Prophetic Optimism

Posted by Jared Byas on June 24, 2016 in biblical theology Jared Byas 7 Comments

icon-jeremiahby Jared Byas

In the midst of Christian radio taglines that equate Christian with positive thinking and speakers that subtly question the faith of anyone who acknowledges that life really just sucks sometimes, I would like to share what I’ve learned from the Jeremiah tradition about optimism.

Lesson #1: Optimism isn’t ignoring how sad and uncertain the world can be but having the strength to sit in sadness and uncertainty.

“Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease? 14 Cursed be the day I was born! May the day my mother bore me not be blessed!” -Jer 12:1; 20:14

Lesson #2: Optimism isn’t the same thing as condescendingly shaming people who openly admit that they are sad and anxious because of how sad and uncertain the world can be.

“… prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit. They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace . . . Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes.” – Jer. 6:13-14; 23:16

Lesson #3: Optimism is having the strength to sit with others who are sad and uncertain.

“My eyes fail from weeping, I am in torment within; my heart is poured out on the ground because my people are destroyed, because children and infants faint in the streets of the city.” -Lam. 1:11

Lesson #4: Optimism is, after having experienced that sadness and uncertainty, after having sat with others in that sadness and uncertainty, courageously stepping toward hope anyway, knowing full well that it’s against the odds.

I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” -Jer 29:14

Of course, this narrative is woven more fully through the prophets and wisdom literature and is a narrative I hope to imitate more.

  • Gary

    I think one of the more interesting aspects in the relationship between hope and religion is this:

    There’s a big difference between “stepping toward hope” and doubling down on talk about hope.

    IMO, a too common archetypal pattern looks like this:

    A: God has a plan for your life!

    B: Great, let’s. Um, but my life kinda sucks.

    A: God has a really big plan for your life!

    B: OK… So let’s talk about where I’m really at.

    A: God has an incredible, really big plan for your life!

    B: [anything]

    A: [potentially infinite regress of even bigger cosmic/supernatural/whatever claims]

    I swear people fall for this as if it satisfies. I mean a lot of people often. So much that I even think careers if not institutions and more could be made of this scheme.

    • Jared Byas

      Well put!

      • Gary

        A couple of Easter’s better themes are these:

        – Show, not tell.

        – Git’r done.

  • Janet

    Thank you for this Jared. My faith community is going through a rough time, but we have been blessed with a new pastor who lives this with us every day.

  • Derek

    Always a pleasure reading you Jared. Thankfully, I never really encountered the naive and seemingly unbiblical optimism you are pushing back against here. I think the simplistic, baptized positive thinking you speak of is predominately found within prosperity and charismatic circles. Other more bible-based leaders such as John Piper take a different approach and encourage their adherents to find lasting joy in salvation, Christ, and the body of believers – a sort of “Christian hedonism”, as he terms it. I never followed Piper too closely but that direction seems more authentic and appropriate based upon numerous admonishments from the scriptures. Though tempering such an outlook ought to be coupled with laments and so forth. Thanks again.

  • Josh Wallace

    Good word.

  • Veritas

    I’ve noticed that God works great miracles in the sliver of space between hope and despair. We have the choice between these two and it rarely comes in our happiest times, but when despair is a real option.
    God does have a plan for our lives, a great and powerful plan…it is to meet Him, often in the most awful and tragic of circumstances, like that of Job, or in solitary confinement as a prisoner of war or conscience, at rock bottom, when we are empty of ourselves.

    Is it any wonder that God blessed the second half of Job’s life greater than the first? I think this was because Job had met God on the brink of his despair, and had learned to hope even there.