July 15, 2000
 Learning Optimism
The Role of
Positive Expectation
In the Christian Life
    
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After my father-in-law, Glenn Kirkland, lost his wife of forty-six years, Grace, to Alzheimer's disease, he decided to open himself to getting married again. While finding a suitable spouse is no small challenge for anyone, it is a particularly daunting one for a retired man of seventy-one.

Yet Glenn took the important step of getting socially active again. He began attending a Bible study and joined the large choir at Fourth Presbyterian Church. And from time to time he took initiative, asking a woman to have dinner with him.

Glenn's first effort at a relationship did not get beyond a dinner date or two. But then he met Barbara Nielson, a psychologist who had recently joined the church and become active in the choir. Things blossomed between them and after several months of courtship they married. Their relationship is a gem and has brought a new lease on life to both of them in many ways.

I believe there are a number of reasons that account for Glenn and Barbara's finding each other. At the top of the list is the grace of God, working to bring them together and to convince them of the benefit of marrying. Yet Glenn's optimism also played a vital role and put him in position to receive this gift of God. His belief that he could find someone to marry led him to do the very things which allowed God's provision. The same is true for Barbara: her optimism and sense of adventure positioned her to meet Glenn as well.

I talk with many Christians who would dearly like to be married, or to realize some other significant goal, yet are convinced their prospects for success are nil. Their fear of failure is so pervasive that it blocks them from making even the first efforts, and so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Many of us can benefit from making a concerted effort to tame our fear of failure. We need a clear perspective for confronting our fears and for answering those internal messages which keep announcing, "This is impossible."

Such a perspective should accomplish two things for us. First, it should give us a reasonable hope for success. Having this hope is vital if we're to find the incentive to begin moving toward our goal. Second, it should give us a healthy attitude toward failure itself. Failure is seldom the monster it pretends to be; indeed, it has its positive side. Appreciating this fact helps us feel more comfortable in the face of taking risks.

A Basis for Hope

When our fears of failure are strong, we need first and foremost to remind ourselves that our apprehensions may not be in line with reality. The possibility is very real that we will not fail. I personally find it helpful to reflect on past experiences when my expectations of doom were not fulfilled. If my predictions of failure were wrong in these cases, they are probably wrong now.

Once we have carefully and prayerfully decided upon a particular course of action, we should remind ourselves, "I'm not going to expect failure here. It's not a sure thing that I'm going to fail. It's very possible I will succeed!" Call this positive thinking, if you will. The point comes where it's an essential attitude for the Christian.

What I'm recommending, though, differs from popular ideas about positive thinking in two important ways. First, I'm not suggesting that we should blindly anticipate success even when there is no basis in fact for expecting it. Our expectation should be based on a good analysis of all the facts we have and our best understanding of what God wants us to do. Second, I'm not recommending that we should ever assume that success is guaranteed beyond all question. We must always leave room for the fact that we don't know the mind of God for our future. His timetable, as well as his definition of success, may be different from ours.

With these cautions in mind, we still have strong reason for hope in the major steps we take. We have a sound basis for believing that success is a good probability. It's right and proper and healthy for us to be substantially optimistic. This optimism is vital for at least three reasons:

1. Optimism gives credit to the power of God. God is at work behind the scenes in our lives in unfathomable ways for our good. He desires our very best. He isn't our adversary but our friend. As a general principle he desires our success in life, not our failure. A continuing attitude of pessimism shows that underneath I believe that God is against me, not for me. An optimistic spirit grants that God can work in a multitude of ways, including many I have never fathomed, to bring about a positive outcome.

Consider that there are only eight instances in the Gospels where Jesus commends the faith of an individual--that is, where he directly compliments someone's faith. In each of these cases, the faith which impressed Jesus had nothing to do with doctrinal belief; it was a supremely optimistic spirit.

In six of these incidents, individuals expected Jesus to perform a healing miracle for them or for someone else (Mk 5:24-34, Mk 10:46-52, Mk 2:1-12, Mt 15:21-28, Lk 17:11-19, Mt 8:5-13). Their expectation was not based on blind faith, for they had all seen or heard of Jesus performing similar miracles. Still they held to their faith in spite of many factors which might have discouraged them.

The woman with the hemorrhage, for instance, had been told by doctors for twelve years that she couldn't be healed; blind Bartimaeus was told by the crowd to stop calling for Jesus; the four men who brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus had to lower him through a tiled roof to get through the crowd. In each instance, individuals through their optimism showed a respect for the power of God which was above and beyond the ordinary. It accents the fact that we honor Christ through an optimistic spirit.

2. Optimism shows respect for the ability of judgment which God gives us. Scripture warns us against trusting in our own understanding (Prov 3:5-6). Yet it also tells us that we who have been born again have "the mind of Christ" (1 Cor 2:16). This means that God has given us the capacity for sensible judgment. As we take pains to think through a choice carefully, and do so with prayer and respect for God's will, Christ leads us to a sound decision.

