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Why Christians Should Not Be Optimists – Part 1

By Akos Balough (from Gospel Coalition website)

I’ve noticed people aren’t as optimistic about the future these days. In our post 9-11, post-GFC, post-Trump era, people are increasingly anxious. Optimism no longer abounds – at least not like it used to.

Australian social researcher Hugh McKay has recently written about this in his book Australia Reimagined: Towards a More Compassionate, Less Anxious Australia. He details the challenges facing Australian society: the growing epidemics of loneliness and poor mental health; disappointment in political leadership; loss of faith in institutions (church, banks, government); and social media outrage. It’s a confronting list.

But in an interview early last year, McKay finishes by saying that in spite of these challenges, he’s optimistic about the future:

What I’m more optimistic about is that our sense of being human, and the sense of connectedness with other humans, will prevail – and will be the thing that pulls us back from the brink of disaster.’

Yes, there are challenges in life, and across society. But optimists like McKay believe that things will turn out alright in the end – a key definition of optimism. [1]

Is McKay right to be optimistic? Is such optimism the attitude Christians should have, as we navigate this fallen world with all its joys and challenges?

It may sound like a strange question: after all, isn’t optimism better than it’s polar opposite, pessimism? Given the choice between the two, wouldn’t you rather be an optimist? Isn’t optimism a godlierattitude?

And yet, I don’t think it’s that simple. As provocative as it sounds, I don’t think Christians should be optimists (at least not in that sense).

And here’s why.

1) The Bible Is Not Optimistic. Nor Is It Pessimistic

Rather, it is realistic about our world.

The Bible is not optimistic about our world. It declares from the beginning that our world is broken, fallen, and full of hardship for humanity (e.g. Gen 3:16-19). Yes, there is much beauty in this world, but just as there are seasons of peace and love, there are also seasons of war and destruction (e.g. Eccl 3:1-8). Sin corrupts our very humanity (e.g. Rom 1:18-30).

And yet, the Bible is not pessimistic – in the sense of ‘believing that bad things are more likely to happen than good things’. Scripture does describe and predict awful things (i.e. from chapter 3 of Genesis onward), but it does so realistically: as things really are. And so we’re not called to be classic pessimists, who are constantly negative and expect the worst. We’re called to see reality as it is – in all in its pain and glory. This will mean having realistic expectations of life in this fallen world.

So the Bible doesn’t call us to be optimists (nor pessimists), but realists.

And yet, there’s more: we’re not merely called to be realists, we’re also called to be hope-ful. 

(part 2 next week)