Optimism vs. Pessimism vs. Christianity

We’ve all heard the classic illustration of the glass half full (no mystery as to which I am). Lately, I have been thinking upon these two attitudes towards life and have been wondering which, if either fits with the way Paul, Jesus or Peter viewed the world around them. As I examined my own attitude, along with the attitudes of those in the Bible and Christians in ages past, I have discovered some interesting and powerful conclusions. Will you join me in this adventure?

Optimism

As I said before, I am, by nature, something of an optimist. I fit the bill for the definition Dictionary.com gives: “the disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome.” Whenever someone mentions a crisis in their life or the world at large, my instinct is to think, “Surely it’s not as bad as that.” An optimist is great if you need a little brightness in your day, but terrible if you need sympathy and comfort during a crisis, because we’ll always be telling you it’s not all bad.

In one of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown detective stories, the old Catholic priest comes upon the murder of what we might term a “motivational speaker”, a dear, old man who spread cheer everywhere he went. When discussing with an officer about why someone might be motivated to kill such a man, Father Brown replied,

“Yes… he was cheerful. But did he communicate his cheerfulness? Frankly, was anyone else in the house cheerful as he? (The man had a daughter and a few servants). You see,” said Father Brown, blinking modestly, “I’m not sure that the Armstrong cheerfulness is so very cheerful – for other people. You say that nobody could kill such a happy old man, but I’m not so sure… If I ever murdered somebody,” he added quite simply, “I dare say it might be an Optimist.” (The Three Tools of Death)

The problem with Optimism is that it denies the evils around it, painting them a little bit rosier than they really are. And often, as in the above murder mystery, Optimism is often a cover up for deep depression.

Pessimism

“Ah,” you might say to yourself at this point. “If Optimism is not the way, then perhaps it is found in Pessimism.” It would seem that Pessimism is better suited to the world we live in. But is it the way God wants us to view the world? According to ye old Dictionary.com, Pessimism is, “the tendency to see, anticipate, or emphasize only bad or undesirable outcomes, results, conditions, problems.” The Pessimist is able to see the pain today and coming ahead. The problem is that, too often, that’s the extent of their view.

When I think of people who had a dim view of life, I think of the Israelites in the wilderness, particularly the ten spies who held an evil report. As the story goes, after a long journey in the wilderness, the Lord has led the people of Israel to the edge of the Promised Land. This is it – the moment that everything before this has been leading up to. Twelve spies are sent into the land and, after forty days, return with this report:

And they told him, and said, “We came unto the land whither thou sentest us, and surely it floweth with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it. Nevertheless the people be strong that dwell in the land, and the cities are walled, and very great: and moreover we saw the children of Anak there. The Amalekites dwell in the land of the south: and the Hittites, and the Jebusites, and the Amorites, dwell in the mountains: and the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and by the coast of Jordan.” And Caleb stilled the people before Moses, and said, “Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.” But the men that went up with him said, “We be not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we. And they brought up an evil report of the land which they had searched unto the children of Israel, saying, The land, through which we have gone to search it, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of a great stature. And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.”

God had promised; yet they believed He wasn’t able to deliver. They saw the troubles – and nothing more. Whereas the Optimist paints with rose-colored hues, a Pessimist paints in only grays and shadows.

Christianity

So what have we to stand upon? Both Optimism and Pessimism have advantages; yet neither is the way the saints of old and Christ Himself viewed the world. Paul commands us in Romans 12:15 to “Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.” We must not only be the smiles and cheers; we must be also to sympathize and comfort those who are weeping and mourning. We must be able to laugh and to cry.

We must also be able to clearly see the pain ahead, yet also the joy; they walk hand in hand. This is the perspective Christ had, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). The Pessimist is correct in seeing the pain; for, as Paul said, “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution (2 Tim. 3:12).” But the Optimist is correct in seeing the joy even amidst the pain, for in the crisis of bonds, Paul also said, “Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I say, rejoice” (Phil. 4:4).

So often, we blame our attitudes on our personalities. I, as an Optimistic sort, feel it is hard for me to sympathize with others’ pain; does that mean I am exempt from Paul’s command in Romans 12:15? Or perhaps you are a little on the Pessimistic side; does that give you sufficient reason to “Complain about life always; and again I say, complain” (1 Opinions 4:1)? Not once is the word “personality” or similar terms in the Bible. Are we all of different sorts of personalities? Yes; but our personality is no excuse.

When we are in Christ, there is joy, peace, love and total satisfaction. If you find your heart hard when others tell you of their pains and trials, pray that God would help you to weep with those that weep. If you find it hard to feel joy in dark times, pray that you would experience joy and satisfaction in Christ. God is willing and able to help us, no matter what our troubles be, if we will ask Him. I will conclude with the words of Paul in Romans 8:

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He did foreknow, He also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He did predestinate, them He also called: and whom He called, them He also justified: and whom He justified, them He also glorified. What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is He that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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  1. #1 by marlvin.chigwanda@gmail.com on November 14, 2013 - 12:57 pm

    Fair discussion.However,I would very much like to hear your views on faith,in comparison to both optimism and pessimism.Also,you have not highlighted the fact that if optimism and pessimism can be obtained outside Christ (a Bhuddhist can be optimistic,and so can an atheist)then they are by no means the standards by which Christians should view life.Rather,Faith substitutes both views.Remember,Faith has an OBJECT(Jesus Christ),whereas pessimism and optimism do not.Faith says it shall be alright because of Christ.Pessimism says it shall just be alright.

    • #2 by Nik E. on November 14, 2013 - 6:21 pm

      That’s certainly a fair point. I haven’t looked at this in a while, but my goal was to compare those ideas within Christianity, not with every other view. Thus, I came at it more as an outlook on life.

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