July 15, 2010
 Finding Answers to Impossible Problems
How God Uses the Faith and
Optimism of Others to Help Us
    
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When the Sons of Thunder were close to disbanding, they faced a financial crisis. During the previous year this Christian music group that I directed had accumulated a debt of $5,000. Though that doesn’t sound like much by today’s standards, to us young folks in 1974 it might as well have been $5,000,000. We wracked our brains in band meetings but couldn’t figure any way out short of bankruptcy.

Things changed dramatically when a friend with a gift for thinking optimistically came and gave us a pep talk. While he didn’t offer any specific solution, he said he was certain that we had the resources to solve this problem. He knew that, with Christ’s help, there were steps we could take to do it.

That was both a comforting and challenging thought, and it took well with us. Our discussions took on a more positive tone after that, and within a short time we arrived at a plan: We would invite former band members to join us for a farewell-reunion concert and sell tickets. In addition, we would let concerned friends know of our need, hoping some would help with donations. Though only two months remained to pull these details together, we felt determined to give it our best.

The Lord blessed our efforts immensely. The concert was surprisingly successful, contributions came in, and in the end we raised almost exactly the amount needed to pay off our debt. While there were many miracles to celebrate, the greatest was that God through one optimistic friend got us thinking hopefully and with minds of faith about our situation. We had practically convinced ourselves that our predicament had no solution. Once we began thinking constructively, an answer quickly came.

I had a similar experience several years later, when I again benefited from the optimism of a positive-thinking friend. Our family was living in a townhouse, and my office was in the basement. Because an open stairway connected the basement and the first floor, I was often distracted by noise from upstairs. The obvious solution would be to install a door. Yet since the stairway had an open, expansive design, I couldn’t think of any logical way to fit a door into the wide space at the top or bottom of the stairs. I’m embarrassed to admit how much time I spent mulling the problem over, trying to come up with a workable design. I concluded there was no solution short of a major modification to the stairway, which would violate the community’s architectural standards and be too expensive to undertake.

One evening, though, I shared my dilemma at a Bible study. A man whom I respected for his constructive approach to problems responded that he was sure there would be an easy way to install a door. His confidence inspired me, and I thought, He’s right, there must be a way to do it. The next day it dawned on me that I could insert a door at the landing point where the stairway turned halfway down; since the stairwell was more enclosed there, this was an easy modification to make.

The solution was, in fact, so obvious and simple that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before. I had been locked into thinking that a door would have to be placed at the top or bottom of the staircase. Only when I began thinking optimistically did it occur to me that there was another alternative--to install it in the middle. And this was the solution that worked.

Optimism and Faith

It may not seem profound to say that our attitude affects our approach to challenges. In a general way we all recognize this to be true. Yet most of the time we fail to appreciate the extent to which this is true. Our pessimism can literally shut down our creative energy for solving a problem. Even more typically, it channels that energy in the wrong direction. When a problem seems difficult, we can be incredibly clever at convincing ourselves it has no solution. Once we reach that conclusion, we interpret all the evidence we see as proof we’re correct--that the problem is indeed beyond hope. Having established that, we can overlook obvious solutions which may be staring us in the face.

When we are able to make that extraordinary shift to thinking optimistically, however, it’s remarkable how quickly we sometimes find a way to remedy our predicament. In some cases, we’re astonished at how obvious the solution actually is.

Yet reaching this point of optimism can be no small challenge. When faced with a difficult problem, we more typically fall into a pessimistic manner of thinking about it, often without realizing this is happening.

My experiences particularly bring to mind how others’ attitudes affect our own. We are creatures of suggestion, and we easily and unconsciously absorb the positive or negative outlooks of those around us.

We see fascinating examples of both types of influence occurring throughout Scripture. It’s interesting, for instance, how frequently in Scripture individuals manage to convince one another that a situation is hopeless even though God sees it in a very different light. The spies whom Moses sent to Canaan are a classic example of how this negative “groupthink” occurs (Num 13). Even though God had promised that Israel would conquer Canaan (Num 13:1), ten of the twelve spies sent to investigate the land concluded that the obstacles to success were simply too great. We sense that these men, as brilliant as they were, used their intelligence to convince each other that the mission would be too difficult for them. In effect they talked themselves out of faith.

