Believing the Best, Optimism, and Wishful Thinking

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[My brilliant artist nieces strike again! Unicorn Credit: Annika and Aislyn]

Come, let us reason together.

Believing the best of someone is perceiving them as accurately as you can while choosing to focus on their positive qualities, affirming their character, and trying to encourage and draw forth the good you can see. You can believe the best of someone who appears horrible, who has done genuinely despicable things. That’s how prison ministry works. In fact, that’s how grace works. If God won’t see the potential in people inclined to self-destructive, sinful behavior, we’re all doomed.

But we’re not all doomed. God sees us as we are and knows we have more capacity for good than we realize. That’s the Gospel*. That’s the Prodigal Son. God knows that we have warped the image of Jesus and God still sees how beautiful and loving we can be. When we believe the best of one another, we affirm what God sees, that the drug addict stuck in his habit can recover and Johnny Cash can play a concert at Folsom Prison because he understands the darkness they live in. He lived there, too. But he knows they could be redeemed because he was. Believing the best in you means that your darkness is not the last word. God’s love is.

Optimism is a different animal. Believing the best is central to the Gospel, not denial nor superficial acceptance but clear-eyed hope for choosing good over evil. Optimism is a cousin of hope but can also dwell in the land of make believe. I’m an optimist. I choose to be a hopeful person, often directly in the face of my depression and a constant barrage of negative thoughts. But optimism is not identical to biblical hope. Biblical hope is rooted in God’s faithfulness and the certainty that all shall be well, even if nothing appears well in my limited range of vision. Biblical hope declares that we’ll be okay, not because God will prevent bad things from happening but because in Jesus, we can endure bad things, including death. Biblical hope is perhaps the most powerful force on earth, stronger even than greed.

Optimism is simply hoping for the best, but optimism is not always rooted in the hope that Jesus Christ has resurrected from the dead and overcome every enemy, including death. Sometimes we’re optimistic just “cuz we hope good things will happen.” In general, I’d rather choose to be an optimist than a pessimist, even though pessimists have sound logic for their position: “Never get your hopes up and you’ll never be disappointed.” I’ve decided there are worse things in the world than disappointment. Cynicism, for example.

But we had a baby die in our arms. Optimism says that bad things won’t happen to us, because…they won’t. Because it’s us. Then bad things happen and optimism looks a lot like believing in unicorns. Fun, but an illusion. That was never real. If it’s joined to our theology, the backlash will hurt. “But I thought God loved me!”

We went to a funeral with one of our dear friends in Nicaragua, Carlos, who was burying his little girl. We’d suffered the same with Isaac, so I could talk with him about it, share our experience, and let him know what I have seen of God’s faithfulness in tragedy. But here’s the truth: most people in developing countries (and everyone living in poverty) much more often suffer these life-rending tragedies. Their children die young more often. Their mothers die in childbirth more often. Optimism says that won’t happen to us, but optimism is also the luxury of people who can afford to make things go our way most of the time. Again, hope in Jesus Christ is that God loves me and Isaac’s death does not change or disprove that. I reached that point, but it took me years. You can see how different that is than optimism, the denial that bad things would ever happen to me. Or you.

I’m perpetually optimistic that I will arrive on time and I rarely do. A friend dubbed this “temporal optimism” and I thought that a brilliant term. I somehow can believe, in the face of how many years of evidence, that this time I’m gonna walk right out of the house when I need to, hop on my bike or in my car, and arrive 5 minutes early. It took Kim years (and years) to convince me that travel time took actual time. Doesn’t seem like a complicated mathematical reality, but I resisted, due to my temporal optimism. I’m a little better now–and I mean if you have a very fine-tuned instrument you can detect my improvement. Like a clock that counts milliseconds.

But you can see how this kind of optimism doesn’t reside in faith in Jesus Christ or hope in God’s grace. It’s just “I want things to go well so I’m going to believe they will.” Sometimes that serves us really well. Norman Vincent Peale made a fortune selling books about “the Power of Positive Thinking.” “If you believe it, you can achieve it,” that sort of thing. I’m not against that on principle, and certainly if you believe you can’t, you have proven yourself right without ever trying.

But what is the term for a woman’s thought pattern who convinces herself that her abusive boyfriend won’t hit her again? Is that “optimism?” Or is that wishful thinking? To be clear, it’s often a much more complex tangle of thoughts that involves negative self-image, believing she somehow deserves her abuse, and the ongoing manipulation that he’s the only one who could care for her/provide for her/keep her safe (ironically). But in the core of this mental issue we see a repeated insistence that, against all evidence, “he’s sorry and he’ll never do it again.” I consider that wishful thinking. Wanting to see what isn’t there and convincing myself I do.

