The Gentle Slope of Pessimism
I have a naked confession to make. I am a pessimist by nature. I tend to be that person who bends towards the raw character of “suck-it-up-buttercup” realism while loathing sappy inattentiveness – the type that circulates on social media and says, “The world is burning, but here are pictures of puppies to make you feel better.” Inspirational sicky-sweet quotes and being told “Everything is fine” when in fact things are not fine does nothing for me. I realize that for many flowery sentimentalities are artificial anesthetics to keep oneself from being crushed by a world gone mad, but for someone who tends to be a raw “realist”, it does little. I must be raw and honest in this, admitting it at the beginning, before discussing a topic such as pessimism of which I struggle.
I believe it can be argued with great force that our World is an utter dumpster fire. The West at large and particularly the United States is entering its twilight stage of moral, political, and cultural decline. In artistic terms, we would be somewhere between “The Consummation of Empire” and “Destruction” in Thomas Cole’s (1801-1848) The Course of Empire paintings series (1830s). We citizens of a declining West have front row seats to watch the World of our childhoods burn up in the name of security, liberation, and necessity. With global pandemics, mass forced lockdowns and vaccinations, selective conformity and censorship, economic inflation, civic laziness and greed, political ineptitude and corruption, unmitigated social violence, mass child genocide, celebrated and legislated sexual perversion, and so much more, we are witnessing, in real-time, a free people’s suicide. The Empire of Liberty we once loved is bleeding by our knives and we wonder what is happening. Our mindless, depraved, and selfish decisions are going to ring through the ages of our posterity as our sins are met upon the heads of our children and their children.
That all said, there is more to the story.
Satan Wants Hell in Us
In thinking about all the insanity occurring around us, it is easy, especially for someone like me, to just acknowledge the chaos and declare doom, praying for the asteroid. However, I was slapped with a dose of corrective conviction and much-needed realignment regarding this while reading C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. Just as a reminder, Lewis wrote this book during World War II and from the perspective of a demon named Screwtape writing advice to his underling Wormwood on how best to destroy his Christian “patient.” In one section Lewis has Screwtape gives his minion advice on how to cultivate a materialistic and pessimistic view of the world. Here is the section that struck such a chord:
The scenes [your patient] is now witnessing [of the horrors of the War] will not provide material for an intellectual attack on his faith…but there is a sort of attack on the emotions which can still be tried. It turns on making him feel, when first he sees human remains plastered on a wall, that this is “what the world is really like” and that all his religion has been a fantasy. You will notice that we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the word “real”. They tell each other, of some great spiritual experience, “All that really happened was that you heard some music in a lighted building”; here “Real” means the bare physical facts, separated from the other elements in the experience they actually had. On the other hand, they will also say “It’s all very well discussing that high dive as you sit here in an armchair, but wait till you get up there and see what it’s really like”: here “real” is being used in the opposite sense to mean, not the physical facts (which they know already while discussing the matter in armchairs) but the emotional effect those facts will have on a human consciousness. Either application of the word could be defended; but our business is to keep the two going at once so that the emotional value of the word “real” can be placed now on one side of the account, now on the other, as it happens to suit us. The general rule which we have now pretty well established among them is that in all experiences which can make them happier or better only the physical facts are “Real” while the spiritual elements are “subjective”; in all experiences which can discourage or corrupt them the spiritual elements are the main reality and to ignore them is to be an escapist. Thus in birth the blood and pain are “real”, the rejoicing a mere subjective point of view; in death, the terror and ugliness reveal what death “really means”. The hatefulness of a hated person is “real” — in hatred you see men as they are, you are disillusioned; but the loveliness of a loved person is merely a subjective haze concealing a “real” core of sexual appetite or economic association. Wars and poverty are “really” horrible; peace and plenty are mere physical facts about which men happen to have certain sentiments. The [human] creatures are always accusing one another of wanting “to eat the cake and have it”; but thanks to our labours they are more often in the predicament of paying for the cake and not eating it. Your patient, properly handled, will have no difficulty in regarding his emotion at the sight of human entrails as a revelation of Reality and his emotion at the sight of happy children or fair weather as mere sentiment.
I was reminded by Lewis’ wisdom here, which simply echoes the greater wisdom of Scripture, that the goal of the Devil is two-fold: (a) to methodically glide us into Hell, and (b) to get Hell into us by making us believe the chaos and darkness of our world are the Ultimate Reality. It is easy to believe point (a). We all know Satan wants to take us to Hell, but it is far more difficult to realize that he also is working to make us think that the worldview of Hell (in all its weeping, wailing, darkness, and fire) is somehow the natural lasting state of the World in which we live, move, and have our being. The process of (b) comes much more methodically and subtly through repeatedly bringing before our mind's eye images of darkness and chaos (i.e. “entrails splattered on the walls”) until slowly, our joy, peace, love, and sense of the divine are withered away and replaced by anger, anxiety, defeat, and doubt.
Seeing God In The Midst Of The Fire
Satan ravenously craves our soul and one way he leeches on to it is by draining it of the dual vision of the World that we are to have. His job, and the job of his minions, is to ensure that when we see the World, we are seeing it only through the tinted lenses of the physical dimension. He wants us to see the world monochromatically, as nothing more than a bland shade of greys devoid of hues or focal points. He wants us to see the world burning without seeing the God Who is in the midst of the fire.
