True Christian Hope: Beyond Positive Thinking

Too many people confuse Christian hope with the power of positive thinking.

This past April a friend from Baltimore asked me, “Do you think the Orioles will win the World Series?” Like The Little Engine that Could I repeated, “I think they can!” I pointed to players’ statistics, team dynamics, coaching ability, and a recent winning record. The trouble was my evidence wasn’t all that compelling. By September, my optimism proved vain. 

sun_754-400What if, instead, someone had asked me, “Do you think the sun will rise every day until the World Series?” Philosophically, no one can prove beyond all conceivable doubts that the sun will continue to rise, but as little orphan Annie sang you can bet your bottom dollar the sun will come out tomorrow!”

Christian hope is not merely historically verifiable, like baseball statistics, but overwhelmingly compelling – like the sunrise. When Jesus defeated death on Easter morning, he wasn’t simply batting above average. Jesus’ victory over death didn’t merely make him a probable winner against future opponents – it makes him the definite winner. Jesus proved he was capable of pitching the perfect game, once and for all, and against all odds. He went against the reigning champion, death itself, who had never lost in a match. Jesus won! In fact, Jesus won every time death, and his teammates (sickness, blindness, deafness, etc.) took the field.

When John the baptist wavered in his hope he sent messengers to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?” Jesus responded with compelling facts, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up.” (Luke 7:22)

The apostle Paul was crystal clear about the basis of Christian hope. He writes, “If Christ has not been raised [from the dead], then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:14)Paul knew that real hope was rooted in facts – not feelings, intentions, aspirations, or probabilities. The resurrected Jesus Christ shined like the sun upon Paul’s eyes and transformed his skepticism into enduring hope.

Big faith has little to do with the size of your belief but everything to do with the object you believe in. If the object of your faith is big and reliable, your faith is strong — no matter how much doubt is mixed in. Jesus said we only need “faith the size of a mustard seed.” (Luke 17:6) Even the smallest, weakest faith in Him is strong because He is strong.

Christian hope is based on what Jesus accomplished — not our feelings. There is a huge difference between placing faith in Jesus and placing faith in your faith.

  • Do you struggle to trust God has forgiven you? Do not base your confidence on feeling sufficiently sorry or proving earnestness to yourself. Rest instead on what Jesus did. He paid your debt on the cross so you may be fully forgiven, no matter your failure.
  • Do you want assurance that you can change. . . that your character flaws are redeemable and your addictions are conquerable? Look not in the mirror. There you will only find a flawed person barely capable of short lived victories. Look beyond the mirror to, “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). Jesus reflects the image of God perfectly and is working by His Spirit to restore you to look as glorious…someday!
  • Are you worried the best things in life may pass you bye? You can strive hard after them, but to what end? Even the best things under the sun will leave you hungering and thirsting for more. Then death will rob them all away. Strive instead after the one who defeated death, and offers Himself. The one who came to give us life to the full, now, and forevermore.

By all means think positively. But if you want a hope that never fails, look to Jesus.

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The Secret for Overcoming Despair

For a long time scientists have wondered why some people linger in despair and others pop out of it. Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism and past president of the American Psychological Association, was acclaimed for scientifically dissecting despair in the laboratory to see how it works. Despair is no longer a mysterious black box. Hopelessness can actually be measured by how you choose to explain bad events. He writes,

Finding permanent and universal causes for misfortune is the practice of despair. . . People who make permanent and universal explanations for their troubles tend to collapse under pressure, both for a long time and across situations.”

Seligman developed the “hope score” which measured the degree of pervasiveness and permanence a person showed when explaining bad events in their lives.  

He also tested a third variable of the “hope score”, not as determinative as the first two, called personalization. Those that internalize bad events by blaming themselves are more pessimistic than those that externalize bad events by blaming others or circumstances. But, Seligman writes an important disclaimer:

Although there are clear benefits to learned optimism – there are also dangers. Temporary? Local? That is fine. I want my depression to be short and limited. I want to bounce back quickly. But external? Is it right that I should blame others for my failures? Most assuredly we want people to own up to the messes they make, to be responsible for their actions. Certain psychological doctrines have damaged our society by helping to erode personal responsibility: Evil is mislabeled insanity; bad manners are shucked off as neurosis… I am unwilling to advocate any strategy that further erodes responsibility.”

Seligman’s research has helped millions identify their own pessimistic explanatory styles and replace them with optimistic explanatory styles. But there were two limitations presented by his research. First, He didn’t resolved the dilemma about personal responsibility. Second, his laboratory experiments measured localized and temporary pain, not permanent and pervasive suffering.

But, what if the bad events in your life are in fact pervasive, permanent and personally caused? Suppose these nasty p-words are not just in your head, as an explanatory style, but are objectively true!  

Joni Erickson broke her neck diving off a pier and became a quadriplegic. Her broken neck is tragically pervasive, inhibiting every aspect of her life. It’s also permanent, binding her to a wheel chair for over 50 years. What kind of hope can we offer a person like Joni?  

