Our pastor died suddenly last Thursday and the memorial service took place the other night at a local theater large enough to accommodate the huge turnout. A stage full of speakers rose in turn to eulogize their friend, mentor, colleague, and brother. The common theme of their praises was his “pathological optimism.”
The phrase always gets a laugh, of course, because the reference to pathology suggests a condition detached from objective reality or realistic justification, as well as a trait run amuck and unhealthy. But the expression also works on us in a salubrious way, forcing us to wrestle with the question of whether it is sane to continue in optimism even in times when all visible indications are bleak.
In Authentic Christianity,author and pastor Ray Stedman considers optimism to be at the top of the list of true marks of a Christian. He wrote:
“Many people think that the mark of an authentic Christian is doctrinal purity. … People who equate orthodoxy with authenticity find it hard to even consider the possibility that, despite the correctness of all their doctrinal positions, they may have missed the deepest reality of the authentic Christian life. But we must never forget that true Christianity is more than teaching—it is a way of life. In fact, it is life itself. …Our purpose in this book is to trace the sharp distinctions between the phony and the genuine.”
Pastor Stedman proceeds to suggest five unmistakable marks of authentic Christianity, and mark No. 1 is “Unquenchable optimism.” He points us to the abiding attitude of the apostle Paul during a turbulent ministry:
“But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere” (2 Corinthians 2:14).
Stedman sees little difference between thankfulness and optimism. Murphy’s Law (that whatever can go wrong will go wrong) has no place in the Christian, who believes that God is in control of all things and that He has given many precious promises of continuous advancement of His kingdom. Stedman cites as an example the incident in which Paul and Silas end up arrested, flogged, and thrown in a dungeon in Philippi. And what do they do around midnight? They start to sing.
Optimism is a spirit that takes anything you dish out to it and keeps expecting there will be a good outcome. It would indeed be “pathological” if we didn’t live in a universe run by a loving and possibilities-bending Father. But because we do, the only “pathological” position would be that of unquenchable pessimism.