THE OPTIMISM OF JESUS
"Be of good cheer."
John xvi :33.
By optimism is not meant that jaunty, brainless, happy-go-lucky buoyancy which so often calls itself by this pretentious name. If you insist upon defining an optimist as a man who plays only with sunbeams, and who can hear nothing but harmonies, and who is slightly concerned with the world’s agonies and tragedies because of his fancy that no matter what he or any one else does everything is certain to come out all right, then Jesus was not an optimist. There is a sentimental optimism that is irrational and immoral. It is the product of a shallow brain and a stupid heart. It shuts its eyes to all hideous facts and stops its ears to all horrible sounds, and insists that in spite of appearances all is well with the world. This sort of optimism faces the future with a confidence born not of courage but of moral indolence. It assumes that there is in the nature of things an irresistible tendency upward, and that irrespective of the conduct of any man or any set of men, all will be well in the end. No such optimism as this is known in the New Testament.
If we have our superficial optimists, we have also our shallow and shortsighted pessimists. There are men who have a genius for seeing shadows. Their ears are keen for discords. They keep their eyes wide open and see in a lurid light the tragedy of the world’s life. Its masses of suffering and wretchedness and woe, its sorrows and vices and sins, lie like a great weight upon the mind and the heart until the former is dizzy and the latter is sick. These men listen to the world’s sighing and sobbing and agonizing until history seems a hideous nightmare and existence itself a curse. If such a man were to speak to you tonight, he would tell you a story that would lacerate and darken your heart. He would remind you of what the thieves and the robbers, big and little, have been doing. He would call your attention to the stories of greed and lust, cruelty and lawlessness, which have recently come in from all parts of the world. He would pile up before you the sickening record of a single month’s outrage and atrocity and crime, and then ask you if it is not clear that everything is going to the dogs. These pessimists lift up their voices on every side. They tell us that republican institutions are in a process of decay, that our cities are hopelessly corrupted and sunken, that the days of the republic itself are numbered. As for society there is no health in it. From its head to its feet there is nothing but festering sores. Babylon never matched our luxury, and Rome never touched the depths of our ‘infamy. The church like everything else is decaying and is fit only for the bonfire. We may whistle if we wish to keep up our courage; but after us – the deluge! The world is running down a very steep place toward the edge of the abyss. Not a few men are thus thinking and speaking. Two of the greatest writers of the nineteenth century, Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin, were pessimistic, in their temper and outlook. The Scotchman filled the world with his shrieking, and the Englishman filled the world with his sighing. Innumerable smaller men are filling the world with their sniffling and whimpering. But from the grinning optimist and the hysterical pessimist, we can expect little. They have nothing to offer toward the solution of the great world problems.
Let us open our New Testament and listen to a man who, in these confused and distracting times, can give us confidence and hope. Jesus of Nazareth was not a man who could shut his eyes to the sorrow and the heartbreak of the world. Never were eyes wider open than his. He saw everything. He saw things that the world had passed by unnoticed. He saw suffering in its every form – it tugged at his heartstrings. The tired, sad faces of human beings haunted him, they spoke to him of the tragedy of the world’s disordered heart. He had ears that caught every shriek of agony, every cry of distress, every sigh of want. He saw with eyes that pierced. Underneath the tragedy of suffering he saw the blacker tragedy of sin. Down underneath the surface of the world’s life he saw the cancer that was eating up its strength and its hope and its joy. He recognized as none other the tremendous power of evil. He saw with open eyes the roads that lead to death. He knew, as no other has ever known so well, that evil must be resisted, that sin must be faced and grappled with, that it is only by struggle, suffering, and death that the victory can be won. But he remains nevertheless undaunted. He never loses heart. He sees all, and he bears all, but he never gives up hope. He faces facts as they are, and he predicts grander facts that are to be. He sees both sides – the bright side and the dark side – and having seen both sides his face has light on it. He sings and he also sobs. His singing is sometimes broken by his sobbing, but he is never overwhelmed, he never surrenders, his head is always up, and his unfailing exhortation is, "Be of good cheer!"
This is the dominating note of the New ‘Testament. It comes up out of the heart of the blackest tragedy that our world has known. What a sad and depressing book the New Testament ought to be considering the dismal story it has to tell! It gives us the life of one who was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. It portrays his sufferings through the cruel, disappointing years to his horrible death upon the cross. It narrates his awful predictions of coming woe and loss and ruin. It tells us that the leading cities of Galilee are rushing to destruction, and that even Jerusalem, glorious with the triumphs of a thousand years, is irretrievably doomed, and that not one stone of all its stately edifices shall be left standing on another. Its destruction shall be complete. And yet notwithstanding this heart-breaking story, the New Testament does not depress us or leave a shadow on the heart. It is a jubilant, exhilarating book, and the words that linger longest in the ear are, "Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." The New Testament is a gospel, a bit of glorious news, because at the center of it there lives and works the world’s greatest optimist.
Here is the optimist whom we have been looking for. This is the man who can inspire our confidence and give us hope. We need a man with open eye and open ear and open heart, a man who sees things as they are and knows the thickness of the belt of night. We cannot follow a leader who keeps crying, "Peace," when we know that there is no peace; nor can we trust a teacher who asserts that all is well, when his assertion is contradicted daily by the experience of the world. Give us a man who feels the fury of the storm, and is also certain of the calm that is going to follow. Give us a man who can measure accurately the dimensions of the night, and who also sees the dawning of a glorious morning. Jesus is the prince of optimists – his optimism is the optimism of God Himself.