A similar example is the occasion when Jesus’ disciples were in a boat with him, desperately concerned about where their next meal was coming from. Mark notes that they discussed the fact that they had no bread, and Jesus then upbraided them for their lack of faith (Mk 8:16-21). What is striking is that the disciples actually did have a loaf of bread with them (v. 14); even more astounding is that they had helped Jesus feed a crowd of thousands with only a few loaves and fish earlier that same day (Mk 8:1-9). They failed, though, to notice the one loaf they had in the boat--let alone to consider what the power of Jesus could do to multiply it. Their discussion only served to strengthen their pessimism about his capacity to meet their needs.

While examples like these abound in Scripture, there are many positive ones as well, where one person’s optimism inspires another’s. One of my favorites is the story of Lamech and Noah. Genesis records only one significant fact about Lamech, Noah’s father: after Noah’s birth, he declared, “[Noah] will comfort us in the labor and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the LORD has cursed” (Gen 5:29 NIV). Since this is the one notable detail the Holy Spirit chose to record about Lamech, I assume it describes his prevailing attitude toward his son. Lamech apparently had an exceptionally high level of confidence in Noah’s integrity and creative ability. He undoubtedly was one who constantly told his son, “You can do it!”

Whatever else we conclude about Noah, he was clearly a skilled problem solver. His creative ingenuity was remarkable. The logistical complexities of building the ark and organizing its mission would have been monumental. While God gave Noah many instructions, there is no evidence that he directly revealed all the details of the project to him. It appears, rather, that he left Noah with many problems to resolve on his own. Yet all of the evidence suggests that he successfully tackled each of these challenges and never concluded that any was too difficult.

Noah certainly benefited from his father’s high expectations of him. Lamech’s conviction that his son would make a difference helped give Noah the courage to tackle problems which most would have thought insurmountable.

Positive Influences

The lesson is clear: we desperately need the influence of optimistic people, and those with strong, contagious faith, in our lives. In my own life there have been so many instances, like the two I’ve mentioned, where a single individual inspired me to think hopefully about a situation which I thought was at a dead end. While that person may not have given me a solution to my problem, he or she inspired enough optimism that I was able to open my eyes and see a solution that in some cases was only too obvious.

We need to accept how vastly influential the power of suggestion is in our lives. As Christian psychiatrist Paul Tournier points out in his classic The Person Reborn, our suggestibility is not in itself a weakness but is part of the humanity God has put within us. Our need, Tournier notes, is not to avoid situations which affect our suggestible nature, but to place ourselves in those where the most redemptive “suggestions” occur. This is a vital point to keep in mind as we plan our activities with people.*

Each of us will benefit greatly from having at least one friend who is a supreme optimist, who believes the best for us and has a special knack for encouraging us when our world looks bleak. It helps especially if this person has strong faith in Christ, which rubs off on us as well. If we don’t have such a friendship, we should pray earnestly that Christ will provide it, and we should take what steps we can to find it. If we have the good fortune to gain such a friend, we should give high priority to spending time with this person and benefiting from his or her positive outlook.

In addition, we should take advantage of the affirmation that comes through more indirect means, such as books, articles, teachers, preachers and media personalities.

Last, but far from least, we need to structure our daily devotional time in a way that allows Christ to breathe his optimism and encouragement into our life. Yes, we need to study the whole of Scripture and focus on both the love and justice of God. Yet we should give emphasis to the triumphant themes of Scripture: God’s grace, which is greater than our sin; his adequacy, which is more powerful than our inadequacy; his guidance, which overrules our confusion and waywardness. It helps especially to spend time in silent reflection, dwelling on God’s goodness and recounting his blessings in our life. It is worth letting more busy aspects of our quiet time go in order for this to happen.

Each of us needs a heavy and frequent dose of optimism. Keeping our hearts cheerful and hopeful is not just good stress management but foundational to faith in Christ. I’m certain it’s a vital part of the good soil which Christ speaks of in the parable of the sower, which gives harvest to the seed of faith (Mt 13:3-9).

We must simply keep in mind the role others play in keeping the soil fertile. Here the truth of the ancient adage always applies: “Choose your friends wisely.”
  

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This article is adapted from chapter 9 of Blaine's The Optimism Factor: Outrageous Faith Against the Odds (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1994.

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