June 1, 1997

 The Three Points
Of Optimism
Regaining Our Hope
After Disappointment
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Genuine faith, which keeps our heart encouraged in Christ and hopeful about God's plan for our future, is hard to come by when setbacks occur. Here are some thoughts on how to maintain it.
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Bad days. We all have them. On one memorable Monday last fall, I felt like the bottom was falling out of my life. In the afternoon, a policeman stopped by our home to inform us that Nate had smashed his car into a tree. Fortunately my sixteen-year old son was not injured. His car, though, was totalled. The incident cost me a lot of time and frustration, plus the anticipation of significant expense. It left me feeling I deserved a break from hard experiences for a while.

My respite lasted about an hour. That evening, as I was typing a letter on my office computer, the screen suddenly filled with tiny blinking colored squares. The hard disk had crashed. My life flashed before me, as I thought of important files I hadn’t backed up, and the aggravation it would be to install and reconfigure a new hard drive. I spent the rest of the evening trying to figure out how to boot the computer from the floppy drive with all the functions intact.

Finally, around midnight, I was able to get online and check my e-mail. One message was waiting, from a friend who usually sends me humorous posts. Finally some comic relief, I thought. But instead, his note told me about another friend who was going through a difficult period and was very depressed. I felt a surge of guilt, as I realized that I hadn’t been as supportive to this person as I could have. I worried that I might have contributed to his problem.

I went to bed exhausted and feeling beat-up by the day. When I woke the next morning, I felt like a dark cloud was hanging over my life. Three major blows the previous day had left me shell-shocked, and wondering if God was punishing me for something. I worried that the pattern would continue and spread to other areas of my life.

Only as the morning wore on did I begin to realize that I had lost the perspective of faith. The events of the previous day were not related to each other in any way. Nor was there any obvious link between them and some sin in my life for which God might be punishing me. To imagine such connections was to view God as capricious. And to assume that things would continue to deteriorate in my life was to write history before it happened. It was to put myself in the place of God and to assume that I knew my future--a twisted a way of boasting about tomorrow, which Scripture warns us so strongly against doing.

I decided to put a stop to my ruminating before the train got any further down the tracks. This was a new day, and I’d do my best to have positive expectations about it. Though it took a while for my optimism to return, it helped simply to decide not to obsess about what had happened the day before, and to keep reminding myself that God desires the very best for me.

But the whole episode reminded me how easily we can fall into a pessimistic mentality about our life. When bad things happen to us, we can be quick to reason outward from them and to conclude that our life itself must be on a negative course. It’s a small step from that conclusion to thinking that God has turned against us.

Not Jumping to Conclusions

The greatest danger we face in the Christian life, I’m certain, is losing our conviction that God is for us. Yet it takes so little for this to happen.

One bad day like I went through can do it for most of us. Or a series of minor frustrations: you get stuck in traffic, the boss scowls at you when you arrive late to work, then you spill coffee on an important manuscript. By the time you clean up the coffee spill, you’re wondering, "Is God trying to teach me a lesson through all of this?"

A single episode of rejection can do it for many of as well. Rejections in romance, friendship and job-seeking are among the most difficult experiences we go through in life. Even one rebuff can be so demoralizing that we wonder if God is forever nixing our dreams in that area.

At such points of frustration, it’s natural to think that God has allowed us to fail because he’s offended with us. We’ve blown it one too many times, and now he’s given up on us.

Yet in most cases we simply have no way of knowing why God has allowed a hard experience to occur in our life. The situation we’re assuming is punishment or rebuke from him may have a very different interpretation in his mind. In time, we so often find it has a positive side--preventing a greater misfortune from occurring, or even opening the door for unexpected blessings.

It’s been long enough since that horrible day last fall that I’m now seeing serendipities where I first saw only adversity. Nate has been taking driving more seriously since his calamity and hasn’t had another accident. And the hard disk failure led me to purchase a more powerful computer, which is proving invaluable in our Internet ministry.

I’m not blandly suggesting that God never chastises us through unwelcome events or never wants us to look for lessons to be learned from them. But God is not the author of confusion
(1 Cor 14:33). If he does have a lesson to teach us through a particular misfortune, we should assume that its connection to something we’ve done wrong will be clear. The person who drinks or eats too much, then feels sick the next day, can assume that there is an obvious relation between what they did and the consequences, and some clear lessons to be learned.

