Faith vs. Optimism

“But I said, “Ah, Sovereign LORD, the prophets keep telling them, ‘You will not see the sword or suffer famine. Indeed, I will give you lasting peace in this place.’ ” Then the LORD said to me, “The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I have not sent them or appointed them or spoken to them. They are prophesying to you false visions, divinations, idolatries and the delusions of their own minds.”” (Jeremiah 14:13-14)

I recently finished reading the book “Polishing God’s Monuments,” and in the last chapter, there were some quotes from Jim Collin’s famous book “Good To Great” about the “Stockdale Paradox” that really taught me a lot about the difference between faith and optimism. When I started to want to blog about it, I realized a lot of other bloggers already picked up on the same thing and I read a lot of other blog entries about the same topic of “faith vs. optimism”. So I want to offer a slightly different perspective.

Because the “Stockdale Paradox” part in the book “Good To Great” is so popular, there’s even a free excerpt on Jim Collin’s website which you can read online. To summarize it, basically it’s a story about how Admiral Jim Stockdale along with some of his fellow soldiers spent 8 years as prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. At the time they did not know whether they would ever get out of there or survive, and they were also repeatedly tortured. Here is an excerpt of an interview between Jim Collins and Jim Stockdale:

“I never lost faith in the end of the story,” he said, when I asked him. “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

…… I didn’t say anything for many minutes, and we continued the slow walk toward the faculty club, Stockdale limping and arc-swinging his stiff leg that had never fully recovered from repeated torture. Finally, after about a hundred meters of silence, I asked, “Who didn’t make it out?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.”

“The optimists? I don’t understand,” I said, now completely confused, given what he’d said a hundred meters earlier.

“The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Another long pause, and more walking. Then he turned to me and said, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

To this day, I carry a mental image of Stockdale admonishing the optimists: “We’re not getting out by Christmas; deal with it!”

I think there’s a lot of truth in this. It made me think back one of my most favorite documentaries called “Touching The Void.” It’s a story about a mountain climber who broke his leg and had to make his way down the mountain by himself. The place was cold and death seems imminent. But he eventually survived down the mountain. The key was that he didn’t pay too much attention to whether he’ll make it down the mountain. All he did was focused on setting short-term goals, scooting his way about 20 yards further each time, until finally he made it down the mountain.

I think biblical faith combined with biblical hope is like this. Our hope is focused at “the end of the story,” when Christ will prevail at the end. And our faith is not in ourselves, but in the Lord. We may pray and pray for something to happen, but even if it doesn’t happen, we still have faith that God is sovereign, and we rely on the strength and courage He gives to live each day, while trusting that God has his reasons and purposes for what we face in our daily life. 2 Corinthians 6-9 says:

“Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord — for we walk by faith, not by sight — we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord. Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him.”

The nature of our faith is a walk, perhaps even a slow walk, and while wishing to be with the Lord (the end of the story), we still face each day “ambitiously” to please God.

There are so many saints in the Bible who walk faithfully but never see their earthly hopes and earthly prayers answered. Jeremiah and Ezekiel suffered as Babylonian exiles, and they even proclaimed God’s prophesy that Israel will be restored in the future, but never saw it being fulfilled in their lifetimes. Hebrews 11 mentions many people who “did not receive what was promised” but were still counted as great men and women of faith. Indeed, the norm of the Christian life according to the Bible should be filled with disappointments and sufferings.

On the other hand, the Bible does mention optimists, and they’re usually the false prophets. After Babylon besieged Jerusalem the first two times, false prophets preached peace and prosperity, not knowing that Babylon would eventually besiege Jerusalem again and completely destroy it less than a decade later.

Sometimes I think there’s a fine line between optimists and pessimists because they’re both predicting (sometimes irrationally) about something in the future, whether it’s for good or for bad. The optimist believes in theories and in end results. If the optimist turns out to be right, the glory goes to the optimist. But the one who has faith believes in God and not himself, and the glory belongs to the Lord.