Realism and hope
Be realistic but hopeful. That was the oncologist’s advice when my friend was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. On the realistic side, it didn’t look good. The tumors were spreading and growing rapidly. On the hopeful side, forty percent of patients responded well to chemotherapy. My friend was under fifty years old and in good health apart from the cancer. And he had the hope that comes with being a Christian.
I wondered: could I, should I, apply this philosophy to everyday life? I have this tendency to go to extremes. Being realistic to the point of seeing no hope. Or being hopeful to the point of forgetting that in real life bad things can happen. Being realistic but hopeful might help ground me in the center.
Realistic—life can hurt. People die. Disasters strike. If I’m not realistic, I get blind-sided by the unexpected. I need some realism to be emotionally and financially prepared for the future and to reach out to the hurting people God has placed in my life. If I deny that pain exists, I won’t be much help to them.
Hopeful—life can be good. Love comes. Healing occurs. Above all, God is in control. He promises to bring good even out of the most evil circumstances (Romans 8:28).
But the ultimate test of any philosophical perspective is whether it’s biblical. How does “realistic but hopeful” stand up to God’s Truth? The words were spoken by a secular doctor in a secular setting. Should I live my life in light of his teaching? Or does it in any way contradict the Bible?
I think of Matthew 6:25-33, one of the favorite passages of prosperity preachers and of the evangelically correct who deny that Christians will ever hurt. Beginning in chapter 5, Jesus has been teaching His followers a radical new view concerning how to live everyday life. It’s not about legalistically following rules; it’s about the heart. If the heart is right, the obedience will follow. In 6:25, He starts assuring His listeners that God cares deeply for them, as demonstrated by His provision for their basic necessities.
The prosperity preachers summarize this passage as: “God will always meet all your physical needs.” Jesus says in verse 33, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [food, drink, clothing] will be given to you as well.”
I once heard a pastor in a reputable evangelical church state from the pulpit, “This is God’s promise that no Christian will ever go hungry or naked.” My first thought was to question whether this guy had ever read Second Corinthians where Paul, who wrote several of the books in the New Testament, shares his experiences with hunger and nakedness (2 Corinthians 11:27). If I accepted the pastor’s interpretation, then either Paul wasn’t a Christian or God broke His promise. This statement had to be wrong.
So how am I supposed to interpret verse 33? If I isolate it from its context and take it completely literally, I’d have to agree with the pastor. But Jesus isn’t teaching here about fulfilling every one of our physical requirements under all circumstances. The overall message of the passage is something like this: “Don’t be hung up on yourself and your own needs to the point of anxious worry. Keep your focus on God. He loves you so much that He’s taking care of you moment by moment and day by day. Trust Him.”
Verse 33 is the hope-filled climax. But the passage also has its realistic elements. Verses 28 through 30 describe both the beauty of the lilies of the field and their pitifully brief lifespan. Death happens. Jesus is even more blunt in verse 34: “Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Hopeful in 33; realistic in 34.
In John 16:33, He conveys a similar message: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Realistic—we cannot escape the troubles of this world. They’re guaranteed. You will have trouble. Hopeful—Jesus has overcome the world. Nothing can beat that.
The reality of sin and the hope of the gospel
When I became a Christian as a teenager, I had very little background in the Bible. I began reading through the Old Testament not knowing how each story would end. David was one of my favorite people. He stood up to Goliath when the armies of Israel were quaking in fear (1 Samuel 17). He never retaliated against the murderous rage of King Saul even though he had opportunities to do so (1 Samuel 24 and 26). This is the stuff idols are made of. I was heartbroken when King David defied God first by having sex with another man’s wife, then by having that man murdered to cover up his sin (2 Samuel 11). This isn’t how idols behave.
As I grew in my walk with Christ, I began to see God’s wisdom in freely admitting in His Word that even His most steadfast followers are fallen human beings. “You shall not make for yourself an idol” (Exodus 20:4). No idols. Not even His chosen instruments.
Here, as in the gospel message itself, I find support for a realistic but hopeful attitude. Realistic—every person who’s ever walked this earth, with the exception of the Man who was God, has been a sinner, incapable of living a perfect life. Hopeful—God reaches out to those sinners throughout the Bible to save them and to begin the process of growing them into His likeness.
Thank You, Father, for using even the words from a secular source to teach and strengthen and grow me. Thank You for the wisdom, spoken by this doctor and confirmed by Your Word, that helps keep me centered when I’m struggling with the extremes of unrealistic hope or hopeless realism. And thank You that, in Christ, the hope always far outweighs the painful realities of life.