REALISTIC HOPE IN PESSIMISTIC TIMES
Taking up residence in the house of faith
by Jan Johnson
Mike and Gina were disappointed. They'd planned to buy their
"dream house," but their loan fell through. They continued to
search and found a home, but it was nothing like their first
choice. They decided to make the best of it and see what
happened. Shortly after they moved in, Mike and Gina discovered
several advantages this "rebound home" had over their first
choice. With the financial decline, the other house would have
lost a lot of its worth and the payments would have been too
steep. Mike and Gina were actually grateful their original plan
did not work out. They could change their attitude quickly
because they didn't let their expectations ruin the idea that God
can bring good through anything.
This steadiness of purpose is difficult to attain. Instead
it's easier to choose either bleak despair ("Nothing works for
me") or blind optimism ("I know everything will work out"). Often
we shift back and forth between the two extremes.
But how do we move away from riding that seesaw of
despair/idealism to maintaining an outlook that sees beyond our
day-to-day circumstances and roller-coaster emotions? How do we
move from living in the house of fear to the house of faith? Here
are some ways to begin.
Moving to faith
Expect problems to occur. Accepting and even expecting life
to be full of challenges keeps us from sliding into despair when
trouble strikes. Often it's the sting of the surprise that stuns
us. Peter warned the early Christians, "Dear friends, do not be
surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though
something strange were happening to you" (1 Peter 4:12). When
we're surprised by problems, it intensifies our pain. We're
caught off guard by good friends who reject us, marriages that
fail, and trusted leaders who lose their tempers. Our naivete
causes our high expectations to undo us.
Sometimes in an effort to witness, Christians promise people
an unrealistically happy life if they trust Christ. We talk about
the fruit of the Spirit as if it's a package that arrives on the
day of their conversion. This isn't what God promises; God
promises to walk with us through the dark valleys, not eliminate
Consider the merits of change
We find change threatening. Even positive changes, such as
marriage or purchasing a new home, increase stress.
The life of Ruth would have scored high on any stress test.
After her husband died, she followed her Hebrew mother-in-law to
faraway Judah. Before the move, Ruth had weighed the positive and
negative aspects of her leave-taking. She watched her
sister-in-law Orpah decide to stay in Moab, but she seems to have
asked herself why that would be any better. If Ruth went with
Naomi, she'd face many challenges, but at least she'd have
Naomi's companionship and ideals: "Where you go I will go, and
where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and
your God my God" (Ruth 1:16b).
Because of her openness to change, Ruth adjusted relatively
well to life in Judah. She gleaned in the fields with the poor
and then followed Naomi's advice in winning the admiration of
Boaz, who later became her husband (2:2,3; 3:1-18).
Considering the positive and negative aspects of a specific
change can give us the fresh perspective we need to continue.
What is the upside of the supposed wrong decision? Why might the
supposed good decision not be so great after all? We could even
see how the change might be good and might open
opportunities we would otherwise miss.
Adopt a spirit of determination
A favorite Bible verse that people quote is "I can do all
things through Christ who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13,
NKJV). Usually it's quoted to justify wearing ourselves out and
avoiding proper rest, which ignores the context.
From a dirty prison cell, the jailed scholar Paul summarized
his approach to life:
I have learned the secret of being content in any and every
situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in
plenty or in want. I can do everything through [Christ] who
gives me strength (vv.12,13).
Paul's determination to preach the Christian faith to the
Roman world was not dampened by the fact that he was chained to a
Roman guard. Other people may have thought that his work was on
hold while he sat in jail, but Paul seemed to conclude that he
was simply preaching to a new audience of Roman soldiers.
Feed on positive thoughts.
Another astounding mindset of Paul was a focus on what was
wise and good and lovely. Again, from his prison cell, he
encouraged the Philippians to fill their minds by meditating "on
things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious -
the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to
praise, not things to curse" (v.8, The Message).
Paul wasn't proposing an unrealistic "Don't worry - be
happy" approach. In the same letter he mentioned problems caused
by a dispute between two people (v.2). He acknowledged problems
and suggested solutions, but advised us to focus on the best
things around us.
To maintain a positive focus
I keep what a friend calls my "foot warmer" file. It
includes congratulatory cards, thank you notes, and words of
encouragement that celebrate how God can work through an ordinary
person like me. They warm my spirit just as thick socks warm my
feet on a cold night.
One of my "foot warmers" is the impressive business card of
a young man I taught in Bible school many years ago. Then he was
a shy, disinterested high school student on the fringes of
gang activity. All those encouraging words, pats on the back, and
sluggish conversations over the years eventually paid off. When I
need to focus on positive aspects of my ministry, I look at this
Stay open to the unknown factor
Circumstances may cause us to make comments such as "That
friend ignored me" or "I just need to change jobs." But later we
discover that our friend didn't even see us and that our
overbearing boss is being replaced. There's so much we don't
know. Even when we think we know, God might be working behind the
scenes. Just as "There is a way that seems right to a man, but in
the end it leads to death" (Proverbs 14:12), there is often a way
that seems wrong to a person, but its end is the way of life. A
lot of what we do is guesses and hunches. We do better when we
humbly move ahead a step at a time, listening for guidance and
being open to things we have no knowledge or understanding about.
Depending on God runs counter to our culture that trains us to
manage time, form goals, and map out strategies. While organizing
our lives is good, we can keep our minds open that God "leads me
in the paths of righteousness" (Psalm 23:3, NKJV) - not
necessarily telling us the destination, but inviting us to follow
along and usually helping us see only the next step.
Realism and Optimism
All these attitudes support each other. When we face
challenges, it's time to feed on positive thoughts. When a change
seems untimely, we rely on the unknown factor.
Jesus alluded to this combined approach by saying, "Be as
shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16). Armed
with this shrewd realism and innocent optimism, we will neither
ignore problems nor become consumed by them. We may even decide
they were just what we needed to move forward.
Jan Johnson writes from Simi, CA. All Scripture quotations are
taken from the New International Version, unless otherwise noted.
Scripture quotation noted "The Message" taken from "The Message."
From "The Bible Advocate" - January/February 2010 - a publication
of The Church of God, Seventh Day, Denver, CO. USA.