Faith vs. Optimism

“You just lost your job. Rent is overdue. Utility bills are piling up. Your roommate just told you that she is moving out next month. Then you receive the notice that your tuition payment for next semester is due in three weeks. Enter your well-intentioned Christian friend, who offers the following words of consolation: “Everything is going to be all right—you just need to have faith,” or “God brings about these sort of events to test our faith—just believe in God and he will deliver you from this trial.”

Now in the most general theological terms, this might in fact be sound advice. Although not everything that happens in life reflects God’s desired will (most obviously our own sin or the sin of others is not what God would wish to occur), all that happens is allowed within God’s permissive will. And we also know that whatever God permits, even if evil is allowed to temporarily flourish, it can be turned to good by God for us and for others. This is beautifully illustrated by the story of Joseph, who even after being sold into slavery by his brothers, suffering false accusation, imprisonment, and exile, is still able in the end to say to his brothers, “Although you meant evil against me, God meant it for good, in order that, as it is today, many people should be kept alive” (Gen. 50:20). So in the final analysis we truly can affirm with the apostle Paul that “all things work together for good for those who love God, for those who are called in accordance with his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).

The risk here is that if you, while staring disconsolately at your bank statement, were to accept your friend’s advice (“Everything is going to be all right—you just need to have faith”) in an unqualified fashion, then you might accept an inadequate definition of faith. You might begin to think of faith as equivalent to “maintaining a positive mindset.” As if the hippy tie-dye generation kind of faith—just chill out and relax, because everything is going to be fine—is somehow what is needed in this stressful situation. You might be tempted to think that real Christian faith demands unfettered optimism. No matter what, you must relax and stay positive, so you should deny your real feelings, slap a plastic doll grin on your face, and try to keep up appearances of all-rightness. But this optimism is a bit self-delusional (if not neurotic). If everything does not turn out all right and the self-delusion collapses, you might think that you have somehow lost your Christian faith. “After all,” you might say, “if I had genuine faith, I would not feel so discouraged.”

A few minutes of reflection will probably reveal the inadequacy of a “positive mindset” definition of faith. Faith-as-optimism is an almost entirely vacuous idea […], because in the final analysis no concrete object of faith is in view at all. It is faith merely for faith’s sake. The truth is that genuine biblical faith is not a conjured optimism, a pull-a-rabbit-out-of-the-hat, magical feel-goodism, nor is it aimlessly directed at some vague cosmic hope that affirms good karma will somehow prevail in the end. Let me give an example to help illustrate.

As a salute and celebration of the great American auto industry, let’s say I currently drive a 1972 Chevy Nova. Not only does its very name suggest that it won’t reliably run (No va means “it doesn’t go” in Spanish), but my own practical experience is that due to its age and lack of maintenance, my car will only start once out of every ten times I jump into it and turn the key. Now, I have a hugely important interview early tomorrow morning. Do I say to myself, “I simply have faith that my Nova will start tomorrow!” and do nothing but blindly hope, or do I make a backup plan? If this interview is truly central to my life goals, I am not going to chance it. Why? Because even if I wanted to channel a deep inner reservoir of “faith,” I would not really be able to do it. I would know in my heart of hearts that my car is an untrustworthy junker.

In other words, true faith cannot be spontaneously generated on the basis of wishful thinking, for it is rooted in a concrete object toward which it is directed. If the object upon which I am asked to rely (in this example, my Nova) has repeatedly proven to be untrustworthy, then unless I am adept at extreme and willful self-delusion, it will literally be impossible to really trust it, even should I desperately wish to trust it. The point is that real biblical faith is not a general positive mindset or a blind optimism but is directed toward a defined object—and it is the trustworthiness of the object that sources and fixes faith’s genuineness. So if we want to grow in faith, we should study and contemplate God’s extraordinary reliability.”

– Matthew W. Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of King Jesus (e-book version), p. 9, Baker Academic, 2017.

For a more in-depth discussion and review of Dr. Bates‘ excellent book on the proper biblical meaning of faith, go here.

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