Optimism, pessimism, and realism – which is the correct view?
Every attitude’s proponents believe theirs is the most faithful and authentic, otherwise they wouldn’t hold to it, and there’s at least some supporting evidence for each of these three. Is it really healthy to be either positive or negative all the time, though? I can’t believe it is.
For all things in life there must be a balance. So where’s the proper balance when it comes to being positive and negative in your general outlook on life?
If you ask me, realism is where it’s at.
Optimism – Things Are Probably Not as Bad as You Think
First off, let me start with full-disclosure. I sometimes find extremely optimistic people exhausting. How can anyone stand to be so upbeat all the time? Some folks seem to do it naturally enough, yes, and maybe they’re wholly sincere. But I’m always secretly suspicious of optimistic people that they’re pretending to be more cheerful than they actually are. For crying out loud, what are they hiding?
Tell an optimistic person what’s bothering you and this is how they’ll reply:
‘Things are probably not as bad as you think.’
Every dark cloud has a silver lining with optimists. There’s always some greater good that’s going to come out on top in even the worst situation, and that’s what optimists choose to focus on. This makes optimists great at encouraging you when you’re thinking of trying something new or scary, and wonderful at getting you out of a funk when you’re trying to cheer up.
I’ve met a lot of Christians I would describe as optimists. And why wouldn’t they be? The saving power and promises of God in Christ Jesus mean we have hope. This world is as bad as life is ever going to get for us. So in that sense there’s a good deal of truth in the optimist view of life, at least for Christians. At the end of even the worst day, God remains Sovereign. He still sits on the throne. We can take refuge in Him and find peace in the midst of our trials, no matter how many or how bad they may get.
Yet we shouldn’t be artificially happy all the time, or pretend there aren’t serious challenges and problems that have to be addressed between now and when Jesus comes back for us. This is something I’ve witnessed the most committed optimists struggle with: being real.
When they’re Christians, it’s almost as if optimists are afraid they’ll have compromised their faith in Jesus if they admit they’re upset or disappointed, or if they let you feel that way for more than a second or two. It’s like they don’t believe truly bad things can happen to God’s people. If something bad has happened or is happening to you, it calls into question the authenticity of your Christian faith, and that uncertainty of your salvation is even more of the type of negativity they don’t want to dwell on. They’d rather just not talk about that stuff if it can be avoided.
Pessimism – Things Are Probably Much Worse Than You Imagined
Now pessimists, on the other hand – pessimists don’t struggle with the same thing optimists do. They’re never artificially happy, never inclined to gloss over struggles or bumps in the road of life. And let me just admit, I kind of enjoy pessimists in this regard – at least to a point, so long as they’re not mean and abusive with the people around them.
You don’t have to worry about being scolded for explaining a hardship, frustration, or anxiety to a pessimist. They’ll likely nod as you explain your trouble, look you square in the eyes and say:
‘Things are probably much worse than you imagined.’
Then they’ll tell you exactly how things are probably worse! Or how they’re going to get worse!
Which is nice to a point when you’ve got a problem to solve and you’re trying to skate to where the puck is going to be instead of skating to where the puck is right now. But this tendency of pessimists also means you probably don’t want to tell one your problems if you were hoping to have someone lift your spirits or assuage your worries.
There may not be as many die-hard pessimists who are Christians as there are optimists, but I bet its close. This too is understandable. Since Adam and Eve in Eden, mankind is born into sin. We are all sinful creatures, and after thousands of years of sinful man throwing wrenches in the gears in multitudinous ways through his rebellion against God, the originally good Creation is now deeply tainted by sin’s curse. That’s why we see death, disease, suffering, and all manner of selfish cruelty in the world. The Bible tells us we are sinners called to repentance, and that we should be saddened rather than pleased by sin in our own lives and the world around us because sin brings death. And there’s so much sin to be saddened by!
Yes, dour Christians still believe that Sovereign God sits on His throne in Heaven. But pessimists realize that we human beings are not omnipotent, omniscient, or wholly good. Though we can ask God for wisdom and provision and protection, and though He is faithful and just and we trust in His goodness and enduring love for us, we must still endure the hardships of this life.
Yet even though every aspect of life can be and has been in some way, shape, or form tainted by sin, and though there will be troubles in this life, God has also given us many blessings as well, and He doesn’t command us to refrain from enjoying those blessings. This is where I have seen Christian pessimists struggle. It’s as if they feel they’re sinning or failing to maintain reverent self-control by enjoying anything in this world, as if their holiness will have slipped if their life accidentally becomes fun every now and then. And let’s be honest, they seem to view it as their mission from God to be a wet blanket to those around them. For the same reason they’re worried about unfettered joy in their own hearts, they’re worried when they see it in yours and mine.
Realism – You’ve Got to Take the Good with the Bad
The realist looks at good and bad situations with an even temper and realizes that life can be and usually is very multifaceted. In this way a realist is free to both agree and disagree with both the optimist and the pessimist, all at the same time.
When I think of the way realists take the good with the bad, I’m reminded of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof weighing each suitor who presents himself as a possible match for one of his five daughters. “On the one hand… on the other hand…” He deliberates back and forth with the pros and cons before coming to a conclusion.
In this way I think realists make the best friends and counselors. They won’t scold you either for being troubled or jubilant, but rather have a more natural and intuitive empathy with you when you’re in either mood. They see and understand the reason for your happiness as well as your concern, and can better assist you in making decisions in complex situations as a result of not poo-pooing either the opportunities or the challenges involved.
