Realistic Optimism by Tony Cooke

Realistic Optimism
Tony Cooke

I recently submitted the manuscript of a brand new book – Through the Storms: Help from Heaven When All Hell Breaks Loose – to the publisher. This book will be available in late June. Chapter titles include:

1. Can’t I Just Have a Trouble-Free Life?
2. Jonah’s Storm
3. The Storm of the Disciples
4. Paul’s Storm
5. The Storms Within
6. It’s About the Destination
7. The Four Wheel Drive Christian
8. Can I Avoid at Least Some Problems?
9. Becoming a Storm Chaser
10. Suffering and the Will of God

We’re designing this material not only for individual reading, but for small group study as well. The end of each chapter has six discussion questions, and I’ll be doing a fifteen minute DVD lesson to accompany each chapter as well.

The teaching that follows is an excerpt from Through the Storms: Help from Heaven When All Hell Breaks Loose.

Realistic OptimismPsalm 34:19 says, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all.”

Perhaps there is something in all of us that really desires utopia—a perfect life free from any inconveniences or anything that is uncomfortable or unpleasant. Who wouldn’t like a perfect life, perfect marriage, perfect kids, perfect job, perfect church, and perfect friends? Perhaps hyper-idealism causes us to read the Bible selectively, filtering out the parts we don’t want to hear, and only focusing on those parts of Scripture that promise what we want. Perhaps this sense of denial (ignoring Scriptures we deem negative) is really based on fear, and the misbelief that I can somehow control absolutely everything and every outcome in this world.

Have you ever had the following type of thought? “If I can just do everything perfect… make the right decision and do the right thing 100% of the time, then I’ll never have a problem.” There’s only been one person in all of human history that has done everything perfect, who never sinned or made a mistake, who made the right decision and did the right thing 100% of the time; His name is Jesus. So, did he have a trouble-free life? Hardly.

  1. God sends His Son to the earth, and the first thing an evil king does is to put out a “hit” on Him. An assassination squad attempted to kill Jesus while He still a small child.
  2. Mark’s gospel gives this interesting perspective on how Jesus’ own natural family perceived Him. “And when those who belonged to Him (His kinsmen) heard it, they went out to take Him by force, for they kept saying, He is out of His mind (beside Himself, deranged)!” (Mark 3:21, AMP).
  3. Jesus was reviled, hated, despised, and accused of being a blasphemer, etc. On various occasions, people tried to kill Him.
  4. His close friends argued frequently. One of his associates eventually betrayed him and committed suicide.
  5. Eventually, He was crucified.

Recognizing these facts will pretty much ruin anyone’s plans to avoid problems in life through means of personal perfection. In my younger years, I didn’t care too much for it when I heard a respected spiritual leader make the comment, “The crises of life come to us all.” Nor did I care for it when another minister wrote a book called “Ready or Not, Here Comes Trouble.” Wishful thinking—based on hyper-idealism—says, “I will never have a problem.”  Faith—based on the reality of God’s word—says, “I may face problems, but my God is greater than any problem, and He will see me through.”

The Bible teaches us to be realistically optimistic. If we are optimistic without being grounded in reality, we can easily become a Pollyanna—naive, unrealistic, and with our head in the clouds. If we are realistic without being optimistic, we can easily end up jaded, cynical, pessimistic, and even fatalistic. Being realistically optimistic is consistent with Jesus’ admonition to his disciples to, “…be as clever as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16, NCV).

Let’s look at this idea of realistic optimism when it comes to marriage. Billy Graham said, “For a married couple to expect perfection in each other is unrealistic.” The Apostle Paul was even more blunt when he said, “…those who marry will face many troubles in this life…” (1 Corinthians 7:28, NIV). Does this mean we should morbidly dread an unbearably bad marriage, something akin to Armageddon? Not at all. We should aspire to have healthy, growing marriages. We should not, however, be shocked when we encounter issues that we have to work through, challenges that we have to overcome, and problems that we have to resolve. To go into marriage assuming it will be nothing more than constant euphoria and perpetual bliss is to set oneself up for great disappointment and disillusionment.

In “Good to Great,” Jim Collins recounts a conversation he had with Admiral Jim Stockdale, decorated war veteran and the highest ranking U.S. military officer to be imprisoned during the Vietnam War. He was a P.O.W. for eight years and was tortured more than twenty times. As the commanding officer in that setting, Stockdale helped as many men survive as he could. Collins wrote, “What separates people, Stockdale taught me, is not the presence or absence of difficulty, but how they deal with the inevitable difficulties of life. In wrestling with life’s challenges, the Stockdale Paradox (you must retain faith that you will prevail in the end and you must also confront the brutal facts of your current reality) has proved powerful for coming back from difficulties not weakened, but stronger…”

Winston Churchill modeled this realistic optimistic approach well. He was profoundly aware of the grave challenges faced by Great Britain in WWII, and yet he said, “I am an optimist. It does not seem too much use being anything else.” Helen Keller stated, “A happy life consists not in the absence, but in the mastery of hardships.”

So just how realistic is the Bible when it comes to facing adversity—storms—in life?
Proverbs 21:31 (NASBU) says, “The horse is prepared for the day of battle, but victory belongs to the LORD.” The Message Version renders that verse, “Do your best, prepare for the worst—then trust GOD to bring victory.” Note that these people were admonished to prepare for battle! Faith is not an excuse to not make proper preparation in natural areas. Let me say that another way: faith is not a basis for negligence in practical areas. In addition to fortifying themselves, they were instructed to remember that God is the One who ultimately brings victory!

Nehemiah had tremendous faith in God, but faith did not preclude him from taking natural preparations and precautions in carrying out his assignment of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Consider the actions based on his awareness of the threats against his people and the project. “From that day on, half of my men did the work while the other half held spears, shields, bows, and armor. The officers supported all the people of Judah, who were rebuilding the wall. The laborers who carried the loads worked with one hand and held a weapon with the other. Each of the builders had his sword strapped around his waist while he was building, and the trumpeter was beside me” (Nehemiah 4:16-18, HCSB). They believed that victory was from the Lord, but they still prepared themselves for the day of battle.

Paul told believers to “…be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might,” and to “Put on the whole armor of God…” (Ephesians 6:10-11). He also told Timothy to, “…be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus,” and to “endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 2:1, 3).

Believers understand that God is not just basis for our optimism, but He is also very much a part of our reality! God is real. His promises are real. His Presence is real. His power is real. Faith in God does not give us blanket immunity from all of the problems of the world, but it does give us entirely different framework and perspective with which to face those problems. The faith component does not negate us doing our part, but it adds an element of reliance upon a God who, “…is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us” (Ephesians 3:20).