimism nor is it a Pollyanna style denial of reality. No, this biblical optimism is based entirely on scripture and God’s character. God is a being of integrity and further, he cannot lie. Our optimism is based on the firm foundation of God’s promises and his character.

The enjoyment of life flows from trusting God and, through that trust, to have positive expectations in life. We have every right to believe deep in our hearts that God truly desires our happiness because he is the Father of Lights and we are Children of the Light. Indeed, scripture affirms that God wishes that we “prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers.” (3 John 1:2)

This has nothing to do with what has come to be known as the “prosperity gospel.” Here I think John is speaking of the fact that God desires our happiness and enjoyment of life and we proper in life. Yes, this can mean financial wealth, but it can also mean emotional and spiritual wealth. We have every right to expect the best because God wants the best for his children.

John mentions here the fact that our soul prospers. What is he talking about? In brief, as humans we are tripartite beings, meaning that we have three aspects to our being. Just as God exists as a Trinity, in a real sense, so do we. Our three-part make up consists of body, soul, and spirit. The soul consists of our mind, our emotions, and our will. God’s original intention was that our spirit be in the driver’s seat and in direct communication with God. Based on this divine connection, our spirit governed our soul and our bodies. Due to the Fall, this arrangement was distorted and, because of our spiritual death, it became necessary that the soul take up the command of our lives. The results of this, of course, are quite negative and adverse to God’s intentions.

When we accepted Christ into our hearts, ideally the original order of things was restored, at least on a spiritual level. When we live from our spirit (walk according to the Spirit, not the flesh), our soul does indeed prosper and we can enjoy life and expect the best.

Having positive expectations based on scriptural promises leads to a realistic and practical optimism which impacts all aspects of life. That is why at Sacred Mind Ministries we often refer to the Christian brand of optimism as “Holistic Optimism.” Rather than a vague, generic form of positive thinking, true holistic optimism is a dynamic force that affects the believer’s life on all levels. Further, the Christian optimist is a person who is highly practical, very resilient, and enjoys life, even at times when things may not be going as we desire. The Christian optimist knows that God wants her best and wants her to prosper and enjoy life in all its magnitude and glory. Also, she is well aware that God has said very directly that nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate her from God’s love.

How can we justify anything less than positive expectations which flow from a biblical worldview and dynamic optimism? Personally, I think to expect less or expect the worst is an insult to God. It is telling God you do not trust him or his promises.

Even when we feel disappointed, discouraged, or overwhelmed, we can still respond in a positive manner. It is vitally important that you understand that optimism is not a denial of the pain one encounters in life. Remember Scott Peck’s runaway best seller, entitled The Road Less Traveled? The opening statement of Peck’s book was, “Life is difficult.” Peck was right in his assessment. Life can surely be difficult at times. Buddha, over two and a half millennia ago, was even more pessimistic. The first of his Four Noble Truths said that “all life is suffering.”

Even more relevant to the Christian optimist is the fact that Jesus told his disciples they could expect trouble in life. They did experience trouble and so do we. However, Jesus also gave them two important reasons to not let these troubles dampen their optimism. The Lord said two things that are of great comfort to those with ears to hear:

I have overcome the world.

I am with you, even until the end of the age.

Armed with these promises, the Christian optimist can face any difficult situation might throw his or her way. I know that when many of you read this, the first thing that pops into your mind is, “But….” Chances are whatever words come after the “but” is an attempt on your part to either justify why you are a pessimist or to explain why what Christ said may be true for some, but not for you. For some, this process of rationalizing away what the Master Jesus clearly stated is an attempt to hold on to our negativity. I have met more than a few folks who cling very tightly to their pessimism and dark moods. As unhealthy as this sound, and it is quite unhealthy, this trend is fairly prevalent, even in the Body of Christ.

In some ways, pessimism is a coping mechanism that a believer might misguidedly employ as a means of emotional protection. I have a good friend Jeremy who fits this example. Generally a decent, caring, and devoted Christian, Jeremy is quite prone to finding a dark cloud in every silver lining.

On several occasions I have talked with my friend about this issue and surprisingly, he is quite aware of his chronic pessimism. In discussing the matter with Jeremy, I discovered that his thinking was quite different from a positive thinking Christian who expects good things in life. In fact, Jeremy expects the exact opposite. This came to light during a three-day workshop Sacred Mind Ministries taught at Jeremy’s church. Already aware of just how negative a mindset he had, I was interested in how he might respond to the training program.

On the second day, Jeremy’s team leader gave each person a scriptural affirmative statement to work with. The idea of the assignment was to see how creative each person might be in finding ways to incorporate frequent repetition of the affirmative statement into their busy schedule. When we went around the group, the various team members shared the methods they had devised and how it felt to tap into this new way of renewing the mind.

The scriptural affirmation assigned to Jeremy was, “And there shall be showers of blessing for me.” (Ezk. 34:26) The teams broke for 10 minutes of individual quiet time, during which each person would experiment with repeating the scriptural affirmation. Jeremy, however, declined to participate.

I asked my friend why he did not want to take part in the exercise. He was quite direct in his response:

“I just don’t think I can do that, mostly because it might just work,” said Jeremy. “You see, I always try to not look for or expect too much out of life. That way, when I don’t get what I expect, I am not so disappointed.”

I understood what Jeremy meant because I have heard the same words come out of the mouths of more than a few sincere believers.

“Let me ask you something, Jeremy,” I responded. “Do you figure that’s how God wants you to live?”

“Well, I never really thought about it in that context.”

“Let me ask one more question,” I pressed. “Do you figure that’s why Christ left his home in heaven, came down here into this broken world, fulfilled his mission, and allowed himself to be put to death – just so you could live in fear of expecting too much.?”

Jeremy didn’t respond, but he didn’t engage in the exercise, either. You see, Jeremy has built up a stronghold of pessimism in his mind and it has literally become a part of his coping skills. Changing this perspective will be difficult, but it can be done. I have walked through that difficult terrain myself, but that is another story. Suffice to say that with God’s help and with a person’s sincere cooperation, this type of “defensive pessimism” can be transformed into a dynamic, radical optimism.

Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying in this article. I am not suggesting that the Christian life is a bed of roses or any kind of journey that is without pain. As mentioned earlier, M. Scott Peck begins his landmark book The Road Less Traveled with these three reality based words: “Life is difficult.” It is rare that three little words can contain such a profound and accurate view of life, especially in these challenging economic and social times. Peck then goes on in the book to express the theory that most emotional problems, especially neurosis, can be tracked back to a person’s multi-faceted attempts to avoid accepting the stark reality that “life is difficult.

The Christian optimist would generally agree with Peck; life is, indeed, difficult. The difference between a Christian optimist and a person who views life through a more neurotic lens is the Christian’s gut-level acceptance that no matter what he or she faces, the Master they serve has overcome the world and therefore, in the final analysis, has provided a way through life’s difficulties. Further, the Christian optimist has a habit of turning life’s difficulties into positive opportunities. This is no “pie in the sky” response, but instead, the Christian optimist takes to heart the scriptural promise that God will not burden any person with more than they are equipped to bear. This is especially true for the Christian.

© L.D. Turner 2009/ All Rights Reserved

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