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Should Christians Be Optimists or Pessimists?

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Throughout this pandemic, I’ve been pondering a question: As Christians, are we to lean toward pessimism or optimism? This question seems to lie just below the surface of nearly every conversation and guides—implicitly or explicitly—many of our responses to the coronavirus.

This old hymn may give us the answer:

Now thank we all our God,
with heart and hands and voices,
who wonderous things hath done,
in whom his world rejoices;
who from our mother’s arms
hath blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love,
and still is ours today.

At first, I think most of us would say that the opening verse of this hymn is upbeat. The circumstances it was composed in, however, tell a very different story.

War, Famine, and a Plague

Although “Now Thank We All Our God” is more than four centuries old, we have a good idea about its origin. It was composed by a pastor, Martin Rinkart, who led relief efforts in Eilenburg, Germany, during the Thirty Years’ War. What a devastating war it was. Some historians rank it as one of the most destructive in history.

When peasants displaced by the war knocked at the city gates, they were admitted into the crowded city. Food grew scarce. Troops lodged with the townsfolk. The Rinkart family shared what they had. Martin borrowed against future earnings to make up for the food the soldiers pilfered.

And then in 1637, things went from bad to horrible. Another enemy of man invaded: the plague. Each morning a huddled mass of beggars waited at Martin’s door, begging for food.

Martin often conducted funerals from morning till night. Some accounts record Martin conducting 4,800 funerals; others put the number at 8,000.

Whenever societies are stressed, some think only of themselves. The Thirty Years’ War was no exception. Fights broke out in the streets. At one point, 30 people rioted over the carcass of one dead cat. Imagine—plague, war, a devastated economy, thousands dying, uncertainty about the future, and all these lasting not just for a month or a year but for three decades!

Strength and Peace

At last, the peace of Westphalia prevailed. In this setting, Rinkart wrote:

O may this bounteous
God through all our life be near us,
with ever-joyful hearts
and blessed peace to cheer us;
and keep us in his grace,
and guide us when perplexed,
and free us from all ills
in this world and the next.
All praise and thanks to God
the Father now be given,
the Son, and Holy Ghost,
supreme in highest heaven,
the one eternal God,
whom earth and heaven adore;
for thus it was, is now,
and shall be evermore.

More than advocating pessimism or optimism, “Now Thank We All Our God” is a song of appreciation—and even joy. Even amid unparalleled personal and societal tragedy, the Holy Spirit led Rinkart to gratitude.

Four centuries later, the world has yet again been thrown a curve ball in the form of the coronavirus. Some are dying, and many are suffering. But this is the arena in which the Spirit of the Lord operates. Hard times are the refiner’s fire in which the chaff of our worldly selves is burned away and the gold of a person filled with the fruit of the Holy Spirit is revealed.

I am not saying that we aren’t experiencing tragedy and loss. But many of us are merely being inconvenienced. Having to get our fast food through the drive-thru is hardly fighting over the carcass of a dead cat. And let’s face it: isolating in front of the television hardly compares to bloodthirsty troops banging at the city gates.

Jesus warned us there would tough days ahead. He said there would be wars and rumors of wars, food shortages, and diseases. His warning was issued over two thousand years ago. Many generations have come and gone since then. There must have come a time when each wondered if this was the end. Indeed, there is much pessimistic talk in the media today. Others tell us that all we need is a sense of optimism.

For Paul the apostle, the secret was to lean on Jesus, whether Paul was being stoned and left for dead, flogged with 39 lashings (for the fourth time), listening to his captors debate whether to kill him or throw him into the sea, or just starving and shivering while chained in a damp dungeon.

The strength we have in Christ is not one comprised of Pollyanna-ish optimism. Remember: the devil is always trying to get us to throw caution to the wind (Matt. 4:5–7). Rather, it is strength built on the rock of salvation.

The next time you are experiencing frustration or difficulty, call to mind this hymn and the circumstances that inspired it. The centuries-old message from Martin Rinkart is both timely and timeless: Keep your eyes on the prize!

1 response to Should Christians Be Optimists or Pessimists?

  1. I belong to a Baptist Church in Flemington, NJ.

    I have two friends from the Alliance Church and

    agree with all you believe and stand for.

    With this Coronovirus I attend an Alliance

    service on Zoom.

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