Sources of Christian Pessimism and How Wesley Saw It

In the last post I wrote about the optimism the Gospel brings to my life.  In fact, as I read back some of these blogs, I don’t like that my sense of irony, playful sarcasm and critique sound pessimistic. I think people who follow Jesus and work for His Kingdom have every reason to be the most upbeat, optimistic, hope-filled people on the planet. I want to caveat about contexts where great persecution or starvation persist, although, incredibly, folks there seem to have a much better handle on joy than we in the comfortable West do!

I do, however, run in many western Christians who are very gloom and doom, even in their theology! For sure, childhood experiences, temperament, or wounds in life cause pessimism. However, I suspect there are also a couple of theology reasons: first, some versions of Reformed theology have a pretty gloomy view of this life on earth, and we just need to hold on until we get to heaven. For the record, I’m not laying that at Calvin’s door.

Secondly, the predominant American view of St. John’s Apocalypse/ the Book of Revelation is so awful, nearsightedly tied to newspaper headlines (even though that approach has utterly failed for twenty centuries!), and pessimistic, that it’s no surprise people assume things will get worse and worse and then the end ( a comment Jesus makes about Jerusalem and the Jewish-Roman War, but taken by Americans and those they influence to mean something at the end of time, which of course must be our time, since it’s all about us!).

Fortunately, a look at history refreshingly shows that the world is not getting worse and worse. The leaven of the Kingdom of God has indeed been working its way through the batch of dough. The influence of the Way of Jesus has had marvelous results in the last 2,000 years.  Our mis-use of the Apocalypse brings pessimistic, and often very fear-driven, worldviews that shadow peoples’ lives and folks miss out on a lot of joy. The Gospel gives us every reason to be optimistic, upbeat, and hope-filled.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodists understood this. In his sermon The General Spread of the Gospel, after leaving no stone unturned describing the ills of the world and fallen-short Christianity, Wesley then goes on to argue, using profuse Scripture, that God is wonderfully at work in the world and that surely the power of the Gospel is such that we can have great hope that the whole world will come to faith in Christ:

in general, it seems, the kingdom of God will not “come with observation;” but will silently increase, wherever it is set up, and spread from heart to heart, from house to house, from town to town, from one kingdom to another. 

…. And in every nation under heaven, we may reasonably believe, God will observe the same order which he hath done from the beginning of Christianity. “They shall all know me, saith the Lord;” not from the greatest to the least (this is that wisdom of the world which is foolishness with God;) but “from the least to the greatest;” that the praise may not be of men, but of God. Before the end, even the rich shall enter into the kingdom of God. Together with them will enter in the great, the noble, the honourable; yea, the rulers, the princes, the kings of the earth. Last of all, the wise and learned, the men of genius, the philosophers, will be convinced that they are fools; will be “converted, and become as little children,” and “enter into the kingdom of God.

…. All unprejudiced persons may see with their eyes, that He is already renewing the face of the earth: And we have strong reason to hope that the work he hath begun, he will carry on unto the day of the Lord Jesus; that he will never intermit this blessed work of his Spirit, until he has fulfilled all his promises, until he hath put a period to sin, and misery, and infirmity, and death; and re-established universal holiness and happiness, and caused all the inhabitants of the earth to sing together, “Hallelujah, the Lord God omnipotent reigneth!” “Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever!”

In this sermon, he even goes as far as to attempt to predict the order, the geographical sequence of nations in which the Gospel would succeed, first to last! Humorous as that seems, one thing for sure, the power and grace of the Gospel made Wesley an optimist.

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The Optimism of The Kingdom

The Strengthfinders assessment lists “positivity” as one of the top 5 ways that I’m hardwired. When I read their detailed description, it did sound like me, and most everyone who knows me remarks about being upbeat and optimistic; however, I don’t think I’m an optimist by nature. In fact, as I think about my childhood, I think I was born tempermentally pessimistic.

It’s the Gospel of Jesus that makes me an optimist.

When I became serious about being a Christian at age 14, my outlook drastically changed. A couple decades ago I became aware that folks in my tribe (Nazarene) were using a phrase “the optimism of grace.”  I think this is a good phrase.

Here are some things that make me optimistic:

Nothing we do for the Lord is in vain.

The Spirit of Jesus is loose in the world, and you can’t stop Him.

The Creator God is about restoration, redemption, healing what is broken.

God is present, right here with me.

The Creator of the world believes mercy triumphs over judgment.

Jesus came to set the captives free.

God’s Spirit develops in us love joy peace patience kindness goodness faithfulness gentleness and self-control.

The Gospel brings us hope, joy, laughter, deep heart contentment, and a meaningful purpose in life.

God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

God isn’t willing that any should perish but that all might come to repentance and new life.

The earth is full of Yahweh’s glory, He is everywhere, and nothing is more powerful than Him.

So I don’t believe in handwringing, woe-is-me religion. Rather than seeing every day as “a losing battle against sin” (an awful phrase I read somewhere recently), I see it as another day the mustard-seed Kingdom has grown yet larger. And that makes me an optimist.

How “narrow is the door” ?

“Narrow is the door.” The way this verse was often used when I was a kid was that you better get serious about church attendance or you’re toast. This makes this verse essentially into an old call for works righteousness –  get better at your discipleship or you’ll get Left Behind! Sort of an unspoken slogan “My yoke is hard and my burden is heavy!” Alternatively, some have used this verse to indicate that if someone is born at the wrong time in the wrong place, (say southern Africa,  2nd century AD), they are on their way to hell, outside the range of God’s grace. They use it as a proof that no Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or animist will ever be saved. The New Calvinists like John MacArthur make it sound like if you don’t get all your doctrines straight (i.e., believe what they believe – their particular version of Calvinism) you’re lost. This of course means it turns out that your ability to get the answers right on a theology test is what saves you, not Jesus.

But look at the context. The chapter begins with Jesus talking about the impending doom of Jerusalem and his generation’s headlong rush into insurrection and war with the Romans.  Next he tells a story about a fig tree. In the OT, these kinds of parables are about Israel, not individuals. The assumption all around him is that as long as my birth certificate says “Jewish” I’m automatically in with God. Jesus, in challenging his generation’s assumptions about civil religion, nationalism, religious violence, and pedigree, is talking about genuine relationship with God rather than religio-ethnic superiority complexes. If N.T. Wright is correct, this whole chapter is about Israel and Jesus’ call for his generation to follow him down a different Way.

To make this into a restrictive idea that God’s grace is only for the super-achievers spiritually or some other narrow slice of humanity is to fly in the face the portrait of God and his Kingdom that Jesus offers us, not least Luke 13: 18-21 – the Kingdom is a mustard seed grown huge and a leaven working through the whole batch of dough –  the words immediately preceding the ‘narrow door’ comment! If God were interested in making it difficult (narrow) to earn your way into heaven, no need to send Jesus. We already had difficult.  

Somewhere in The Shack, Mack asks “does this mean all roads lead to you?” Jesus replies,
“not at all; most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.”  In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia tale, a man who worshipped a false god Tash kneels before Aslan expecting death. But Aslan says to him “The oaths you kept to Tash I count kept to me…” These modern day parables are images of a God burgeoning with love, seeking people wherever they are. The ways the narrow door comment are often treated picture a God who lays out a tiny escape hatch in a maze for those who can find it. Which picture of God is true?

I’m afraid that the way these words of Jesus are typically used, we get simply one more old picture of a tribal god who only has love for his favorites or the super-accomplishers, not the God who loves all the world and sends His Son to save it. Would you want to love a favorites-only god?  Or would you only serve him out of dire necessity?