Indeed, part of having faith as a Christian is trusting that Christ will enable me to make good decisions. When I'm confident of having made a good decision, I'm naturally confident that the outcome will be positive. Optimism, then, reflects my conviction that God is guiding my decision process.

3. Optimism contributes to my success. Time and again, experiments in the social sciences have shown that the expectation of success has a significant impact upon actual achievement. When I'm confident of reaching a goal, I'm inspired to work harder to get to it, and I'm more alert to opportunities which will help me move toward it. Also, my confidence inspires others to act in ways that help me reach my goal. I'm not suggesting that we ever should purposely manipulate others against their will to further our own purposes. But if I'm working toward a goal which Christ has inspired within me, then I'll best allow him to motivate others to help me when my attitude is optimistic.

By the same token, when we expect failure, we easily and subtly end up doing the very things which bring it about. The servant who hid his talent is a classic example. He was so afraid of a negative outcome that he did the very thing that would bring about his downfall (Mt 25:14-30). It was the optimistic servants who invested their talents and realized both success and the praise of their master. We should realize that for Christians optimism is not only okay but desirable when taking major steps. This is part of what faith is about. When we have taken reasonable steps to make a careful decision, we should also take reasonable steps to keep our heart expectant as we work toward our goal. If we need to exercise some thought control, we should do so. We shouldn't regard this as falsely "psyching ourselves up" but as good stewardship of our mental process.

We should confront the fear of failure with constant reminders that God desires our best and that we have good reason to be hopeful of reaching our goal.

The Positive Side of Failure

Yes, we fear failure. But the bite of a fear is remarkably lessened once we're persuaded that even if the worst occurred it wouldn't be so bad after all. There are actually significant benefits which failure can bring to us. Understanding these will not only reduce our anxiety about it but also give us fresh heart to try again if disappointment does occur.

While we shouldn't court failure or overtly desire it, neither should we harbor unreasonable apprehensions about it. It's these fears which stifle us from taking steps of faith. We can find the courage to take these steps once we realize that even if failure should occur, we will still benefit from the experience and be better off than if we had simply sat still.

In reality, failure not only helps us grow in important ways but contributes to our long-range experience of success, when we know how to accept it and appropriate its benefits. There are at least three ways in which this can happen:

1. Through failure we learn how to be successful. The most obvious benefit of failure is that through it our experience grows. Through a hands-on experience we learn in a most authentic way how not to do something. Lessons gleaned from experience generally stick with us much better and are much more beneficial than those merely learned academically. If we apply what we have learned to our future experience, our possibility of success is increased significantly.

Most of us, if we'll look honestly at our lives, will admit that certain hard experiences have done much to teach us and equip us for the quality of life we now live. Failures in relationships have taught us how to relate to people better. Failures in academic and work experiences have taught us how to approach certain types of work more effectively. Failures in parenting have taught us how to better encourage and guide our children. Business failures have given us a wiser approach to investments. Moral and spiritual defeat has taught us how to draw more fully on the power of Christ. Through all of these experiences we have come to understand our own gifts, strengths and weaknesses better, and that in turn has given us a more confident grasp of God's direction in our life.

These experiences can benefit us if we can take them in the right spirit. Some discouragement is normal when failure and disappointment come, and we need to allow ourselves the freedom to grieve significant losses and setbacks. Yet the point comes where we need to begin to take a more positive look at our failure and see what beneficial lessons can be gained from it. The danger is that we get paralyzed by our failure. We assume that failure once means failure forever. We conclude that God is against us and has shown us our fate through this unhappy experience. We lose the courage to try again.

At such times we must put into practice everything we know about the creative power of God. He is telling us to learn what we can from our failure and move on. And so often when we do, we find that vital growth has come through the experience which could not have come any other way. A friend of mine has put it simply, that one of our main concerns in life should be to learn to be a "successful failure."

Again, this principle will serve us well not only in the face of actual failure but as we anticipate the risks involved in taking a step of faith. Even if failure comes, it may provide a vital growth experience, which contributes toward our future success in significant ways. The fear of failure is reduced when we come to appreciate this important benefit.

2. Failure can carry a success of its own. A second point to remember is that experiences which we initially perceive to be failures sometimes in the end turn out to be successes. We find we called the shots wrong.

Christian psychiatrist Paul Tournier writes about one of his most humiliating experiences, which occurred when he was giving a talk at a university:

I felt right from the first word that I was not going to make contact with my audience. I clung to my notes and laboriously recited, with growing nervousness, what I had to say. As the audience left I could see my friends slipping hurriedly away. . . . On the way home in my car with my wife, I burst into tears.*

The next day a professor of philosophy phoned him and said that the talk was indeed the worst he had ever heard. But he added that while he had sat through numerous erudite lectures in his lifetime which had left no impression on him, somehow he was drawn to Tournier. A lasting friendship between the two developed, which resulted in the professor's coming to Christ. Tournier now looks back upon that discouraging lecture as one of the great successes of his life.