“Have you considered my servant Job…?”
The real strength of a Christian’s testimony is not in how God was present when everything in their life was positive and cheerful, but rather how God was still true and faithful even when everything seemed to be going the wrong way, when life was filled with pain and heartache and disasters. That is, after all, why Job’s tests came when he had everything dear taken away from him.
And Yahweh said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?”
Then Satan answered Yahweh and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.”
And Yahweh said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.
The book of Job is a huge encouragement to me, strangely. Here you have a man who had everything one could ask for – faithful devotion to God, a nice big family, wealth and respect in the community – but Satan is given permission to take it all away to put Job’s faith in God to the test.
An optimist counseling Job in the midst of his trials would be hard-pressed to explain to the man how things could get worse once his children and servants and wealth were gone.
The pessimist would wallow in Job’s misery with him and arguably make things worse in the process, perhaps even counseling as Job’s wife did to “curse God and die.”
A realist, on the other hand, would take the longer view and conclude that yes, this hurts and is hard. But this is not the end, and God is faithful and true and just and loves you as a Father, so put your faith in Him.
Two Kinds of Churches, Two Kinds of Christians
I’ve been to at least two types of churches in my life, and I’ve met at least two types of Christians.
The first kind is the optimist Christian in the optimistic church who feels they’ve transgressed the law of love somehow if you don’t leave their presence smiling and laughing like an idiot. They agonize to an amazing degree over how best to not upset you, over how to keep you from remaining distressed after you’ve been in their company if you were upset when you entered it. Talk of sin needs to be kept to a minimum with the optimistic Christian; there is only grace and forgiveness and joy to them, and nothing else matters.
Tread lightly on difficult or controversial issues in the optimistic church because its members believe in the power of positive thinking, and they don’t take kindly to anyone potentially subverting that power. Mention sin or folly and they will unfortunately rush to change the subject back to the blood of Jesus washing away sin before telling you a joke or some other happy thing to cheer everyone up again.
All too often these Christians, in my experience and observation, skip over confession and repentance as essential steps in the process of becoming or being a Christian because confession and repentance make “truth-seekers” and “baby Christians” uncomfortable. Yet those who are genuinely seeking truth will not turn tail and flee when faced with the prospect that they have erred, and this is an oversight I’ve found difficult to point out to overly optimistic Christians because the conflict of you challenging or correcting them brings with it the risk of those negative emotions they regard as anathema.
The second type of church and Christian is the opposite of the first. The pessimist Christian in their pessimistic church feels convicted if you don’t come away from meeting with them in tears at your own vile wretchedness as a sinner. They have no trouble with rebuking your sin and folly, and indeed they believe strongly that this is the chief purpose of church and Christian life. Talk of God’s Sovereign grace is essential, but is often wielded almost as a cudgel with which to beat you over your undeserving head until you’re quite sure no one could be so worthless and wicked as you are.
Do you enjoy any of God’s blessings besides the Scriptures and the promise of eternal life in Christ? Well watch out! Pessimist Christians in their pessimistic churches will not rest until you’ve agonized over your enjoyment of those blessings, wringing out even the smallest drop of selfish or sinful enjoyment from them like so much soap from a used dishrag. They can smell the slightest trace of heresy, idolatry, and materialism from a mile away, and it almost seems their mission to cause you to question whether you are indeed really a Christian in the first place.
And so with the one type of Christian and church everything is sunshine and rainbows and it’s practically the eleventh commandment that you must constantly rejoice about and find the good in everything. With the other kind seemingly everything is a sin and you should at least give serious thought to sackcloth and ashes and fasting for the rest of your miserable existence to prove you really know and follow Jesus.
Yet neither of these views is quite balanced, neither embraces the totality of God’s Word, and all too often both are quite frankly more focused on criticizing and being opposites of one another than with following Jesus himself and grappling with the totality of Scriptures and the Christian life.
Optimism, Pessimism, and Realism
The real error in excessive positivity or negativity is that both attitudes ignore or minimize an undeniable aspect of life, only each has a different blind spot, a different preoccupation than the other which it prefers and finds more comfortable. Because of their lack of balance, choosing between these two excesses is like picking a poison by which to kill our hearts and minds, but a dose of realism is the antidote to both.
God isn’t judging us on the basis of whether we’re trying hard enough to be gloomy and bent out of shape about sin and folly all the time, nor is He chiefly concerned with whether we’re pretending to only ever be happy about His grace and blessings. God sees our heart, not the mask we show at church and in the world.
Rather than being wet blankets for those who are happy for the sake of making them holier through sorrows, rather than encouraging people to “fake it ‘til you make it” for Jesus with smiles and snappy positive catch-phrases that’ll at least not depress us if they don’t eventually cheer them up, we should rejoice with those who rejoice at truly good things and mourn with those who mourn overly truly bad things. Though our life before or without Jesus may only be one tragedy waiting for the next to pile on, and though our eternal life in Jesus after this one has passed will certainly only be one joy after another with no sorrows or tears, this life contains both trials and blessings.
In that sense, the most realistic attitude for the Christian is summarized in the words of Job:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. Yahweh gave, and Yahweh has taken away; blessed be the name of Yahweh.”
– Job 1:21
Neither excessive optimism nor excessive pessimism are the way to go. Realism is where it’s at.
Consider the wise words of King Solomon:
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
And finally, consider the words of Christ himself:
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”