Are you a pessimist, or an optimist? Or, maybe you place yourself in the middle…you’re a realist. Sometimes optimists call realists pessimists. But realists know better. They’re just facing the world head on—and being realistic! Of course, a lot of times that sounds pretty pessimistic to optimists.
What are Christians called to be? It seems pretty safe to say that a follower of Jesus probably doesn’t have the right to be a true pessimist. We have to believe that, in the end, God’s going to win. Right? That’s what the whole bible is moving towards—that’s what the Bible shows us history is moving towards. No matter how pessimistic we are by nature, or how much bad news happens, in the end, Jesus is going to be king, and fix everything.
So should that make us optimists? Well, consider these words from Jesus. Here is what he said once, when he was speaking to his followers:
“You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But not a hair of your head shall be lost. By your patience possess your souls.”
That’s from Luke chapter 21. Sounds pretty pessimistic at first, right? A Christian realist would say, “Nope. Sounds realistic.” People are going to hate us. Some of us will be put to death. It’s happening right now, around the world. But then, notice that total upswing right at the end. “Endure. It’s worth it. In the end, you won’t even lose one hair.” So which is it? Will it get bad, or will it all be ok?
You know, Jesus spoke like this a lot. Consider this, from Luke chapter 12:
“The very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. Also I say to you, whoever confesses Me before men, him the Son of Man also will confess before the angels of God. But he who denies Me before men will be denied before the angels of God… Now when they bring you to the synagogues and magistrates and authorities, do not worry about how or what you should answer, or what you should say. For the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.”
You might be called to appear before hostile governmental assemblies to answer for your connection to Jesus. That’s realism! But you’ll be told what to say. The Holy Spirit will be with you. So, no need to worry. That’s optimism! And here is what he said another time, quoted in Matthew chapter 24:
“Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”
Tribulation (that’s real trouble) will come. The physical order itself will be shaken. Pessimism? Realism! But then Jesus will come back. For those who are waiting for him, that’s major optimism! Or listen to this, again from Luke chapter 12:
“And I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do.”
You might have to face people who can kill you? Realism? But don’t worry—the only one you need to fear is God. …Optimism! (If you know Christ.)
So here is where Jesus leads us. Christians are to be true realists. We have been told, all through the scriptures, that we should not think that society offers any true security. Crops can fail. Diseases can come. Persecution can flare up. Sickness may get us. Any combination of those things, at any time, can assail the believer, just like anyone else. The world is bent and broken because of sin and the curse on creation. Things often break down, and nothing works exactly right. Sometimes, those factors combine to create huge difficulty. On top of it all, the active rebellion of humanity against God’s rule creates real problems for the people of God in particular. Those who pledge allegiance to the King will often experience hostility from those who do not. In fact, we should expect that we will face at least some, if not all, of those things, in our lifetimes. Jesus said as much. The bible is clear.
In response to the facts, we learn to divide our view of the future into two parts. First, there is everything that may happen up to physical death. That time is shaped by the conditions of this imperfect, fallen (and even sinful) world. Then, before the next part, is death, which for those who have their sin forgiven and removed by Christ’s blood, is no longer an end, but a passageway. And that passageway takes us to what the Bible calls Life.
Imagine this scene: when it’s all over, and you’ve entered into Life, you are walking with Jesus, down some trail or path, in the new earth. Imagine that you suffered greatly in your life. As you walk, the thought of what you went through in life is troubling you greatly. Finally, it gets to be too much, and you stop walking, turn to Jesus, and say, “Lord, I don’t understand. You said that if I followed you, you’d meet every need. You said I’d be full of joy. The bible talked about healing and victory and life. But I experienced so many hard things. What gives? Why promise all those things if you weren’t going to deliver?”
Imagine Jesus standing there, looking at you. All around the two of you is the new, glorified earth. Huge, beautiful trees line fields of tall grass and flowers. There is a breeze blowing. Your strong body is completely untired from your walk. Birds fly overhead. Somewhere across a field, the crop is coming in. People are laughing—the harvest is huge. The path you’re walking on is taking you to the day’s feast. Everyone you love will be there. There is not a trace, anywhere to be seen, of any of the difficult things that once plagued the world.
And Jesus looks at you and says, “Where is all that suffering? Didn’t I keep all my promises?”
Jesus knows that his followers will walk through the fire. That’s why he warned us to expect it, and left the words written down and preserved for the church through the ages. So the follower of Christ lives with an opened eyed realism about the world and what we can expect. Our Lord has been very clear for us. No difficulty should catch us off guard, as if it calls into question God’s love, or anything like that. But that’s not the whole story, is it? Whatever difficulty we face, it will never be the final thing we experience. It will only last till the end of this present stage of existence. It is temporary. Our death, or the return of Christ, will be the end of this chapter, but it won’t be the end of the book. There is a next chapter. In that chapter, King Jesus rights all wrongs, fixes every broken thing, and expels from the world everything that ruins, breaks, and lies. In that chapter, God makes the world as he always wanted it—and nothing causes pain, any more. There is no more optimistic place to stand, than to know, deep in your bones, that one day you’ll hear, with your own ears, these words: “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away. Behold, I make all things new.”
With these words echoing in our ears, Christians move forwarded into whatever the day at hand presents. We are realists to the core—the truth is, anything may happen. We’re supposed to talk this way about the future: “If the Lord wills, we will live, and do this, or that.” If God wills. Maybe we will be faithful while things continue, the same way, for a long time. Maybe we will receive his strength and direction when things change quickly. Maybe we will praise him for provision, friends, and joy. Maybe we will trust him through scarcity, loneliness, or uncertainty. We simply don’t know what will happen to us, on this side of death and the coming of Christ. “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit;’ whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.” That’s bible realism. We don’t know how things will go.
But here’s a crucial key for all this: Christian realism never descends into pessimism, because, when we think about our lives, we learn to include eternity. When our mind moves forward into the future across the timeline of our life, it doesn’t stop at death. It goes beyond death. Our timeline includes the new earth, and eternity with Jesus, and at the same time we recognize the temporary nature of this time of uncertainty. In other words, the New Testament teaches us to reach forward with our thoughts and pull that eternal, glorious future into our present thinking, so that our future with Christ colors our experience of the present. We can be realistic about how little we know about our near future, because our hearts are anchored beyond the near future—they are anchored in God’s promised new creation, and in the promised experience of his presence we’ll enjoy. And even while we admit the uncertainty of the present, we celebrate the total certainty of eternity.
If death was the absolute boundary of our lives, the uncertainty of our circumstances would trouble us, undo us, because the human heart can’t live without joy and hope. But there is so much joy and life in eternity with Jesus that he sends the scent of it to us on the wind of his word. In his promises, we can smell the perfect eternity that’s coming. We can smell how close it is. And the smell of joy and peace and family and life forever changes our present circumstances. Whatever comes, Jesus is coming. Whatever happens, the new earth will last forever. And he is there, having prepared the place, joyfully pulling us forward to join him in the future. And he is here, faithfully strengthening us to press on to meet him.
Whether you’re stuck inside right now, or whatever the situation, let the coming day when Jesus will have fixed everything color your experience of the present. Read about it. Think about it. Pray about it.
And remember that nothing can separate us from the love of God. And one day soon, nothing will.