Some years ago a friend told me that I was the happiest pessimist they knew. I took this as a great compliment, because it meant that my life reflected a fundamental truth of Christianity that is often overlooked or misunderstood, namely that Christians should not be optimists, but they should be full of hope.
As we all know, optimism and pessimism are concepts used to describe possible outcomes in our lives (they are not usually used in reference to an afterlife). The optimist looks at a situation like the current pandemic or other problems and says, “It will all work out in the end.” In more normal times, the optimist assumes the good times that have occurred up until that moment will continue indefinitely into the future. Importantly, the optimist does not argue that life will be cheery based on specific evidence; he just assumes things will go well. The pessimist is similar to the optimist in that he does not deeply consider evidence, but simply assumes life will be miserable.
The realist, by contrast, uses the available evidence to make the best forecast possible, whether rosy or bleak. However, realists are often taken for pessimists because history is the main source of evidence on any given topic, and history is full of calamities, especially at those moments when everyone is most optimistic and thinks we have come “to the end of history,” or that “this time is different,” or other such nonsense (I reveal my own views perhaps too much). So while realists will not always predict grim outcomes, they are often viewed as relatively more pessimistic than optimists.
For the Christian, it becomes more complicated. The Christian believes there was a divine man, Jesus, who died—completely dead—and then came back to life. That same Jesus also healed the sick and the blind and the paralyzed while he was on Earth, and gave this power to his followers. Ultimately, even among those Christians who question whether such healing powers are still applicable today, all orthodox Christians look with expectation towards our own resurrection after death, and unending life in a renewed creation thereafter.
That sounds pretty good! So it is reasonable at first blush for a Christian to look at covid or any other serious problem and say, “No worries. God is bigger than this, and he will take care of me.” And indeed this is true, but only in one specific sense.
The hope that Christians have is founded on the resurrection of Christ, and the expectation of our own future resurrection. Ultimately, death will be undone, and because of that final reality, we can have peace now in the midst of whatever trouble may come. But that hope and peace does not mean we will escape all trouble in our current, earthly life if we are sufficiently faithful. God’s salvation does not assure protection from illness or other suffering. We should not expect that God will deliver us from a pandemic simply because he could do so. Unfortunately, this is exactly what many Christians expect when a problem comes. They believe that being a Christian means God will protect them from problems in this life.
The Expectation of Suffering
In fact, the Bible is full to the brim of examples of faithful people suffering. Sometimes that suffering was remedied during life (as in the stories of Job or Joseph), and sometimes it wasn’t. The most obvious example of suffering among the faithful is Jesus himself, who was cruelly executed without just cause. If God the Son himself must suffer to show his love for us, we too should expect to suffer. And indeed, Jesus told his followers they absolutely should not expect an easy life (John 16), but that those who suffered on his behalf would be blessed (Matt. 5:11-12).
Jesus’s first followers clearly absorbed this message. Most of the Apostles were martyred for their faith, suffering awful tortures before death. But I doubt any of them were surprised by such an outcome. Peter tells us:
“12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” (1 Peter 4)
Paul also suffered not just at death but all through his life, which he describes in 2 Corinthians 11:
“24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.”
But despite the suffering, Paul would still say in a letter to the Philippians (Ch. 4):
“11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
The Christian hope is not that we will avoid suffering, but rather that because of our assurance of Christ’s ultimate victory over death, we can have peace and joy no matter what trouble we face in this life. Christ does not offer us a trouble-free life, nor does he promise wealth, health, or anything else that prosperity gospel preachers are quick to dangle in front of their listeners. He offers us eternal life in the age to come, and the foretaste of that life now through the power of the Holy Spirit, in the peace that passes all understanding (Phil. 4:7).
