Is Optimism a Sign of Faith?

Most people would consider me an optimist.  We are all familiar with the idea that an optimist sees a glass half filled with water as half-full while a pessimist refers to the glass as half-empty.  Since I see a half-full glass of water as completely full, sufficient to do the job, does that make me a super optimist?

I have been asked more than once if I think my optimism is related to faith.  Let me describe what I see as the connection and you can decide.  Optimism based on unrealistic naiveté that completely ignores the dangers and downers of this world is not based on faith.  Optimism based on positive thinking just for positive thinking’s sake is not based on faith.  So is there an optimism based on faith?

Our world consists of both material and immaterial parts.  When our focus is strictly on the material world, pessimism is often a natural outcome.  Death, disease, disaster, disappointment are such a part of this world that it is easy to become discouraged.  It is easy to see things we would like to change for the better, but we don’t know how or if they can even be changed.  Our lives in the material world are defined by a negative action leads to negative consequence mentality; a world without grace and forgiveness.  In short, a world without hope.

But when we allow ourselves to dwell on all that is true in the immaterial world, our cause for optimism goes up.  This is the world we experience by faith.  By faith, I know that I have a new heart.  Now I did not receive a physical heart transplant when I believed the gospel message of Christ, but in the immaterial world a new heart is exactly what I received.  By faith, I know that in Christ I have a new nature.  Again, this was not a physical change, something I can observe in the material world with my five senses, but it is true nonetheless.  In the immaterial world, I can view the people in my life through a fundamentally optimistic lens, because I know that they are created in God’s image and, if believers, now members of God’s family; children of God Himself, possessors of His divine nature.  And negative actions on their part cannot change their new and essential identity.

Faith in action takes these beliefs and experiences of the immaterial world and brings them to bear on the material world we live in.  I take action based on what I believe.  I make choices for good based on my faith.  When we only live in the material world, it is easy to weigh the evidence around us and come to negative conclusions about the world we inhabit.  But when we live by faith, we bring the immaterial world – which is by far the more “real” world of eternity – into the picture and we influence our material world for good.

Do Christians still sin?  Yes.  Do believers disappoint each other?  Yes.  Do bad things happen to good people?  Yes.  Faith is believing that despite the sometimes evidence to the contrary in the material world, we do possess a power over sin, God’s family is filled with holy and beloved saints, and God is not the author of evil.

Yes, I believe there is a brand of optimism that is a sign of faith.  We will always have personality issues that affect our optimism/pessimism traits.  There will always be nature and nurture influences that affect how we see the world.  The goal is not to compare ourselves with others and find which camp we fall into.  The comparison is to ourselves.  When we examine ourselves, are we becoming more trusting of God’s goodness as we grow up in the faith?  Seeing ourselves as one or the other may depend on where we started, but as we move forward in experiencing more and more of God’s new covenant promises, I think what the world may see as optimism will be the picture of us walking by faith.

The Role of the Old Testament – The Righteous Live by Faith

Throughout history, under both the old and new covenants, the righteous live by faith.  The faith of the Old Testament saints is a quality that we, as New Testament believers, are to emulate.  The New Testament reminds us of their example and of the critical need to live by faith no matter what era we inhabit.

Despite their often public shortcomings, the faith of our Old Testament forebears is to be celebrated and followed.  Their faith was demonstrated by simply believing and acting upon the promises of God.  Hebrews chapter 11 highlights the various situations where the faith of the Old Testament saints was put to the test and they passed with flying colors.  And they believed even when the promises were yet to be fulfilled.

Hebrews 11 ends with, “And all these [heroes of the faith], having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised” (Heb 11:39).  Why?  Because it was still coming in the future; in the salvation of Jesus Christ.  The faith of God’s people in the Old Testament was forward-facing.  They were looking forward to the coming of the kingdom of God and the coming of His king, the Messiah.

