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PESSIMISM? OPTIMISM? REALISM?
by Philip Owen

          Most of the year still lies before us so that it is still possible to wonder what awaits us. The eternal optimists among us look ahead with excitement and anticipation, believing that tomorrow will be better than yesterday or today. The eternal pessimists among us anticipate the same events with fear or dread. Writing some sixty years ago, J. Sidlow Baxter noted: “It has been said that a pessimist is one who sees a difficulty in every opportunity; whereas an optimist sees an opportunity in every difficulty.” Perhaps the best view for a child of God might be the realistic view, which encompasses elements of both the other views: with God directing our lives, every opportunity affords some difficulty, but every difficulty offers genuine opportunity.

            Consider Paul’s comments in his first letter to his brethren at the church in Corinth. They were in dire need of Paul’s ministry, and Paul had an earnest desire to see them and minister to them. But for the moment he felt compelled to “remain in Ephesus until Pentecost” (16:8). And before he would get to Corinth, he intended to “go through Macedonia” (v. 5), a much longer and more circuitous route than if he had chosen to sail directly across the Aegean Sea from Ephesus to Corinth. Why were his travels delayed and his desire stymied? Because “a wide door for effective service has opened to me, and there are many adversaries” (v. 9).         

            Note Paul’s use of that little conjunction and rather than but. Knowing the Lord and following His will enables believers to view life realistically. Those believers recognize that every circumstance in life affords a rich opportunity to serve the Lord and honor His blessed name. After all, earlier in this same epistle to the Corinthians, Paul had exhorted them to do everything to the glory of God—even something as routine and mundane as eating or drinking (see 10:31). Clearly, our lives are filled with an almost infinite number of opportunities to bless God. But that every moment breathes out possibilities to be blessed and used of God, does not mean that life is a bed of roses. Believers do not look at life through the proverbial rose-colored glasses: not everything is “rosy” in and of itself. A Pollyanna-ish approach to life works only in Hollywood. Paul sees the other side of reality with equal clarity: “there are many adversaries.”

            I had almost written but “there are many adversaries,” which would have misquoted Paul and have obliterated my point. Paul used the word and. What a world of difference. A believer basks in the blessed reality that his life is filled with meaning and purpose—even moment by moment. There is no down time; nothing need be a waste. Every moment can be a rich investment in eternity. At the same time, he lives under no delusion that he will have his best life now. He does not harbor the false idea that following the Lord means that burdens disintegrate, trials melt, and troubles disappear. Nor does he hold the idea that immense wealth and perfect health await him in this life because he is a child of God.

            God is true. The Word of God provides an accurate and realistic perspective on life. For the believer, life opens a wide door for effective service, AND there are many adversaries. Both are equally true. Both exist in the life of a believer. And both must be recognized and embraced if we are to be both effective and blessed sons of God. And God makes both work together for good. I would hesitate to say that this reality operates with mathematical precision, but it is safe to say that, generally, the greater the opportunity for service and the potential for blessing, the greater the experience of adversity and the stronger the opposition. Our desire, then, ought to be to emulate Paul. Yes, he longed to minister to and fellowship with the Corinthians. Nevertheless, he rubbed his hands together in anticipation of the blessed service that God had put before him, even as he donned the armor he knew he would need in order to succeed at what God had called him to do. How will we view and respond to what God has called us to this year?

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