Wishful thinking, in my view, is the opposite of clear-eyed believing the best. Believing the best, as I described it, means I will take every necessary step to keep you from abusing me again. If you can demonstrate that you are changing, I may take the chance to trust you again, or I may encourage you and pray for you but not enter back in (I can believe in someone’s redemption without having to put myself at risk to do so). Wishful thinking and biblical hope can look very similar. But wishful thinking is rooted in “this is the reality I want to see, so I’m going to pretend this is the reality I actually see.” As such, it’s wildly dangerous. Instead of clear-eyed recognition of another’s sins and faults, it chooses to overlook or ignore them. Wishful thinking and denial are first cousins. In fact, “wishful thinking” is the nice term for an addict’s thought pattern.


We’re living in a world suffering a virus for which none of us yet have antiviral medicine (clinical trials are happening as I type). It’s a pandemic, crossing all borders and boundaries. As always, it’s hitting and will hurt and kill people in poverty more. It’s also more likely to kill people with other physical vulnerabilities. “Underlying conditions,” we keep hearing. But I like that term about as much as I like “casaulties” when we’re talking about young men and women dying. If you’ve spent your life coping with and navigating a congenital heart condition, how unfair is it that now the pandemic we all face is more likely to kill you? Pretty bleeping unfair, I’d say.

This is not a time for wishful thinking. There might be a different term for nationwide wishful thinking. But if ever there were a time to get over the illusion “It can’t happen to me,” That Time. Is. Now. The novel coronavirus isn’t picky. It can happen to any of us. We might survive it. We might not. But nationally, we’re working together to prevent a much, much worse tragedy.

Denying medical science and the suffering and death other countries have already experienced is wishful thinking. Deciding it will be okay because we want that to be true is wishful thinking. Yesterday, I read an estimate of how many people would die if we reopened everything and sent our children back to school now. Stop and hear that. Estimating how many of our children will die.

Listen to me. I’ve had a child die. I barely survived. I feel fortunate our marriage survived (most don’t). Two percent of our total population includes more children than you want to see die, and some of them will be your children. Not only can it happen to you, it will happen to you if we pretend that we’ll be fine when all evidence tells us we won’t. This is not the time for wishful thinking.** Wanting it to be different doesn’t actually change our situation, any more than it changes the situation for the woman still living with her abuser. What happens still happens, he still does what he does, no matter how hard she tells herself he won’t anymore. If she doesn’t leave, statistically speaking, he will kill her.

We don’t know enough about this virus yet. That’s a big part of our problem. We don’t (yet) have the capacity to test everyone. We’re still learning how immunity works with this virus. We know that people can carry it for weeks asymptomatically.

Come, let us reason together. People, many, many people, are suffering in many ways right now because we have chosen to shelter in place. I’m not saying it’s all fine. I don’t have wishful thinking about our shelter in place decision. I’m certainly not saying “This is fine and who cares about people’s jobs?” I know, I really know that domestic abuse–another crappy euphemism, if you ask me, when we’re talking about (mostly) women getting battered by men–is increasing horribly. Likewise child abuse. I know, better and more personally than some, that depression is hitting us harder because many of our support systems we’ve worked hard to build have been removed. Likewise for people recovering from addiction. Our choice to shelter in place comes at a terrible cost. There is also a nightmarish underlying message here that home is so unsafe for so many people What do we do about that? Who’s developing that vaccine?

I don’t claim to have any medical expertise whatsoever and I don’t have all the information. But I’m representative because, like you, I have available to me the information from epidemiological experts. Like you, I also have available to me the information from people who are not medical experts who want to believe something conflicting with what the epidemiologists are telling us right now. I get that they have motives for what they tell us. But I fear, I truly fear, that decisions upon which the health, the very lives of millions of people (including our children) depend, are being made based on wishful thinking. I pray I’m wrong.

I have heard no one claim “this is all just fine.” Those saying we need to continue sheltering in place are not pitting people’s lives against our economy, as if these were two opposing options. If we let the pandemic rage uncontrolled, we will see millions of people–no, millions of us, our families–die horribly, and we will see our economy crash under the weight of it. It’s not one or the other.

I keep thinking people get this:

Our only choices are between

Containing this pandemic as best we can and then recovering from the economic damage

OR

Refusing to do what’s necessary to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, watching COVID-19 rage out of control and kill people we love, and suffering the collapse of our medical establishment and all the accompanying, calamitous consequences to our economy.

I don’t know how to weigh increased abuse of women by men in their homes and loss of income versus another one hundred thousand people dying. Yes, we can hope those people wouldn’t die if we all go back to how we interacted before the virus spread. That is wishful thinking.

I know this is all scary, even terrifying, and overwhelming. We have to choose not to let our fear drive us to anger against anyone giving us news we don’t want to hear. Right now, the fathers of two different young women I’ve mentored are fighting for their lives, trying to recover from COVID-19. It’s getting more personal for us each day. It’s easier to indulge in wishful thinking as long as this isn’t personal. This is very personal.

