A Case for Christian Optimism

We can be assured that we are “immortal” until our Master’s purpose for us is accomplished.

“Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that  through your prayers and  the help of  the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance,  as it is my eager expectation and hope  that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full  courage now as always Christ  will be honored in my body,  whether by life or by death.” (Philippians 1:18b-20 ESV)

Water can be a sore subject for many married couples.

I am decidedly the glass-half-full type in our marriage. My dear wife represents the half-empty party. She, like most pessimists, prefers to identify herself as a “realist.” We often joke about our complementary wiring, grateful for the way the Lord made us to balance each other.

The perspectives we carry through life affect our approach to mission.

  • Is God on my side, or is he secretly enjoying my calamity?

  • Will God guard me as I undertake to spread the gospel, or will I cower in the face of resistance?

  • Will the Great Commission ever be completed, or will Christ return to a beleaguered, failed church?

Whether you are an optimist or a pessimist, it is difficult to imagine circumstances more dire than to be the object of state-sponsored persecution, arrest, and constant threat of death at the hands of your public opponents. Yet it is in this context that Paul resolutely pens, “Yes, and I will rejoice” (v. 18b).

We can easily read Paul’s triumphant words in a trite tone that fails to consider the severity of his situation. But Paul does not rejoice simply because he is a cheery person by nature. Paul’s confidence in God rests in his certainty that God, more than Paul, is committed to using Paul’s life for Christ’s glory. Let’s consider (1) God’s activity in Paul’s life and (2) the means Paul expects God to employ.

First, Paul is reasonably confident that God will bring about his release from prison (“my deliverance,” v. 19) and is certain that his life will honor Christ. Paul was clearly no blind optimist, as his writings betray both notes of hopefulness and stark realism. (Consider the graver tone of 2 Timothy 4:6: “the time for my departure is near.”)

Knowing Paul’s capacity for realism casts his hope-filled words in sharp relief: “I know . . . it is my eager expectation . . . I will not be at all ashamed . . . with full courage” (vv. 19-20). But since he acknowledges the possibility of his own execution (“whether by life or by death,” v. 20), “deliverance” for Paul then includes the possibility of being “delivered” into the arms of Christ by death itself. His statement in verse 19 mirrors Job 13: “Though he slay me, I will hope in him . . . This will be my salvation” (vv. 15-16, emphasis added). Echoing Job, the archetypical sufferer, Paul’s confidence is suffused with a realization that Christ will be glorified by his life or death (v. 20).

Contrast Paul with the double-minded man rebuked elsewhere in Scripture (James 1:8). We are often paralyzed in our work for the Lord by anxieties which, in hindsight, turn out to be baseless. Yet Paul is resolute. We too, then, must recognize the Lord’s constant protection of us from harm, even if we are waylaid by various trials.

Paul is single-minded in his assurance of God’s favor. So too the Lord is constantly protecting us, even when we endure trials. Elsewhere Paul exhorts: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). How could we ever doubt the Lord’s willingness to protect, provide, and put us to use? Why not gladly risk?

Second, Paul is confident that his deliverance will come through’s God’s appointed means—the Spirit of Christ and the prayers of the Philippians (v. 19). Paul recognizes that God works both immediately (by direct action) and mediately (through the prayers of others). Divine and human agency are both indispensable in God’s plan. Our confidence in God, then, must come with a recognition of our own duty.

John Paton (1824-1907), a missionary to the New Hebrides Islands in the South Pacific, who began his service by burying his wife and children, came to embrace this Christian optimism while surrounded by raging, violent natives: “[I realized] I was immortal till my Master’s work was done with me” (Autobiography, 207). Whether he was to be delivered from death or by death, deliverance was sure—and so was the prospect of bringing Christ honor in the course of his mission.

No matter how much God sees fit to fill our worldly glass, we too can trust God to preserve us until our mission is complete, our Master honored by our lives. Only such confidence can quench our inner thirst.


Merciful Father,

Your servant Paul was confident that he would be released from prison. Likewise, comfort me amid my fears—for so often I am paralyzed by concerns for dangers and threats that may never even come to pass. Paul’s greatest hope was that Christ would be honored in his life. Teach me that to be truly delivered by you is not only to be spared from death but to be spared from a wasted life and to bring you honor, no matter my lot. Use my life for your glory.

In your Son’s name,


Prayer Requests:

  1. Ask God for greater confidence to boldly take risks in spreading the gospel. Intercede for those in your church that they would gain this confidence as well.
  2. Pray for new laborers in the harvest (Matthew 9:38) to bring honor to Christ among the least reached.
  3. Pray for followers of Christ currently imprisoned throughout the world for their Christian witness in places like China, Iran, North Korea, and other restricted-access countries. Pray confidently for their deliverance.
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