Positive Expectation in the Christian Life
M. Blaine Smith ~ SilverCrest Books ~ 2011
(Formerly The Optimism Factor)
I once learned an unforgettable lesson from an invoice that I received in the mail. It was from the insurance company which provides health and pension coverage for our ministry. Several months earlier I had petitioned them, asking that they cut our quarterly payment of $1,500 in half. In reading their literature I had discovered a provision which indicated this was possible under certain conditions, which I felt we met. Reducing the payment this much would be a considerable help financially to our ministry, which was still in its early stage.
The company's brochure was ambiguous, though, and I wasn't at all certain they would grant my request. I carefully crafted a letter explaining why I thought we qualified, then followed it up with about a half-dozen phone calls. I also asked that the change be retroactive and they reimburse us for past overpayments. In the end I felt I was getting nowhere, fighting an enormous bureaucracy with no concern for the little guy.
Finally their invoice arrived. I confess that my faith was at less than mustard-seed intensity as I opened the envelope. Frankly, I expected the worst. Indeed, as I read their statement I found my negative expectations rewarded. It was a bill for $1,500--simply business as usual. All of my effort to change things had been to no avail.
It was not until several days later that I reread the statement and realized I had overlooked one small detail. Following "$1,500" were two letters--"CR"--the abbreviation for "CREDIT." They were not billing us $1,500 but refunding us that amount!
The invoice, in short, revealed that I had succeeded in petitioning the company. But in my skeptical spirit I had read it to say just the opposite.
The Perils of Pessimism
It is an understatement to say that our expectations dramatically affect our view of reality. When we expect a positive outcome, we're alert to indications of success that come our way. But when we expect failure, we can miss the signs of success altogether or even read them mistakenly as proofs of defeat. As my experience with the invoice shows, missing some small detail can make all the difference in how we interpret a situation.
It's to this end that the Scriptures warn us so frequently of the extreme dangers of hardness of heart. "Hardness of heart" is the biblical term for loss of optimism, particularly regarding our expectations of God. When hardness of heart sets in, a crust forms over our mind and feelings; gradually we stop thinking creatively and begin seeing everything from a negative perspective. We cease believing that God has our best interests in mind and start drawing restrictions around his possibilities for our life and the lives of others.
While Scripture urges us to be alert to the problem of hardness of heart, it stresses even more emphatically that we can avoid its hazards through an outlook of faith. Faith is the diametrical opposite of hardness of heart. While the one expects the worst of God, the other expects the best of him. Faith is an exceedingly hopeful, trusting and confident perspective. From the viewpoint of faith we see our lives not only realistically but optimistically as well. The small details which signify God's care and provision for us are much less likely to escape our notice.
Had my expectations been more faith-inspired when I first examined that invoice, I doubt I would have been so quick to misinterpret it. The experience stands out in my mind as a classic example of what happens when our faith is insufficient--a lesson I've never forgotten.
The Rewards of Faith
Since our need for faith is so deep-seated, we should make every effort to understand as clearly as possible what an attitude of faith involves. What are the characteristics which make up an outlook of faith? Understanding them will allow us to gauge whether we are seeing our own life from the standpoint of faith or not.
Some of the most valuable insights which Scripture provides into the nature of faith come through examples of those who demonstrated it. While there are many such examples in the Old and New Testaments, I find it particularly helpful to look at those where Jesus directly complimented someone's faith. Surprisingly, such situations are not common in the Gospels. Though Jesus spoke often about faith, he commended the faith of individuals on only eight occasions. The fact that he was so sparing in affirming people's faith suggests that those instances when he did are supreme demonstrations of faith. Taken together, they should give us a treasured insight into the characteristics of faith.
These incidents include the following people:
Blind Bartimaeus. As Jesus is leaving Jericho, a blind beggar sitting by the roadside repeatedly cries to him for mercy, even though numerous people admonish him to be quiet. Jesus invites the man to come to him and asks him his request. When he replies, "Rabbi, I want to see," Jesus responds, "Go, your faith has healed you" (Mk 10:46-52; Lk 8:35-43).
A woman with a hemorrhage. A woman who has experienced a blood flow for twelve years decides to approach Jesus for help. She pushes through a massive crowd and when she reaches Jesus merely touches the edge of his robe. Her hemorrhaging instantly stops. Recognizing that someone has drawn on his healing power, Jesus looks around the crowd, asking who has touched him. When the woman, now terrified, admits her deed, he declares, "Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering" (Mk 5:25-34; Mt 9:20-22; Lk 8:43-48).
Four men with a paralyzed friend. Four men, eager to bring their disabled friend to Jesus for healing, are unable to forge through a dense, unyielding crowd to reach Jesus in the home where he is teaching. In a burst of ingenuity, they pull tiles off the roof above the room where he is sitting and lower the man in front of him. The Gospel writers note that "when Jesus saw their faith," he immediately turned his attention to this man, forgiving his sins and healing him (Mk 2:1-12; Mt 9:1-8; Lk 5:17-26).
A tenacious woman. A Canaanite woman persists in begging Jesus to heal her demon-possessed daughter, in spite of the fact that he initially seems reluctant to get involved. Finally he agrees to help her, exclaiming, "Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted" (Mt 15:21-28).
