Gospel Optimism: Daring to Hope in an Era of Despair

Reed JolleyCommunity News

Does anyone remember Apollo 11?  Do you remember July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong did what seemed impossible?  If you were alive then, do you remember how you felt when he took that one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind?  Just a few years earlier people had laughed when President Kennedy announced what we were going to do.  But now it was there—a footprint on the moon! The U.S. beat the Soviets! We conquered outer space and turned science fiction into science.  We walked on the moon!  Surely life was bound to get better! Surely the opportunities before us were endless. . . .

But, as Peggy Noonan observed in a recent essay, it was as if Columbus came to America and nobody followed.  The United States made five more manned moon landings, gathered some rocks, and then stayed home.  We shifted our emphasis from the adventure of going to the moon with Apollo to the monotony of circling the globe on the space shuttle.  Noonan continues:

The space program of the past 32 years unconsciously mirrored a change in American psychology. Once, we saw ourselves as a breakthrough people, a nation with a mission to push beyond ourselves. Now, in the age of soft narcissism, we just circle ourselves. Which is what the shuttle does: It is on an endless loop, going ‘round and ‘round and looking down at: us.

As we begin 2010, it seems we as a nation have looked in the mirror and grown tired of what we see.  Our visage is tarnished; our blemishes, obvious.  Optimism is in short supply; pessimism is the rage.  A cheery outlook about the future seems to be a relic from the 1990s.  Consider the polls:

In December a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll reported that 55 percent of Americans believe our country is on the wrong track.  Only 33 percent think we are going in the right direction.  In the same poll, 66 percent said they are not sure their children’s lives will be better than their own.  It seems everywhere we look we find reasons for wringing our hands: health care, job loss, Iran, Adam Lambert, deficit spending, $12 trillion of national debt, Tiger Woods, Iraq, Pakistan—Afghanistan—Iraq, North Korea, the stimulus package, the DJIA.

Definitely reasons for hand wringing! But for believers it should be different.  Some years ago, Ray Stedman wrote a book titled Authentic Christianity.   In it he said that the first mark of an authentic Christian faith is an unquenchable optimism about the future.  Believers are to be characterized by a hope and confidence that will carry them through the darkest of times.  Biblical examples abound.  Job clung to his hope even when his wife told him to curse God and die.  Jeremiah expressed his hope even when Jerusalem lay in ruins (Lamentations 3:21ff.).  Daniel’s friends expressed confidence in God even as they looked toward the furnace door they were about to be thrown through (Daniel 3).  A woman in Galilee believed that if she could only touch the cloak of Jesus, she would be healed of a disease she had suffered from for twelve years (Mark 5).  Paul and Silas sang songs after being beaten and shackled (Acts 16).  John proclaims the victory of God in the book of Revelation and sends that message to a church suffering the persecution of Emperor Domitian.

Now three thoughts as we begin a new year…  First, biblical optimism is compatible with suffering and grief.  Please don’t read this brief essay, cluck your tongue, and say, Why is it that there is no room for groaning and grieving in the evangelical church?  There is plenty of room. We are never called to paste a smile on our face when our spirit is in distress.  This side of the Second Coming, we will be a people of continual unfulfilled expectations and unrealized dreams. Our hearts have and will be broken.  As the apostle Paul says, we grieve, but not as others who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).  We grieve differently.  We suffer as people who know Resurrection hope and thus, with the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31, we canlaugh at the time to come.  Why?  Because we know the God who will have the last word over every grief we have experienced.

Second, our gospel hope will compel us to live for the future. Postmodern pessimism proffers bumper stickers saying, Spending my kid’s inheritance and He who dies with the most toys wins.  What if each of us put a bumper sticker on our heart that quoted Edwin Chapin, a nineteenth-century New England pastor, who said, Every action of our lives touches on some chord that will vibrate in eternity.  Chapin was correct: right now counts forever.  The biblical writers invite us to see every day from the perspective of eternity.  The vibrations will go on and on.  Abraham was not only going to be blessed by God, but his faith would also be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth (Genesis 12:1-3).  Moses regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward (Hebrews 11:26). Jesus says that we are to lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19ff).  Paul says even our eating and drinking are to be done to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31)!  Peter calls us strangers and aliens and urges us to live such exemplary lives that even the pagans will glorify God on the day he visits us(1 Peter 2:11).  As Mark Twain put it, Let us so live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.  Our actions and attitudes have eternal consequences.

Third, our gospel optimism will affect the way we think about death. I’ve made it a habit to read Puritan writers who lived in a world very unlike my own.  These men and women pursued Christ in a world without convenience, a world of religious persecution, a world where death could come at any moment.  Indeed, during the Puritan era (1550-1700), more than half of those born didn’t survive infancy, and more than half the adult population died young. But when we read the Puritans, we don’t find a morbid dread of death, but a Christian hope for heaven.

Jonathan Edwards, technically not a Puritan but often called one, made it the business of his life to prepare for heaven.  In 1753 he wrote to his daughter, Esther, when he heard news that she was seriously ill.  She was living in Newark, New Jersey, with her husband.  She was 150 miles from her parents in Massachusetts, an enormous distance in that era.  Fearing she might die from her sickness and that he might never see her again, Edwards wrote words that should inform the manner in which we live in our time and place:

God has now given you early and seasonable warning not at all to depend on worldly prosperity. Therefore I would advise . . . if it pleases God to restore you, to count on no happiness here.  Labour while you live, to serve God and do what good you can, and endeavour to improve every dispensation to God’s glory and your own spiritual good, and be content to do and bear all that God calls you to in this wilderness, and never expect to find this world any thing but a wilderness.  Lay your account to travel through it in weariness, painfulness, and trouble, and wait for your rest and your prosperity ‘till hereafter where they that die in the Lord rest from their labours, and enter into the joy of their Lord.  [It is infinitely important] to have the presence of an heavenly Father, and to make progress towards an heavenly home. Let us all take care that we meet there at last.

As we approach a new year and enter a new decade, we can find many reasons for despair, but our gospel optimism should be the last word.  At the end of the day, let us take care to improve every dispensation to God’s glory.  And as 2010 comes and goes, let us take care that we make progress towards our heavenly home.  Let us all take care that we meet there at last.