Today, as citizens of that kingdom and servants of the King, we exercise a faith that is past, present, and future.  Facing backward, we see Jesus arrive on the scene 2000 years ago.  By faith, we believe that He indeed is the Promised One, the Anointed One, the Messiah.  By faith, we have embraced His message and His sacrifice.  “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8).  We have been saved through faith in Jesus.

In the present day, we walk by faith.  Just like the Old Testament believers, our present day faith is in the promises of God.  We believe that He has given us a new identity, even if we do not feel it.  We believe that we are indwelt by His Spirit, and we walk accordingly.  “Now those who belong to Jesus Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  Since we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Gal 5:24-25).

And our current “walking by faith” connects us to the faith of the Old Testament saints.  Listen to Paul make the connection in Galatians chapter 3.  “Does God then, who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?  Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.  Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith that are sons of Abraham” (Gal 3:5-7).

Finally, our faith is also facing forward into the future; believing in the promise of Christ’s return.  “Looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus; who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:13-14).  The righteous indeed live by faith.

The Role of the Old Testament – The Wisdom Literature

In addition to the fulfilled prophesies, the priesthood and the sacrifices, and the warnings, another high value lesson of the Old Testament are the timeless truths of the wisdom books.  Their influence on our parenting is especially powerful.  In fact, like many parents before us, we found the book of Proverbs to be a valuable guide as Rhonda and I navigated the child-training years.

The wisdom books of Job, the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon are filled with life lessons, sometimes in just a sentence or two.  Lessons about:

Diligence – “Do you see a man diligent in his work?  He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men” (Pr 22:29).

Speech – “A healing tongue is a tree of life, but perversion in it crushes the spirit” (Pr 15:4).

Tattletales – “For the lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no talebearer, strife quiets down” (Pr 26:20).

Friendships – “Do not associate with a man given to anger; or go with a hot-tempered man, lest you learn his ways, and find a snare for yourself” (Pr 22:24-25).

Wealth – “Wealth obtained by fraud dwindles, but the one who gathers by labor increases it” (Pr 13:11).

And there are literally hundreds more.  These lessons almost always revolve around an action and a consequence; either for good or for bad.  While these consequences are important warnings and blessings that we need to teach to our children, it is important to remember that they are not promises.

The Book of Proverbs is just that: proverbs.  Wise sayings with “most likely outcomes”.  That is, “If you act this way, this is most likely the result.”  When I say “most likely” am I in any way diminishing the teaching?  No. the teaching is powerful and we do well to follow the wisdom contained in these books.  But they are proverbs, not iron-clad promises.  Why is this an important distinction?

It goes back to the formula method of parenting where we falsely believe that if I do A, B, and C, my kids are guaranteed to turn out like D.  It is not that simple.  Real life includes lazy people who get rich through fraud, diligent people who work in obscurity, good friends who turn fickle, and children who do not follow the path they were trained in.  The world does not always go the book of Proverbs way.

Is that because God is unfaithful to His promises?  No, it is because “the most likely outcome” of these wise sayings are sometimes circumvented for a variety of reasons.  The evil actions of Satan can bring suffering and loss instead of prosperity even among the most faithful.  The actions of others can interrupt the flow of God’s blessing.  The discipline of God can change an expected outcome.  And the free will of adult children to make up their own minds may lead to disappointing surprises.

So I guess what I am saying is…please teach these lessons to your children.  The wisdom contained in these Old Testament books is timeless.  And by teaching and living out these truths, you will have a huge influence on your children.  The outcomes are not random.  They generally follow the Proverbs way.  But recognize the limitation of a proverb.  Don’t let your faith be rattled when things don’t turn out as the book of Proverbs predicted.  And help your children navigate their own faith journey when what might be assumed as a promise did not come true.

So teach the Proverbs.  But keep them in the context of the Christian life is lived by faith.  And trust God, that even in the midst of surprising outcomes, He is good and He is in control.