“Well, that will never work.”
I say this kind of thing more often than I’d like to admit—along with, “Well, I could have told you that would happen” and “What did you expect?” I wouldn’t say that I’m a negative Nellie, but my husband might. In fact, we often joke that because he tends to be overly optimistic and I tend to overly pessimistic, we can just about make out reality when we work together.
In this week’s episode of Persuasion, we’re continuing our series Ready, Set, Think! in which we’re excavating the assumptions beneath our thoughts and opinions. Last time, we chatted with Jen Michel about the need to develop a healthy respect for paradox, and this time we tackle whether we come to conversations with a fundamentally negative or positive disposition. Do you see the glass as half full or half empty? And how does your perspective affect the conclusions you reach and your response to people who see the world differently?
One thing that struck me in our conversation is the importance of seeing the world accurately. But here’s where language does us a disservice. When we say someone is a “realist” or they “live in the real world,” we often mean that they can see the potential for problems or that they think about all the things can go wrong. But being a realist, in the truest sense of the word, means being able to see things for what they are–both good and bad. It’s the ability (to quote C. S. Lewis) to recognize the “deeper magic” that is play.
For Christians, this means that our natural instinct toward positivity or negativity must be shaped by spiritual realities, not simply what we see in front of us. Our perspective must include ALL that is true about the world–how God made it and us for goodness, how we live under the curse of brokenness, how He is actively redeeming us through the gospel. To be a realist means to understand all of this and incorporate it into our thinking. Or as Scripture puts it, we must “live by faith, not by sight.”
This means that faith tempers both our optimism and our pessimism. When we’re tempted to idealism, faith reminds us that while we exist under the curse. And when we’re tempted to resignation, faith reminds us that God is at work. This is, after all, the essence of faith: believing that God exists and that he rewards those that seek him.
In this sense, faith changes the question entirely, reorienting us toward goodness in a way that transcends our typical glass half empty/half full framing. Faith ensures that we are neither naive nor hopeless, replacing our gut responses with a thoughtfulness that evaluates things in light of what the world was, is, and one day will be. And then it equips us to pursue the goodness that is coming.
When I was a child, my father used to tell my siblings and me that we should always leave a place better than when we found it. He simply meant that our presence in a space or with other people should bring goodness to them. And this is perhaps the most surprising thing about faith: it moves us from a position of simply judging whether something is good to actively cultivating what is good. No longer are we simply reacting out of pessimism or optimism; we become actors, stepping into the good works that God has prepared for us to walk in.