In many cases, the connection between undesired events in our life and our behavior is not so obvious. It’s when we try to make abstract connections between these incidents and our personal sin or failure that we’re in danger of losing the outlook of faith.

Avoiding Catastrophizing

In his Learned Optimism, psychologist Martin Seligman considers why we fall into pessimism about our lives and lose the optimistic spirit needed to pursue our personal dreams. The greatest threat to our optimism, Seligman observes, is the negative speculation we engage in when we experience disappointment or frustration. When unwanted events occur in our lives, we’re prone to reach three unjustified conclusions:

That the pattern is pervasive. A setback in one area means that things surely are not going well for us in other areas either.

That the pattern will be perpetual. We’ll continue to be defeated at this point where we’ve had a setback, and in other areas as well.

That the reason for this adversity is personal. It’s our incompetence or sin that has caused the setback we’ve experienced and that will continue to plague our life with failure in the future.

Healthy optimism, Seligman explains, involves breaking with our tendency to assume that bad experiences imply something ominous for our life. We need to learn to see them as isolated events--as abberations, rather than the norm for us.

Seligman notes, too, that while optimism involves having positive expectations for our life, the essence of optimism is avoiding negative habits of thinking. When an unwelcome incident broadsides our life, we should put a stop to runaway ruminating before it starts. It helps to consider each of the three points where we tend to "catastrophize," and remind ourselves:

Re: pervasive--This event is unrelated to most other situations in our life and doesn’t indicate that things are falling apart for us in other areas.

Re: perpetual--The fact that we have been disappointed in this one area doesn’t mean that the pattern has to keep repeating itself. We may be able to learn lessons from the experience, in fact, which will make failure less likely in the future.

Re: personal--If we are obviously at fault for what happened, we should learn what we can from the experience and move on. We should be careful not to browbeat ourselves unreasonably for what happened, and we shouldn’t blame ourselves at all if there is no clear reason for doing so.

Expectations That Strengthen Our Faith

This process of thinking about personal setbacks that Seligman recommends can help us as Christians to maintain a healthy attitude of faith. In Scripture, of course, faith involves more than just optimistic thinking. The most critical aspect of biblical faith is belief in the salvation of Christ and personal commitment to him as Lord.

Yet Scripture also calls us to an attitude of faith--a supremely optimistic conviction that God desires the very best for us and is working in countless ways to bring about a matchless plan for our life. "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future'" (Jer 29:11 NIV).

Scripture is clear that this outlook of faith is essential to our realizing our full potential for Christ, and to drawing on his grace at many points.

The greatest challenge to maintaining this faith, I’m convinced, is the negative ruminating we engage in when things seem to be going against us. When we experience a setback, it can help us greatly to stop and consider whether we’re giving the incident more significance than it deserves. Seligman’s three points can provide an excellent reality check: Is there any reason to think that this event--

represents a pattern that is pervasive in my life?

will be a perpetual experience for me?

is my personal fault?

In most cases, our answer to the first two questions is clearly no. In many cases, we find that we aren’t to blame for what happened either. If we’re certain that our own failure or sin is to blame, then we need to face our responsibility clearly. If we have failed the Lord, we need to repent to him sincerely. It is equally important, though, that we accept his forgiveness fully, along with the abundant assurances of Scripture that he forgets our sin when he forgives it, and gives us the grace to start again on a clean slate (Jer 31:34, Is 1:18, Ps 103:12).

Clearing our thinking at each of these three points can help us move beyond ruminating, to the point where we are able to believe from the heart that God desires the best for our future.

New Beginnings

Bad days. We all have them. The key is not to think that they mean bad tidings for our life.

Swallow hard. Pray hard. Get through the bad day. Do whatever you possibly can to keep your hope in Christ strong. Then move forward. Give God the opportunity to bring fresh encouragement into your life.

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 Addendum to "The Three Points of Optimism"
   Joseph in Genesis provides an inspiring
   example of the principles of faith and
   optimism we've considered in this article.

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