Tournier's experience reminds us that failure can have more than just educational value. The failure may in fact be a success which we don't yet recognize. There are times when we fail to live up to our own expectations but fulfill God's quite well. The experience we perceive to be a failure may indeed be a success in his mind, contributing in a most positive way to our future and to his intentions for our life. God understands success much better than we do.

Tournier's experience also brings out how God honors our honest efforts at success, often in ways that go considerably beyond our initial perceptions. It's fitting, too, to reflect here on the experience of Jesus himself. His brief mission to earth was judged at the end by friends and foes alike to have failed. Today we know it was the greatest victory of all time. It stands forth as an example of God's capacity to bring success out of apparent failure.

3. It sometimes takes a certain number of failures to bring about a success. The final benefit of failure we need to look at is more mystical and difficult to pin down. Yet it's no less important to understand. There seems to be a law in human life that success comes about only through a number of earnest attempts. It sometimes takes a number of failures to breed a success. It is the principle of sowing seeds which is talked about so frequently in Scripture. Some seeds take root while others do not, for reasons we never fully understand. Yet the greater the number sown, the greater the likelihood of a rich harvest. Thus, Scripture declares,

As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother's womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things. Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let not your hands be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well. (Eccles 11:5-6)

Sometimes failure does mean we've made mistakes. As we examine our experience we discover what we did wrong and how to avoid these errors in the future. We learn from our failure and grow through it. Yet in other cases we are not able to discern clear mistakes. Our failure seems to have come about in spite of our doing everything right. At such times we are especially prone to self-disparagement, for the evidence seems to suggest that God has cast the lots against us. We become fatalistic and conclude that God doesn't want us to succeed in this particular area. We lose the courage to try again.

The fact is we don't know the mind of God. Usually we have very little basis for judging whether he is punishing us through a failure or not. The possibility is just as real that the failure suggests only that God's time for success has not yet come for us. By the principle of sowing seeds, success isn't less likely now, but more so! If we'll simply keep casting the seeds, eventually one will take root. It's fair to think of this, too, as a principle of compensation. Failure with one try is compensated for by success with another.

Genesis records a time when Isaac and his servants made three attempts to dig for water in the valley of Gerar (Gen 26:19-22). After each of the first two, native herdsmen quarreled with them over property rights, and Isaac's men had to abandon the wells after all the hard work of digging them. But the third time they were successful and there was no resistance. Isaac named the well Rehoboth ("a broad place"), declaring, "Now the LORD has given us room and we will flourish in the land." Less hardy souls would have given up after the first or second attempt, saying "God doesn't intend that I succeed."

The principle of sowing seeds seems to be an aspect of God's common grace, a means of his dealing with all people, and one which touches humanity at all points of pursuit. In In Search of Excellence, Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman note that repeated effort is one of the most common keys to success among notable businesses. The oil companies that are most successful in discovering oil, for instance, are not the ones with the best equipment or the most intelligent personnel but the ones who dig the most wells! Persistence is the factor which separates successful firms from unsuccessful ones.*

Yet the principle is also one that applies to the Christian's walk of faith. Even a man as spiritually mature as the apostle Paul at times had to make several bungled attempts before he finally experienced a successful opening to use his gifts for Christ (Acts 16:6-10).

Of the principles of success and failure which we're considering, this is perhaps the most important to keep in mind in reference to romantic relationships. I have counseled with many older singles who have gone through several disappointments are now ready to throw in the towel. They are convinced that their chances of marrying are nonexistent and that failures in the past must prove that God hasn't cut them out for marriage. Seldom do I believe that this conclusion is justified. In the immensely complex world of romantic relationships, the chemistry which doesn't work in one case may do so wonderfully and surprisingly in another.

God's timetable with each of us is remarkably different, and we shouldn't assume that disappointment in the past means we're doomed to disappointment forever. There may be lessons to be learned from past experience. But in many cases the failure of romance to flourish simply means that the compatibility factors were not right, and nothing you could have done would have changed that. In another relationship the mix of factors will be different and compatibility may be much more natural.

When disappointment in romance comes we should, to be sure, pray that God will give us a heart to accept our present situation joyfully. But praying for acceptance of the present is not incompatible with praying for change in the future. If the desire for marriage continues to be strong, you should be honest in expressing it to God and continue to be hopeful that the opportunity will come about.

In romance, and in other areas too, we need to be careful not to fall into a fatalistic mentality about the future due to past failure. Particularly when there are no clear lessons to be learned from failure, the principle of casting seeds suggests that we should stay hopeful. Failure in the past may just as well indicate we are now in line for a victory as anything! The important thing is not to lose heart. We must not close the door in any area of our life before God is ready to do so.
   

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This article is adapted from chapter fifteen of Blaine's Overcoming Shyness (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993).

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