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Faith and Optimism
Positive Expectation in the Christian Life
  M. Blaine Smith ~ SilverCrest Books ~ 2011
(Formerly The Optimism Factor)
 
Chapter One
A Well-Founded Choice
 

Recently a friend of mine, Jennifer, reached an impasse in a relationship. She has dated Brad for over two years, with the hope of eventually marrying him. Yet they had a serious talk, and Brad conceded that even though they are both in their mid-thirties, he isn't ready yet for a lifetime commitment. While he didn't rule out the possibility at some future point, he knew he wasn't ready for marriage at this time.

Although Brad's response was far from a full-scale rejection, it flew like a mountain of sand in the face of Jennifer's expectations for the relationship and seemed to her like a death sentence. Worst of all, she felt cursed by the heavens. "I just don't understand the hand of God in this," she complained. "I've never been in a relationship where I've tried more diligently to honor God and follow his principles. And it seems that God has given me so many reasons for hope during the time I've dated Brad. But now it appears he has simply set me up to shoot me down. I just don't believe that God has dealt fairly with me."

Jennifer's feelings of discouragement are only too understandable. Disappointments in relationships are among the most painful experiences we suffer. There are few of us who wouldn't feel dejected in similar circumstances. Yet her hurt was intensified by the conclusions she reached about God's role in what happened. She read these circumstances to mean that God had turned against her; worse still, he was treating her unjustly.

I talk with many Christians who have fallen into an outlook similar to Jennifer's. They've concluded that God is unconcerned with helping them, even that he wishes to punish and harm them. Sometimes such thinking is merely temporary--part of the catharsis of coming to terms with a personal loss. Yet all too frequently it becomes an abiding way of interpreting what God is doing in their experience.

The tragedy is that when we conclude that God isn't treating us fairly in one situation, it's only a small jump to thinking he cannot be trusted with anything else. Optimism about our future fades, and we lose the courage to take steps of faith. I find this to be the state of affairs with numerous Christians today, even some with considerable doctrinal understanding. When it comes to considering the role of God in their lives, they get locked into pessimism.

Half-Empty or Half-Full?

There are exceptions, though, and some truly inspiring ones at that. Consider the experience another friend, Nelson, recently shared with me.

As Nelson was pulling into a parking space at his office in Washington, D.C., a rear tire dropped off of his car. Just one week before, while he was visiting his family in Illinois, an auto clinic had overhauled the axle. Now Nelson faced the unhappy prospect of hassling with a repair facility 600 miles away which had done shoddy work--and the likelihood of another costly repair here in Washington. Not to mention the aggravation and expense of finding transportation in the interim, since he was bereft of his only car.

Nelson's instinctive reaction was not anger but awe. "I was astounded to think that I had driven all the way from Illinois with a faulty axle and nothing happened," he said. "If it had snapped at high speed on an interstate, I could have been killed." He then added, almost as an afterthought, that he found it impossible to feel much anxiety over how he would afford another major repair. "The same God who protected my life in this incident will provide the money needed to fix my car," he explained.

Both Jennifer and Nelson experienced significant personal setbacks which led them to reflect about God's purpose in what had happened. But while Jennifer concluded that God had turned against her, Nelson assumed God had done him a favor. Their conclusions could hardly have been farther apart.

I should hasten to say that I do not condemn Jennifer for her reaction. She is making the effort to think things through from the standpoint of her relationship with Christ, and I admire her honesty. She is a new Christian, and with her openness to expressing honestly what she is thinking and feeling, she may well work things through to a more positive perspective.

Yet while I respect Jennifer's way of thinking, I envy Nelson's. His is the sort of intensely hopeful outlook which I long to characterize my own life and wish to hold out as a role model to others.

One reason I envy Nelson's manner of thinking is because I know the benefits this sort of outlook brings. When we're viewing God's work in our lives optimistically, we feel encouraged; our anxieties are lifted, we regain a sense of hope, we start seeing hidden serendipities in otherwise frustrating circumstances. Often, too, we see solutions to problems that seem insurmountable when we're thinking less optimistically.