I’m tempted to excoriate those who have stated that “acceptable losses” of those with “underlying conditions” would be a reasonable tradeoff for us to “get back to business.” But I will settle for pointing out that they mean “those people” who will die. Faith in Jesus Christ means we trust that God loves us even beyond the grasp of death while following Jesus Christ means we value the lives of those devalued by our society, by our culture, and by those who count their own lives–and comfort–as more valuable. When I’m serious about following Jesus, I remember there are no “Those people.” Who is my neighbor?

Our people, our families, will die. We’re helping save their lives right now. Please, right now, pray for Luis and Scott, these two men who are part of my extended family in Jesus. [##While writing this, Connie, Luis’s wife, wrote me to ask for prayer for the rest of her household, as they are all showing symptoms and unable to get tested.##] Then consider how many more we can protect by following our medical experts’ recommendations. We need a plan, such as Germany just introduced, to restart everything cautiously, step by step. Support these plans, not the ones that suggest we could have packed our churches on Easter. We were told that the underestimates we received in January, February, and March when we should have been preparing for the pandemic were due to “optimism.” I believe that it was optimism, as I’ve defined it here.

Followers of Jesus are called to live by faith. We seek to believe the best of people. This is faithfulness. We should not mistake believing the best for optimism, nor for wishful thinking. Having faith is not wishful thinking; wishful thinking is not having faith. We choose to believe in people’s redemption, no matter what they’ve chosen up until now. We do not make up our own preferred reality and attribute that to obeying God. As people of the truth, we confront people living in unreality, as Jesus did, as an act of love. When we’ve seen how people behave, making excuses for–or denying–their poor choices is not “believing the best” of them. When we talk about decisions that put lives at risk, this becomes the wishful thinking that gets people killed.

In general, following Jesus does not mean always valuing caution over taking risks to be obedient. We’re not to protect our own comfort over our neighbors’ lives. However, in our current circumstances, erring on the side of caution does fit with following Jesus because by erring on the side of caution we protect our neighbors’ lives. All our neighbors. If we end the shelter in place too soon, there will be no way to undo this mistake of wishful thinking.

*Some people would be quick to say, “No, the Gospel is that we are totally depraved and have no good in us but God saves us anyway.” In my view, we are created in God’s image and God never stopped loving us or seeing that image in us, even when we warp and twist it. God made us in love and made us to be like Jesus. God still sees that capacity in each of us and God’s spirit works in us to bring that out. That’s how we are transformed into the image of Jesus.

**Yes, there is a time for wishful thinking: Opening Day of the season, when you can still believe your team will win.

3 thoughts on “Believing the Best, Optimism, and Wishful Thinking

  1. I’m glad you’re making the distinction between looking for the best, optimism and wishful thinking. I think your choice of abused women as an example of wishful thinking needs a closer look. You suggest that it’s “often a much more complex tangle.” I’d argue that it’s ALWAYS a much more complex tangle, and suggesting that it’s ever wishful thinking does a disservice to these women. Abuse and trauma changes the brain in ways that are often beyond the control of the person being changed. Wishful thinking suggests a person has an obvious choice and is therefore foolish for not taking it. I am of the opinion that a lot of wishful thinkers in this pandemic, and in response to this government, are actually having a trauma reaction. Their programming is firing and without significant and directed external input and support it is actually beyond their capability to be reasonable. It doesn’t mean their decisions are “okay.” It does mean that I have a responsibility to understand the decisions and, if I REALLY care, to act on the conditions that are exacerbating and creating that trauma.

    • Adam, I have yet to regret becoming friends with you.

      I just described in “A Glimpse from Here” how I can compare my current mental state to the culture shock we experienced in Nicaragua. “Culture shock” is a specific type of trauma. I think you make an excellent point here about women in abusive relationships. I was digging for something clear enough that people would understand that we’re not going to see some sudden “turn” in how this has been handled nor of the leadership we’re going to have from the top. But you are absolutely correct, it’s a false simplification to act as if every decision a battered woman is making is in a vacuum and with all objective, clear thinking.
      Similarly, people’s judgments against those fleeing their countries for asylum here somehow expect that these people are spending hours researching U.S. immigration laws (on the internet!) and making clear, wrong judgments (“THEY SHOULD HAVE FOLLOWED OUR LAWS!”).

      In terms of this post, I’d say your insight is particularly profound that people–like those suffering culture shock–imagine they are of sound mind and making clear, rational decisions when what we’re really seeing is a trauma reaction…though they have no idea and (most likely) would not be able to recognize it even if confronted with the evidence.

      This delves into a deeper issue. “It does mean I have a responsibility to understand the decisions and, if I REALLY care, to act on the conditions that are exacerbating and creating that trauma.” I think this is exactly right. I also think these are often the people who consider emotional responses evidence of being a “snowflake.” Clearly my hope in communicating with them is primarily well-reasoned (i hope) comparisons and shining light on the issue. “…o act on the conditions that are exacerbating and creating that trauma.” I’d like to know what popped into your mind as examples of this.

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