The Difference Between Optimism and Biblical Hope

Depending on your perspective, an optimist in your life might be spring sunshine in a dreary room or a stubborn fly, banging against the window.

The Bible speaks a lot about hope, not so much about optimism. That doesn’t mean optimism is necessarily bad! (The Bible doesn’t mention pie, and only a monster would insist we avoid that.) However, both inside and outside of the church, there is confusion about hope and optimism.

What is Optimism?

Optimism is a “tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome.”

Have you met an optimist? They see the silver linings of dark clouds and always hold onto the possibility of things turning out well. They rarely seem discouraged or gloomy. Even when life is hard, good things are right around the corner.

It’s interesting to ponder why. On what basis does an optimist expect a sunny future?

The optimist would probably chalk their outlook up to natural disposition or upbringing. Some optimists likely base their positivity on experience—life seems more likely to go well in the future if it’s generally gone well in the past.

What is Biblical Hope?

Without clear definitions, the lines between optimism and biblical hope might appear blurry. If Christians are called to be hopeful people, are we therefore called to be optimistic?

As I’ve tried to argue previously, biblical hope is distinctive. It doesn’t depend on one’s personality or experience. Hope relies only on God.

Biblical hope is the glad expectation that God will keep his promises. In the New Testament, this hope is almost always tethered to the second coming of Jesus and the new heavens and new earth.

How is this different from optimism?

God’s promises include outcomes that are not intrinsically positive. In fact, God promises persecution and suffering for those who follow Jesus (2 Tim 3:12, John 15:20).

A hopeful Christian is confident that God is good and has ultimate good in store for each of his children. But the outcomes along the way may not be good; in fact, there might be terrible pain, loss, and sorrow for Christians in this life.

And yet, because God cannot break a promise, the Christian is absolutely sure of a glorious ending. We will see God as he is; we will dwell with him face to face; we will inhabit a new creation with glorified bodies. The curse will be no more.

Called to Hope

Hope is not incidental for the Christian—it is at the very heart of how we are to live in the world. The resurrection of Jesus gives us “a living hope.”

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Pet 1:3)

We are commanded to set our hope completely on forthcoming grace.

Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Pet 1:13)

Hope is something that God has called us to (Eph 1:18), and it is fuel for our joy (Rom 12:12). God is the “God of hope” and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we “may abound in hope” as well (Rom 15:13).

It is far too easy to get caught in the riptide of motivational sayings and empty, “you can do this” platitudes. God has not commanded us to be optimists; rather, he has give us all we need to abound in hope.

As we get to know our God, we see how faithful and trustworthy he is. As we learn and rehearse his promises, we grasp the riches of the gospel—Christ in us, the hope of glory (Col 1:27).

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