The effects of this optimism spill over into many areas of our lives. Nelson's experience with the car has even had a positive effect on the way he looks at relationships. Though he recently went through a difficult breakup, he is viewing the situation positively now, convinced that God kept him from a lifetime commitment with someone who was not compatible with him. "I'm confident that a God who loves me this much will provide for my relationship needs too," he added. This confidence has spurred him to become more active socially, and he is seeing opportunities for relationships which he hadn't recognized before.

A Basis for Optimism

But while I envy Nelson's perspective because of its benefits, I admire it most of all because it seems to represent so well the attitude of heart which the Scriptures term faith. Throughout the Bible we are urged to view God and his involvement in our lives through the eyes of faith. Though the concept of faith is never defined precisely in Scripture, it always seems to imply optimism--even blazing optimism--about what God is doing in our experience. The basis for this optimism includes not only the facts of Christ's salvation, forgiveness and empowering, but also the fact of God's protection and provision in our lives individually. The Scriptures stress that he is working out a distinctive plan for each of us, with our best interests and his highest intentions in mind. To say the least, this is a basis for considerable optimism.

This isn't to say that optimism in Scripture knows no bounds. The Bible has plenty to say about the other side of the coin and never comes close to a "don't-worry-be-happy" philosophy. Grief has an important place and is even recommended when one is coming to terms with a major loss (Acts 8:2). We're warned against falling into unrealistic fantasies which keep us from taking proper responsibility for our lives (Judg 18:27; 2 Thess 3:6-13). And we're urged to respect the power of sin and to fear the inevitable consequences if we cave in to its enticements. The man who is considering an affair with someone else's wife will be served well by a healthy dose of pessimism (Prov 7:6-27). So will the woman who is convinced she can achieve salvation by her own efforts (Rom 3:23).

Still, when it comes to considering the work of God in our lives as Christians, the accent in Scripture is strongly on optimism. This optimism is at the heart of what the Bible means by faith.

Less Help Than We Need

One of my frustrations with the modern church is that so little teaching is directed at explaining what faith is. Paul declares that "faith comes from hearing" (Rom 10:17). Yet many churches teach extensively about doctrinal issues--matters of the faith--but little about what it means to have an attitude of faith. Some pastors and teachers fear that the area is simply too subjective for formal preaching and teaching. Other churches emphasize our responsibility as Christians to serve God yet give little attention to the spirit of faith which inspires good works.

Churches which do present regular teaching on faith often feature messages high on anecdotes and low on biblical content, which fail to address the questions that more thoughtful Christians raise. At the most unfortunate extreme are churches which emphasize positive thinking or--even worse--a "name-it-and-claim-it" philosophy. "Create your own reality by believing it can happen!" is what is proclaimed. These "what-you-believe-you-can-achieve" notions distort the biblical understanding of faith into a human tool for getting what you want through yanking God's chain. Thinking Christians usually see through the facade but are often left confused about what the relationship between faith and optimism actually is.

The absence of clear and constructive teaching on faith in many churches is unfortunate, for next to the triumph of grace, the importance of faith is the most significant and pervasive theme in the Bible. Scripture minces no words in stressing that faith is central to our ability to relate to God on every level. While we are saved by grace, it is grace through faith (Eph 2:8; Rom 3:22-25; Rom 5:1; Gal 3:26; 2 Tim 3:15). We are called not merely to obey God but to the obedience of faith (Rom 1:5; 16:26; Heb 11). It is through faith that we become righteous before God (Rom 3:22; Phil 3:9), enjoy a personal relationship with Christ (Eph 3:17), are enabled to pray effectively (Eph 3:12) and become able to understand otherwise puzzling matters of doctrine (Heb 11:3). We experience God's protection through faith (1 Pet 1:15) and put ourselves in position to enjoy all of the other benefits that he extends to us (Gal 3:22; Heb 6:12). Indeed, the writer of Hebrews states it most inclusively in saying, "Without faith it is impossible to please God" (Heb 11:6).