If this life is all that there is then Joni Erickson’s spinal cord injury is truly permanent and pervasive. Explaining away her darkened reality with an optimistic explanatory style sounds ridiculous. But, if the resurrection of Jesus Christ happened, then this life isn’t all there is. God guarantees another. When Jesus returns, those in Him shall rise with new physical bodies in a fully renewed cosmos. Joni imagines that day and writes,

“The first thing I plan to do on my resurrected legs is to drop on grateful glorified knees, kneel quietly before the feet of Jesus and then I am going to be on my feet dancing.” She continues, “Can you imagine what hope [the resurrection] gives someone with a spinal cord injury like mine?”  

When Tishira Duffy clipped a family’s minivan while driving at 92 miles an hour, she killed Meg Abbott’s mom, dad and two brothers. Tishira is personally responsible for robbing a six year old girl of her entire family. How does Tishira deal with her personal fault and yet find hope?  

Unless there is a God who forgives, she never will. But if Jesus Christ really died for sinners, then Tishira may appropriately externalize her guilt to him. Jesus will take her blame and pay the penalty for her crime. But there is a catch. First, Tishira must take responsibility for her guilt (which resolves Dr. Seligman’s concerns). Admitting sin and asking for forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door of hope with Jesus.  

The secret is out! Through empirical research, Dr. Seligman has stumbled onto truths Christianity has proclaimed for millennia. Jesus’ substitutional death and bodily resurrection provide an explanatory style capable of returning unexpectedly high “hope scores”  for people trapped by permanent and pervasive suffering — even when they’re personally to blame.

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Negativity: Why not let it go?

Ask a negative person to let go of their pessimism and you’ll hear a string of excuses. As a recovering pessimist, I’ve used them all.  See if you recognize any of these.

Denial — The “Who? Me!” response:  The average pessimist doesn’t consider themselves overly negative at all.  They prefer to label themselves as realistic, misunderstood, and honest. But, people living in close proximity with pessimists disagree.  An exasperated friend of a pessimist recently confessed, “Ninety-five percent of things are swell, but you’d never know that listening to him.  He focuses on the 5% that’s uncertain and blows it out of proportion.  You’d think his life was a terrible mess.”  Pessimists stuck in denial are largely unaware that they are guilty of deflating people around them.

Justification The “I’m too smart to get my hopes up”  response:  Pessimism provides the apparent advantage of greater control over life.  Pessimists expect bad outcomes so the worst thing can’t happen — being surprised by bad news.  The pessimist obtains a false sense of control by predicting every possible bad outcome.  Of course, they forget how often they are wrong.  So, when things don’t turn out as bad as predicted, they are blind to the joy they needlessly surrendered (and robbed from others).  It requires great effort for a pessimist to remember the times they predicted bad outcomes and got it wrong.  But their memory is water tight when they’ve gotten it right.  Selective memory deceives the pessimist into feeling they have more control, and wisdom, when in reality they merely have less joy.

Blame Shifting — The “Other people keep me down” response:  To be sure, it’s much harder to maintain a positive attitude when you are surrounded by rage-aholics and grumblers.  However, if you know any real optimists you’ll eventually see through this excuse.  Optimists have an invisible force field that shields them from other people’s negativity.  They refuse to surrender their joy without a fight.  Tell an optimist they should expect the worst and they will grow even more determined to prove you wrong.  Optimists take seriously their responsibility to maintain their joy.  They refuse to believe the worst prematurely.  But even when the worst happens, they rebound faster because they find hope and meaning in their suffering.

Resolved Indifference The “That’s just the way I am” response:  Some babies are born with a happy disposition as noticeable as their long eyelashes.  Others seem ill tempered from the cradle.  In Gross National Happiness Arthur Brooks summarizes decades of research and says that half of a person’s happiness is the product of nature.  He says the other half is a product of nurture.  How should you respond to such research?  Will you focus on the 50% that seemingly justifies a resolved indifference or will you focus on the 50% that encourages you to improve your happiness?  If people jump at investments that can increase their money by 20%, why wouldn’t they jump at the chance to increase happiness by 50%?

Which excuses have you used?  Are you ready to admit they are bad excuses, and let them go? Here’s my advice:

Consider if you are in denial.  Has more than one person reflected that you seem overly focused on negative things in your life?  Consider the possibility that you’re behaving like a pessimist, not a realist.  Focus on things that are good, right and lovely. Memorize Philippians 4:8.

Identify ways you justify a negative attitude.  Do you regularly seek ways to buffer yourself from potential bad outcomes.  Such behavior may protect you from being surprised by bad news, but have you considered the cost — joy often needlessly surrendered?  Only God can provide refuge sufficient to protect you from what you fear.  Investigate Jesus who lived, died and rose again to ensure no tragedy long endures.

Stop blaming others and take responsibility. Don’t give others the privilege or the power to steal your hope.  Only you can choose joy.  You must take responsibility for your attitude.  When St. Paul wrote his famous words, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength”, he was referring to God’s enabling power for contentment and joy despite tragic situations (Philippians 4: 11-13).

Be resolved to get help.  Make friends with an optimist.  Read several good books.  I recommend Streams in the Desert (Christian Devotional) and Learned Optimism (Secular Scientific). You may start out behind the pack, but you can catch up, and surpass the hopefulness of even natural born optimists.

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