A disdained woman. A prostitute enters a Pharisee's home where Jesus is dining and stands behind Jesus weeping. Finally she kneels and, drenching his feet with her tears, kisses them, perfumes them and wipes them with her hair. After admonishing his host for despising this woman, Jesus turns to her and says, "Your sins are forgiven. . . . Your faith has saved you; go in peace" (Lk 7:36-50).
The one leper who thanks Jesus. Ten lepers approach Jesus and ask for healing. He tells them to go and present themselves to the priest. As they are walking away their leprosy disappears. One man--the only Samaritan among this group of Jews--rushes back to Jesus and falls at his feet, thanking him and praising God profusely. Jesus, astonished that none of the others has displayed such gratitude, says to the man, "Rise and go; your faith has made you well" (Lk 17:11-19).
A centurion who requests healing for his servant. A Roman military official sends a group of Jewish officials to ask Jesus to come to his home and heal his critically ill servant. Jesus agrees to go but while traveling there is met by a delegation of the centurion's friends who revise the request. The centurion doesn't want to burden Jesus with the journey, they say, and feels unworthy for him to enter his home. He asks that Jesus simply perform the miracle from this distance. Just as soldiers obey his own orders without hesitation, the centurion reasons, his servant's spirit will respond to Jesus' command for healing even without Jesus' being physically present. The centurion's thoughtfulness and creative reasoning amaze Jesus and evoke the most effusive comment he makes about anyone's faith: "I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel" (Lk 7:2-10).
Two blind men who ask for healing. Two blind men follow Jesus as he travels along and implore him to heal them. Finally he queries them, "Do you believe that I am able to do this?" When they reply, "Yes," he responds, "According to your faith will it be done to you." At that moment their sight is restored (Mt 9:27-29).
The Four Characteristics of Faith
These are the sum total of incidents in the Gospels where Jesus explicitly compliments someone's faith. Perhaps most surprising is that in none of them did the person's faith have anything to do with doctrinal knowledge. Most of these people had only an elementary grasp of who Jesus was, and none had anything close to a highly developed Christian theology. The faith which impressed Jesus in every case, rather, was an attitude of heart. Most obviously it amounted to an uncanny optimism about receiving help from him.
When we look more closely at the attitude of faith which these people displayed, we find it involved at least four outlooks:
1. The belief that God was a friend who desired the very best for them. It is more instinctive to think of God as our adversary than our friend, especially during times of personal disappointment or loss. Faith is an attitude which holds fast to the conviction that God is an unequivocal friend who wills good, not evil, for us.
2. The belief that they would benefit by seeking help from Christ and submitting to him. We often hear it said that Christians should serve Christ without any hope for reward. The Scriptures, however, know nothing of such rigid legalism. Rather, they speak extensively of the benefits which derive from a relationship with Christ and urge us to earnestly seek and desire these advantages (Heb 11:6). Faith desires the greatest benefits God offers and believes these will result from faithfully following Christ. It is "the will to live" in the highest sense. Perhaps better stated, it is the will to live abundantly.
3. The determination to do whatever was necessary to get help from Jesus. The faith these people demonstrated was strongly active, not merely passive--as many Christians assume faith should normally be. This is impressive considering that individuals in at least six of these cases had to overcome significant obstacles, social pressure or stigma to approach Jesus. Their examples show that faith often involves taking significant personal initiative.
4. Considerable confidence that their specific need would be met by Jesus. They were highly optimistic about accomplishing their purpose. Their confidence did stop short of a "what-you-believe-you-can-achieve" philosophy; I don't sense that most of them were blatantly certain they would reach their goal. Yet they were all strongly confident that Jesus was able to solve their particular problem (Mt 9:28) and exceedingly hopeful he would do so. Their attitude is perhaps best described as substantial optimism that they would get their needs met. This substantial optimism is at the heart of authentic faith.
I believe that these four outlooks go a long way toward describing the attitude of faith as Scripture understands it. They are good benchmarks for measuring how well our own attitudes compare with genuine faith. This is not to imply that developing our knowledge of doctrine is unimportant or unrelated to experiencing faith. Christians who are growing in faith will be motivated to grow in their doctrinal understanding as well--to strengthen their grasp of "the faith." Still, the attitude of faith is something much more basic and may be experienced by even a new Christian or one with minimal doctrinal insight. It is best described as an optimistic expectation about receiving help from God. The four outlooks we've examined throw further light on what this attitude of faith involves.
The Challenge of Faith
We will take a closer look at each of these perspectives in the next section. You and I will do well to adopt these viewpoints and hold fast to them, as we face challenges in the present and as we plan for our future. Great benefit comes from spending some uncluttered time each day in personal reflection, where we carefully consider where our own faith is inadequate and remind ourselves of the basis we have for staying hopeful. Let me encourage you to invest such time.
And during the course of the day, when you find yourself slipping into a pessimistic frame of mind, make a practice of stopping yourself and noting where you are falling short of an optimistic outlook. Remind yourself of the benefits that come from an attitude of faith: you see both your present situation and your future possibilities more clearly. And ask God to renew this attitude within you.
I urge you to make every effort to see your life through the eyes of faith.
It's to your credit.
Excerpt taken from The Optimism Factor by M. Blaine Smith. Copyright 1994 by M. Blaine Smith. Used on this Web site with permission from InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515 USA. Not intended for multiple copies.
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