Optimism and Pessimism Versus Christianity


Here we have a rule, or principle of life and conduct, which corresponds with, but which is more important than, the rules of good farming. We are not to spend the brief day of life in wistfully surveying those evil conditions or those calamities which surround our existence. We are to go forward; we are to do the utmost in, and to make the best of, that certain duty in that state of life to which it has pleased God to call us. If we suppose a man placed in this world without the light of revelation, how is he likely to look upon his existence — as an existence of happiness or misery, a blessing or a curse? This question will probably be answered in accordance with the deep-seated tendencies of individual temperament, but these tendencies when prolonged become a system of doctrines, and so it is there are two main ways of looking at human life and its surrounding liabilities. First of all, there is what is called Optimism — a production of the temperament which refuses to see in earthly human existence anything but sunshine. This kind of optimism lives at the West End of London, and forgets that the East End exists at all. It draws a veil over the miseries, the poverty and pain; it draws its curtains and pokes up its fire; ii has no patience with people who have human sorrows, and when they are forced on their attention, it protests with a good-natured smile that things do not look so gloomy as some people think, and it whispers to itself the familiar words, “Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry,” and perhaps it fancies that it has got hold of the true meaning of Solomon and it is obeying him in not regarding the clouds. The objection to this optimistic theory is, that it is inconsistent with hard facts; it only belongs to the man who has good health, fair abilities, and sufficient income. Such a man may, for a certain time, keep the sterner realities of existence at bay, may dream that this is the best of possible worlds in which to live. But for the immense majority of human beings the language of optimism can never sound other than heart-deceiving. It has no will to play the fiddle like the Emperor of Rome, while Rome is burning, or to dance upon the deck of a sinking ship; even the buoyant spirits of the Greeks gave way before great calamities. In the solemn event of death there is needed some theory apart from this temper of refined and cultivated selfishness. In view of sights to be seen in this great city, with its vast accumulated misery, poverty and pain, the optimist well knows that there are things on earth, if not in heaven, which have not been duly allowed for by his smiling philosophy. And here the opposite estimate of human existence claims a hearing. We have, all of us, met with people who make a point of looking at everything on the darkest side, who fondle jealousy, and prize their groanings; who, as if under some strange pressure of conscience, do not allow themselves to recognize the happier features of their life or of the circumstances in which God has placed them. For them the sun never shines, the flowers never open, the face of man never smiles; they see everything through a thick atmosphere of depression and gloom. The pessimist has no eye for the creative and recuperative powers of nature. He lingers over its tendency to corruption and decay. He sees before him only death in life — never life in death; for him man’s history is made up of unprofitable emerging from and sinking back into barbarism without any lasting gains for human progress and improvement. One of the incidental proofs of the Divine greatness of Christianity is to be found in its attitude towards these opposing estimates of human life. For the religion of Christ is by turns pessimist and optimist. Christianity quarrels not with the principles of these two ways of looking at life, but with their misapplication. Christ could not allow that human nature weakened and degraded by the Fall, exposed to the inroads of temptation and sin, subject to invasion by sickness and by death, is a fitting subject for light-hearted self-congratulation. Nor, on the other hand, is it consistent with faith in and respect for His finished work, to despair of souls or to despair of societies which He has redeemed, in forgetfulness of the new force with which He has endowed them. St. Paul is pessimist in his description of the state and prospects of the heathen world at the beginning of his Epistle to the Romans; but who more optimist than he — who more buoyantly confident of the splendid destinies reserved for the servants of Christ than this same apostle when he describes the effects working in the soul, and the working of the Spirit of Life, in his Epistle to the Romans; or of our incorporation with the Redeemer, in the Epistles to the Colossians and the Ephesians? With human nature left to itself he could hope for nothing; with human nature redeemed and invigorated by Jesus Christ our Lord, he could despair of nothing. Of the one he says, “I know that in me, that is in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing.” Of the other he cries, “I can do all things through Christ who strengtheneth me.” And then we see how the birth of our Divine Lord into this human world was the consummation of optimism and the condemnation of pessimism. Pessimism, which is common sense in the heathen, is, in the Christian, disloyalty be Christ. Optimism, unlike that in the heathen, is in the Christian, who knows what Christ has done for him, mere common sense. The reason is because he knows that the Divine power has, at the birth of Christ, entered into human nature, has reversed his own downward inclination in his character, the warp towards evil, and that faith has endowed it with a vigour which comes from heaven. The Christian who regardeth the clouds, who looks long and wistfully at evils, or at threatenings of evil, which are beyond his power to remove or to correct, shall not reap the harvest of joy or work which lies already to his hand. For so regarding the clouds takes time and thought and effort, and our stock of these things is too small to admit of any wasteful expenditure. So to regard the clouds depresses the spirit, enfeebles the heart, and takes away the strength of purpose and resolute exertion which are wanted for the work of God. There are evils enough nearer the earth than the clouds, evils of our own causing, and evils springing from our own heart, evils lying right across our path, or by the side of it, and on these we cannot bestow too much attention. But the clouds, however much we may gaze at them, and wish they were really rain, or the reverse, the clouds are after all out of our reach. Let us not regard them; let us leave them to God.