I have a pessimistic disposition. On some days, I can be considered a critical thinker and a realist.
So I often get encouraged to think only about the good in things. Power of positive thinking! Be optimistic!
Where do you fall on the optimist/pessimist spectrum? Take this brief quiz:
The doctor finds a mole on your back that wasn’t there at your last check up. What is your initial response?
A) “It's a kiss from the sun! I shall name it ‘Ray’ after the beautiful beam that signed its autograph on me.” B) “It's probably nothing. I’m good about using sunscreen.” C) “This is trouble. I use sunscreen, but maybe the SPF was insufficient.” D) "Blaaaah! It's probably a disease that is so rare it will be named after me! I can feel it eating my insides as we speak! Finish me off now, you quack. I’m already dead.”
Find something that sounds like you? Good, now we can proceed.
None of these responses has any more of an understanding of the truth than the next, they are just initial reactions to the unknown. I'm not talking about the difference between being joyful and being sorrowful. Those are emotions. I'm talking about how we perceive the world around us. We make these perceptions all the time: Should I trust this stranger or not? The phone is ringing, is it going to be good or bad? I just ordered a McGriddle, am I going to live or die? The answer we initially give to questions like these is usually derived from our dispositions, which are both inherited and shaped by our experiences, and even fluctuate day to day.
Now, it’s commonly believed that if we perceive our circumstances optimistically we will be happy and successful, but if we perceive them pessimistically we’ll be unhappy and unsuccessful. In a recent TED talk, advertising genius and Vice Chairman of Ogilvy Group, Rory Sutherland, presents an argument that reality is actually less important than perception. Putting a positive spin on life gives a sense of control, which he asserts is the key to happiness, saying “Things are not what they are; they are what we think they are.”
But the Bible does not teach this “perception modification,” or even a “Christian power of positive thinking.” The Bible expresses a way of looking at life that goes beyond our dispositions, whether optimistic or pessimistic, to the truth revealed by God, because both the optimist and the pessimist are skewing reality in some way.
Let me explain.
Optimism, when disconnected from rationality, is dangerous in that it can hold God to promises he hasn’t made (“I am sure God is going to give me that job”), and at its worst is humanistic (“We can save the world!”). “Happy thawt” Christianity is just a faux religious power of positive thinking that relies on self to pretend reality isn't real.
As I said earlier, puke.
On the flip side, unnecessary pessimism is dangerous in that it leads to worry, which is vehemently condemned (Phil. 4:6-7, 1 Peter 5:6-7). But worry is not what we would consider a negative thought. Worry is dwelling on the negative thought. Saying “I’m going to lock my door, this is a sketchy neighborhood” is an acceptable negative thought about your surroundings. It could keep you safe. But lying awake at night because you fear that gangland violence is going to be relocated to your kitchen is not. Stop that. Trust that God is in control, fellow pessimist.
We may tend to see the bad in the world or the good in the world, but God wants us to see the truth in the world. God cares very much that we journey past our fallen dispositions to arrive at a sober-minded (2 Tim. 4:5, 1 Peter 1:13), but still hope-filled, understanding of the way things are and will be, because
God has made it clear that humanity is sinful and made in His image God is a God of wrath and a God of love God is a God of justice and a God of compassion God is a God of power and a God of humility God gave us Proverbs and Ecclesiastes
A divine perspective, then, is an understanding of reality that points to eternality.
A divine perspective means understanding our imperfection without losing sight of God's perfection.
In a word, this is wisdom. Wisdom is good. Gain wisdom.
This is how Paul could accept the reality that he was going to die in prison without tricking himself into thinking the experience was enchanting, all without losing hope in God's eternal promises (2 Tim. 4:6-8). As we continue in faith we can develop a divine perspective like this too.
To do so we must no longer walk in the futility of our minds (Eph. 4:17), but allow the spirit to renew them (Eph. 4:22). We must not think higher of ourselves than we should (Rom. 12:3), and we must not doubt that Jesus is in control (Matt. 8:26).
So our fake smiles need to be excommunicated from our faces, and our unhealthy criticism needs to be exorcised from our minds and hearts. Then we can bring truth that is refreshing to a world that has to veil reality to be happy. Jesus promises that if we live by his word we will know the truth, and the truth will set us free (John 8:32).
The truth is that sin does exist and has infected everything from our hearts to our pets to our sunsets to our music. Even sweet, delicious McGriddles are tainted from the fall.
People are evil.
You will fail yourself.
Pain and suffering are inevitable.
We are not in control.
But we don’t need to pretend these things are any different to still be hopeful and celebratory, because Jesus promises
that he has come to save us;
that he will not leave us;
that our suffering now is isn't even comparable to future glory;
and that he will restore all things to perfection.
Thinking about that gives me a smile that makes Richard Simmons look like Eeyore.