Defensive Optimism

 “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”     – 2 Timothy 1:17

We’re only two weeks into the new year, and the idea of resolutions hasn’t left me yet.

From what I’ve noticed, it’s pretty common for folks to want to face a new year with optimism. Some are authentically optimistic. The practice of declaring one or more resolutions is symptomatic of this desire to be optimistic about the future. But something I’ve begun to think about more recently is an optimism that is defensive in nature, a feigned optimism that I think may be designed to protect us from the things we fear or don’t want to deal with. If we speak and behave as if everything will be okay, then maybe it will. But what if those hidden concerns are justified?

It seems to me that there are two ways to respond. One way is to acknowledge a legitimate concern, do what we can to address it, and after going as far as we can in faith with our eyes open, proceeding in faith alone, trusting that GOD knows how to guide us through “the valley of the shadow of death.” This is what C. S. Lewis called “a leap into the dark.” It is a response that is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but looks to an outcome that rests solely on the will of GOD.

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The other option I see is what I’ve chosen to call defensive optimism, a self-created pathway designed to walk around (rather than through) the “valley of the shadow of death” so that there is no need to take that leap into the dark. It is in effect, an attempt to create an alternative reality where the dark is not acknowledged. I don’t believe this really reflects what Scripture occasionally called “sober thinking” or a “sound mind,” according to 2 Timothy 2:17.

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Recently, I watched a video of an interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a transported Nigerian novelist and essayist who now divides most of her time between Nigeria and the U.S. In this interview, she made what I thought was a startling comment. When asked about her observations about Americans, she said something along these lines (my paraphrase): What I find interesting about Americans is their deep aversion to discomfort of any type. In Nigeria, discomfort is a part of everyday life, and we live with it and around it. But Americans have great difficulty tolerating discomfort. They don’t want to feel uncomfortable, and often go out of their way to avoid dealing with things that make them feel uncomfortable.

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As soon as the words came out of her mouth, my visceral response was “Yikes!” I’ve seen this and felt it and sometimes lived it. Avoiding the uncomfortable, the painful, the sad is certainly a strategy, but what if the discomfort serves a useful purpose? Suppose, like physical pain, various forms of discomfort are intended to let us know that something is wrong and needs attention. Being defensively optimistic may actually subvert and undermine that which we actually need.

That’s not to say that all discomfort is intended to communicate a needed message; it may be nothing more than a side effect of living in a fallen, broken world. This is an everyday reality for everyone. Someone misunderstands you or says something hurtful to you or is dismissive of you. Someone you trust violates a confidence or you lose their friendship and you don’t know why. Your child is struggling to make friends in a new school and comes home and cries. You feel overworked and underappreciated. You see a homeless person panhandling at a traffic light and you feel guilty because you want the light to change so that you can drive away. You turn the channel when you see the commercial about abused animals or starving children because it’s hard to look at. Difficult and deep rooted social or political issues are raised in your presence, and you seek ways to avoid any conflict or disagreement because the conflict makes you uncomfortable! How many other examples are there?

Discomfort is not necessarily a right state of being, but if you and I are experiencing it, then it is our reality; not any false optimism we create in order to have a preferred life scenario.

“In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). These are the words of Jesus. Maybe the best thing we can do when facing the choice of living in the reality of our discomfort or covering it over defensively is to let Him do what He does, overcome and make us into overcomers. Comedian Mel Brooks wasn’t all wrong, life does stink sometimes. But because of who we are in Christ… But because of who we are in Christ… But because of who we are in Christ… (There’s a point here!).

I pray that this year we’re in is filled with great joy and gladness. But if it isn’t, may you find strength and rest in the One who calls you, saves you, and sustains you.

© Byron L. Hannon, 2019. All rights reserved for text content.

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