Day 78 – On the Difference between Faith and Optimism

Mark 14:27–31 NRSV

And Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters; for it is written,

‘I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered.’

But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” But he said vehemently, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And all of them said the same.

Consider This

Positive thinking is overrated. It anchors itself in self-­confidence. It makes bold declarations and promises as though projecting the outcome will make it so. Positive thinking or optimism is powerful because it roots itself so deeply in the pride form of the human psyche. Let me be clear, though. Positive thinking is not all bad, it’s just ­overrated. The critical distinction we must constantly make is the difference between positive thinking and faith.

Positive thinking ties our faith to some preconceived and hoped for outcome. Faith, on the other hand, does not seek a particular outcome, but rather anchors all hope in God alone and the surety of his promises.

I want you to notice how this dynamic distinction between faith and optimism work out in today’s text. Jesus makes two simple declarations: 1. “You will all become deserters.” 2. “But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.”

Go back and scan the text again. Note how #1 gets all the action and #2 doesn’t even get honorable mention in the conversation. Each and every one of the disciples confused positive thinking for faith, and, as a result, in the face of Jesus’ challenge, they doubled down on their self-confidence and completely missed his promise. Jesus gives them the promise of an ultimate future. They put their confidence in themselves and their own projected outcome. How did they completely miss what he said? My theory: they could not accept the truth he told them about themselves. He told them they would not be able to endure what was about to happen; that their frailty would lead to their failure. He essentially told them their loyalty would not last because it was built on the lie they told themselves’that they could do it—rather than on the truth of the resurrection promise.

Permit me what may be a pastoral digression and yet I hope a faithful application.

What about us? So you have cancer or debilitating depression or a crumbling marriage or an impending bankruptcy or a wayward son or daughter. Let go of your hopeful projection of a certain outcome. Accept, no, embrace the brokenness of your situation and your powerlessness to hold it all together. Release your self-confidence so that faith can arise in the God and Father of our risen Lord, Jesus Christ. The greatest gift in the darkness of our struggles will be our dying to the false god of our particular expectations we have for resolution and releasing our struggle to the God who is raised from the dead who goes ahead of us.

A powerful faith story from the life of Abraham seems apropos. En route to do the unthinkable’to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, as a burnt offering in response to the calling of God we get this exchange:

On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together. (Gen. 22:4–8)

Did you see Abraham’s faith? He did not know how, but he knew God.

Now observe how the writer of Hebrews sums this up:

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death. (Heb. 11:17–19)

Real faith clings to Jesus alone and surrenders to his resolution which always involves resurrection, sooner or later.

I want to suggest a way of faith in the face of the most difficult places in life—both yours and of those you love. Pray something like this—over and over: “Resurrection, Jesus. I don’t know how, but I pray resurrection, Jesus.”

The Prayer

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.

The Questions

  • What if our faith is actually only an optimistic clinging to our hope in a particular outcome we have in mind? What if real faith can only arise in the wake of the death of our optimism and positive thinking?
  • How do you relate to the distinction between optimism and faith?