Psalm 22, Suffering, and Deliverance
Another place we see this truth vividly is in the Psalms. One of the great things about being an Anglican is the rich tradition of the Daily Office (structured daily prayer and Bible reading), and specifically the habit of immersion in the Psalms every day. Anyone who regularly prays the Psalms cannot fail to realize how much suffering a follower of God may endure. Grief, pain, and cries for help are everywhere in the Psalms, but they are always anchored in the reality of God’s ultimate sovereignty.
Psalm 22 is one of my favorites, and is also the most referenced psalm in the New Testament. It is the psalm Jesus quotes from the cross (see below for the text), and much else in the psalm speaks to events in Jesus’s life. Like other psalms, Psalm 22 begins with cries for help, and then changes to thanksgiving after the Lord hears the psalmist’s prayer and provides deliverance. Sometimes our experience of suffering is like the psalmist’s, and God delivers us from our suffering during this life.
But when Jesus quotes this psalm on the cross, he expands the meaning and expectation of deliverance. It was common in those times to refer to a full psalm simply by quoting the first line, as Jesus does on the cross (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). By referencing the whole psalm, Jesus is identifying with the suffering in the first part of the psalm as well as the expectation of deliverance later in the psalm.
By choosing to quote this psalm, we know Jesus expected deliverance, but he did not expect that deliverance to save him from suffering or death (as he showed during Gethsemane). While many of his contemporaries surely believed that God’s deliverance should occur during this life for the appropriately faithful (as many still believe today), Jesus upended this expectation. The most faithful man of all expected deliverance, but not until going through the totality of suffering. Deliverance would only come after death for Jesus.
We too must strive to follow Jesus’s example. We should not expect that our current problems will be solved in the way we would like during our lives (optimism). Sometimes they will be, but other times they will not. Suffering is sure to come at some point, and sometimes suffering will take us all the way to death. Though it is wrong to seek out suffering, for those who faithfully endure it when it comes (like Jesus, and many of his followers), it is often the greatest occasion for exhibiting the power of God in our lives.
Though we should expect suffering, we must also joyfully await the promised resurrection and renewal of all creation, when death will be undone and all things will be made right at last (Christian hope). We will not see this until after death, but our assurance of that final outcome gives us peace and joy right now, no matter what suffering we may endure. In the meantime, we should be shrewd as serpents (Matt. 10), being realistic about what may come, using the faculties God has given us to fulfill God’s purposes for us in the most effective ways we can (realism, with purpose).
Applying this to our current pandemic: be wise, and take steps to protect yourself from illness. Even so, you may become ill and even die, or you may lose loved ones. Remember in such a situation that God himself suffered death on the cross – he knows what it means to suffer, and will walk with you through your suffering. One day, he will undo that suffering forever, and because of this assured outcome, we can have peace now, whatever comes.
Let’s end on Psalm 22:
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.
3 Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praisesof Israel.
4 In you our fathers trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried and were rescued;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
6 But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by mankind and despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock me;
they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
8 “He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him;
let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”
9 Yet you are he who took me from the womb;
you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts.
10 On you was I cast from my birth,
and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
11 Be not far from me,
for trouble is near,
and there is none to help.
12 Many bulls encompass me;
strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
13 they open wide their mouths at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion.
14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
15 my strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.
16 For dogs encompass me;
a company of evildoers encircles me;
they have pierced my hands and feet—
17 I can count all my bones—
they stare and gloat over me;
18 they divide my garments among them,
and for my clothing they cast lots.
19 But you, O Lord, do not be far off!
O you my help, come quickly to my aid!
20 Deliver my soul from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dog!
21 Save me from the mouth of the lion!
You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!
22 I will tell of your name to my brothers;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him,
and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
24 For he has not despised or abhorred
the affliction of the afflicted,
and he has not hidden his face from him,
but has heard, when he cried to him.
25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will perform before those who fear him.
26 The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord!
May your hearts live forever!
27 All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before you.
28 For kingship belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.
29 All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
even the one who could not keep himself alive.
30 Posterity shall serve him;
it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;
31 they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn,
that he has done it.