Given the extraordinary extent to which Scripture extols faith and our need for it, it is important for us as Christians to give close and frequent attention to what an attitude of faith is and to whether our life is reflecting it. Far too often our instinctive reaction to challenges is like Jennifer's rather than Nelson's. We each have an ongoing, chronic and desperate need for the rekindling of our faith and for experiencing the optimism which faith inspires.

Where We're Heading

My hope in writing this book is to make a contribution to that process. One thing I want to do is consider specifically what a perspective of faith involves. In the next chapter we will consider four outlooks which are central to the biblical attitude of faith. Then in Part Two we'll look at each of them in more detail.

In Part Three we'll consider steps we can take to keep a perspective of faith strong, once we understand what it is.

In Part Four we'll look at the fascinating area of God's miraculous intervention in our lives and suggest what it means to have a reasonable expectation of the miraculous. Few areas help more to bolster our faith.

Then in the remaining three sections we will consider how a faith perspective applies to some major areas of life: rebounding from disappointment, gaining focus for steps of faith and confronting the fears of change which hold us back from God's best.

Though many other topics could be considered in a study of this sort, I've chosen some which relate to areas where Christians struggle most frequently today. As I think is obvious from the menu of topics, my concern is not with examining Christian doctrine per se, but with considering how we should view our life experience from the standpoint of faith. That area alone will give us more than enough concerns for one book.

My purpose in this book is not only to consider what faith is but to encourage faith. Each chapter is written both to add something to our understanding of faith and as a meditation to inspire faith. I believe you will derive the greatest benefit from these chapters if you read them reflectively. Take some time after each one to consider its biblical insights and whether they touch a point of need in your own life. Is there a way in which your outlook on God and his role in your life needs to be adjusted? Ask God for the grace to see that area from the standpoint of faith and to have a more abiding perspective of faith at that point.

My earnest hope is that God will use these reflections to help you see your life more consistently with the eyes of faith. May the Lord bless you richly as you read.

Transferable Faith

One further thought before we move ahead. Nelson reached his impressive convictions of faith by following a simple line of reasoning: If God has proven trustworthy in one circumstance, he can be trusted in another. I am certain that this ability to transfer the lessons learned from one experience to another is at the heart of all successful living.

It's the basis for the counsel offered by Richard Bolles in his classic job-seeking manual, What Color Is Your Parachute?. Bolles urges us to see our skills as "transferable." If you've been successful as a waiter, for instance, you've learned abilities which can be employed in more challenging situations. You've developed interpersonal and communication skills which could be used in management or teaching positions.

Just as we need to see our talents as transferable, we also should regard our experiences of faith as being so. We should strive to remember the lessons learned about God's faithfulness in one situation and apply them in new circumstances. While this may seem to be an elementary point, it's not at all natural for us to think in this way. Consider that on numerous occasions Jesus had to re-teach his disciples lessons they had already learned and should have been applying in new situations.

On the positive side, David is an inspiring example of how the lessons of faith can be transferred from one situation to another in his decision to fight Goliath. He assumed that God would give him success because of the protection he had experienced in shepherding. "The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine," David concluded (1 Sam 17:37).

This is the manner of thinking we need to apply to all the challenges we face. This is the sort of thinking that's at the heart of authentic faith. For each of us it boils down to an exceedingly encouraging point: The same God who has supported us in the past, who met the needs of those in Scripture, who faithfully takes care of so many people whom we know--this same God will protect us in all our challenges and provide for us as we take steps of faith. There is scarcely a more significant thought we can grasp than this. Let us take great encouragement from it and be inspired to live courageously.

Excerpt taken from The Optimism Factor by M. Blaine Smith. Copyright 1994 by M. Blaine Smith. Used on this Web site with permission from InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515 USA. Not intended for multiple copies.

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