Optimism: “a disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome.”
Was the Apostle Paul an optimist? For a guy who taught a lot about the depravity of the human heart, Paul sure seemed to take a pretty rosey view of life sometimes, didn’t he?
A ‘Church-is-Half-Full’ Kind of View?
Here’s a case in point: The church in Corinth. They were divided and dividing still, they valued fancy speech over sound doctrine, they had cases of publicly known immorality that were not being addressed, they were suing each other, they were leaving betrothed women unprovided for, fighting over food sacrificed to idols, arguing over whose spiritual gifts made them the most spiritually mature, leading chaotic worship services, and considering denying the resurrection. Seriously. And you thought your church was bad!
But think about how Paul addresses them:
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge — even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you — so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift… (1 Cor 1.4-6)
That sure sounds like a very optimistic, ‘glass-half-full’ kind of view of the church, doesn’t it? Is he just flattering them?
The furthest thing from being an optimist who chooses to ‘look on the more favorable side of events’ or a double-tongued flatterer who dabbles in deceit, Paul is speaking the truth boldly. He has something greater than optimism when it comes to the Corinthian church — as messed up as it is. Paul has hope. God-grounded, gospel-believing hope.
Look at how he continues to explain the reason for his hope:
… so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Cor 1.7-9)
Optimism vs. Hope
Optimism says, ‘I believe in you, Corinthians! Just keep believing in yourselves, keep working hard, if you keep dreaming then nothing will stop your achieving!’ But that’s hoogly. We all know it is inane nonsense to just ‘believe in yourself’ despite what you see and despite a track record of failure.
Gospel-hope says, ‘God is faithful. He called you. He’ll keep you.’ And do you know what? His résumé bears that out. He has never failed. We can have a firm and confident expectation that God will preserve his own people, who are called by his name, for this very reason: He has never failed yet. Not once.
Once you start to see this kind of firm hope despite the difficulties he faced, you’ll ending up seeing it everywhere. Hope permeates the pages of Paul’s writing.
In the midst of his bitter struggle with the heretical teaching in Galatia, he proclaims his hope:
I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view than mine, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. (Galatians 5.10)
And to the Philippians he introduces his hope for them from the very beginning of the letter:
And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1.6)
This is not empty optimism, but faith that is fully placed on God, and hope that in the future God will still be God, and therefore his people will be blessed.
What about Your Church?
So let me ask you this: When you think about your church, how do you feel?
Sometimes I think we get discouraged when we see sin and failure in the church precisely because we’ve been operating in categories of optimism. If we just keep believing that people are good and everyone in the church will be good, then we will be let down. But the answer to that is not to look at those in your church with a pessimistic point of view either. Surely there is no joy to be found in the grouch-ball who just watches and waits for fellow church members to sin.
The answer, I believe is not optimism, but hope.
Hope is greater than optimism because it engages the reality of fallenness both outside and inside the church, but still clings to the power, goodness, and faithfulness of God to redeem his people. Hope says, ‘People will continue to sin, but God will continue to save. He will redeem and purify his own. The earth will be filled with his glory as the waters cover the sea’ (Hab 2.14).
Hope lives like that is true — even in your church. Because, yes, if God’s people are there, so is he. And he doesn’t change.