‘Let us try to find the secret of Jesus’ optimism. The secret is written large across the pages of the Gospel. It was a secret too good to keep – he gave it to everybody who had cars to hear. It was an abiding confidence in God. We are sure of Him – sometimes. Our faith is clouded and it is intermittent. It floods and ebbs like the tide. Jesus never doubted. His vision was unclouded. His trust was absolute. To him God was an ever-present Father. This was his new name for God. The prophets and poets of Israel had only seldom ventured to think of God as father, and then only by way of dim surmise. With Jesus, God was always Father. This is the name he carried on his lips when a boy of twelve, it was on his lips when he passed from this world into the other. He placed it on the lips of every man who followed him. It constantly amazed him that men had so little faith in God. "Have faith in God!" This was the exhortation with which he braced the hearts of those who wished to live his life and do his work. The words came with the power of a revelation, because they were warmed with the blood of a heart that knew the secret of perfect trust.
Along with unswerving trust in God there went an unshakable confidence in man. Jesus believed in human nature. He saw the possibilities and capacities of the human heart. He saw men’s littlenesses, frailties, vices, and sins; but underneath all these he saw a soul created in God’s image. The deepest thing in man he saw to be not animalism but Godlikeness. He called Simon the son of Jonas a rock, when Simon was counted the most fickle and fluctuating man in all the town. Jesus saw that which was deepest in him. He had confidence not only in people who went to church, but also in people who never went. He had hope of the Publicans and sinners. He knew that Zaccheus could repent and that Matthew could become a preacher. He believed that men and women who have fallen all the way to the bottom can climb back again, "The harlots are going into the kingdom before you!"-thus he spoke to a company of hardhearted pessimists who had lost confidence in the recoverableness of human nature. Man, in spite of his aberrations and stumblings and failings, is a being on whom you can rely; he has in him the very essence and nature of God. And so Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Thou art rock and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it!" What sublime confidence! Can an unconquerable institution, one against which no forces in the universe can possibly prevail, be constructed out of men? Can impregnable walls be built of human nature? Can eternal foundations be laid in human hearts? Yes, says Jesus, and without a doubt of the fidelity of his apostles, he rolled the huge world upon their shoulders and went away.
Nor could any experience break down this trust in the divine capacities of human nature. When has a man had greater reason to abandon faith in men than this optimist of Galilee? He lived in a corrupt and demoralizing age. Government was both tyrannical and rotten. Its officials were for the most part cynics and grafters. The Jewish church was formal, lifeless, and hypocritical. Its leaders, many of them, were dead to the movements of God’s spirit. Society was disgustingly corrupt. Men had grown skeptical everywhere of the honesty of man or the virtue of woman. But Jesus trusted men. He did this in the teeth of experiences that swept over him like a dark and devastating flood. His entire career was a tragedy. He was suspected, misrepresented, hated. He was surrounded by liars wherever he went. No matter what he said his sentences were twisted, and no matter what he did his motives were impugned. Such treatment is apt to sour the heart of any one who is long subjected to it. Jesus was mistreated all the way. The inhuman wretches who tortured him in the courtyard of Pontius Pilate were doing only what men had done to him from the beginning. His life was one long-drawn crucifixion. Men were always jamming thorns into his brow, jabbing spears into his side, driving spikes through his hands and feet. But he never gave up faith in human nature. When he saw that men were determined to take his life he said, "If I be lifted up, I will draw all men unto me 1" He felt that no matter what cruel and devilish things human nature might be guilty of, there was after all down deep in the heart that which :would respond to forgiveness and love. The enemies of Jesus were the meanest, most unprincipled, diabolical set of human hounds which ever tracked an innocent man to death; but they never broke down his confidence in the divinity of the human heart.
It was not only his enemies but also his friends who caused him unspeakable anguish. Among his own disciples, in the innermost circle of his trusted friends, there was a man who in return for all his confidence and all his goodness became a traitor, and betrayed him into the hands of the men who had agreed upon his death. And this traitor did not betray him in a manner decent even among traitors, but in a way of which a devil might have been ashamed. He betrayed Jesus with a kiss. Hell itself can produce nothing viler than sugarcoated treachery. But no matter what individual men may do, man is to be trusted still. When he comes to his true self, he will say, "I will arise and go to my Father!"
The faith of Jesus is in marked contrast to the skepticism of many individuals whom we have known. There is nothing so staggering to one’s confidence in human nature as an unfortunate experience in early life. A young man starts out, hopeful and trustful, falls in with men of good reputation and high standing who gouge him and skin him, and for the rest of his life the man is skeptical and possibly cynical. A young woman begins life with a heart that trusts everybody. She is deceived and betrayed, either by man or by woman, and she carries a wound which time does not heal. There are in every community men and women, soured on the world, suspicious of everybody, clinging to the conviction that there is nobody in whom one can trust. Would that all such cynics might come to Jesus and learn from him to expect large things from human nature everywhere. He sees the shallowness, the paltriness, the frailty of the heart; but he also sees its capacities, its possibilities, the mustard-seed germs of virtues and graces that the Spirit of God can unfold. We measure men too much by their powers, and not enough by their capacities, by what they are today and not by what they may become later on. It was because the eyes of Jesus swept the future that he could stand around the wreckage of a race in ruins and say, "Be of good cheer!"
This indomitable Optimist has confidence in you. You have no hope for yourself. He has. You see your weakness, sordidness, vileness; he sees deeper, and seeing deeper he has hope for you. He sees your capacity of God. He knows what you can do when you have come to yourself. He sees deeper also into God. You have no adequate conception of the patience or the mercy of the Infinite Father. He has. You do not know what Infinite Love can accomplish. He does. Because of your transgressions you have lost faith in yourself. He has not. Because you have failed a thousand times you say there is no use trying any more. He says, "Try again!" If you give yourself to him, he will make of you an optimist!