We must resist this temptation, even when we do not feel like resisting it. We must resist it even when it is so much easier to be eaten up with naysaying and gloom. We must resist it even when we are racked with mental and emotional fatigue and desensitization from the tsunami of idiocies and indecencies we see going on around us. By pushing back this temptation we are taking the step in acknowledging that the nightly news does not undermine the sacred providential unfolding of the Holy-Loving God Whose purposes are to refine His people for His Glory. It is an acknowledgment that this dumpster-fire of a world is not and in fact, cannot be outshined by the Luminous Nazarene who redefines its values and dismantles its idols. If you want this depicted in all its beautiful theological richness, then read Romans 8. For brevity I quote parts of it here:
13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God…23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 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? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This entire chapter is full of richness and power. For the sake of brevity consider but a few points. First, notice that bad-stuff is a given, even in the life of those who are in Christ Jesus. This isn’t pessimism talking at this point! This is a reality of the fallen nature of a Creation that is groaning for its final redemption made manifest by the glorified Christ. The Apostle Paul asks rhetorically, “What can separate us from the love of Christ?” Then he lists examples: Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword, or death, or life? Notice that these are concrete realities experienced by Paul and the early Christians in real-time! This fact alone destroys the “live your best life now” preaching so predominate on Christian TV stations today. Earlier in the passage, Paul literally says, “We are children of God…and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (v. 17). Read it again. There is no wiggle room around this truth.
That said, this is not a cause for pessimism! On the contrary, the real tangible darkness and suffering that occurs in our world are transformed in the hearts and minds of those who find identity and security in Christ (a Christ-centered transvaluation of values if you will). Our glorification in Christ is the Reality that translates everything about our World, both good, bad, and ugly. That Reality changes how we process and live amid pain, agony, darkness, and chaos. Why? Because it reminds us that while they are real things, they are not things that can ultimately define who we are, how we are, or where we are going.
The Ultimate Reality of Christ outweighs infinitely the entire collective weight of sufferings and insanities this World can throw at us precisely because they are empty of true mass. On the scales of Ultimate Reality, they are outweighed by the infinity of God’s promises and power. Their power to control us through anxiety, despair, and hate are infinitely outmatched by the Eternity of Love, Peace, and Security found in Christ. Remember Lewis said that when we see “human remains plastered on a wall” we want to say, “that this is ‘what the world is really like’ and that all…religion has been a fantasy.” But this is an objective lie! It is a fog before our eyes blinding us to what is really Real about the World. This World is not just comprised of decaying matter or evanescent moments that we see flashing about us on the nightly news – it is permeated with the brilliant, boundless, touch of the Everlasting God Who is living, active, and moving to make us His chosen people and preparing us for Eternity in the consummation of a New Heavens and a New Earth.
Second, notice that the assurance of love transcends circumstances and is not person-centered but God-centered. Paul says that the troubles of this world, from disease to famine to demons to death, will not separate us from the love of God. He doesn’t say that these things would necessarily keep our love from separating from Him but rather that they do not separate His love from us. In short, Paul is saying, among other things, that these horrendous circumstances (martyrdom, disease, or death…etc.) do not demonstrate a lack of God’s love for us but display it. This sounds insane to our modern western ears. How could suffering display God’s love? We in the West don’t understand this. Our Health-n-Wealth blab-it-n-grab-it view of spirituality necessarily creates in us the idea that if “God is love” He will then do only good for us (as we are defining “good” as any lack of suffering or trial). We argue that only peace, healing, and success are expressions of God’s love and not war, sickness, and poverty. But what if peace, healing, and success are the very things that make us complacent and indifferent to Him? They often are if we are honest. Just ask yourself when you are most “spiritual” and attuned to the things of the Kingdom? Is it when all is well or when chaos is happening? At this point, I am reminded of the words of the Apostle Peter who said to the hellishly persecuted Christians of his time,
Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2 so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. 3 For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. 4 With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; 5 but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6 For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.
1 Peter 4:1-6 (ESV)
I am not exegeting all of this, but notice that in some amazingly powerful way, the Apostle Peter affirms that suffering refines us towards being a people who can cease from sin – who no longer desire sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, or lawless idolatry. Could it be that suffering, chaos, and darkness are tools through which God’s love is remaking you, me, and the Western Church as large? Could it be that He is refining us through the dumpster fire to be who He has called us to be?
The Bible teaches us that suffering is a common reality we should expect to share with Christ. The chaos and the darkness and the disease around us remind us of what is most important in life. It quickens us to the reality that this Fallen World is not our home, that we are mere sojourners in this world (1 Peter 2:11) who “have no lasting city” but rather are seeking “the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14). The chaos and the darkness and the disease we see ravaging our world, and in fact can ravage us (but by God’s unmerited grace), is a refining fire for our faith (James 1:1-2 & 1 Peter 1 & 4). This understanding helps to break down pessimism in our hearts as it reminds us that God is a God who Himself suffers (John 3:16, 1 Peter 2) and is a God Who also overcomes and is overcoming in our midst the power of darkness, disease, and disappointment by His mighty power. As the German Lutheran pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) said months before his execution by the Nazis,
“It is only by living completely in the world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type), a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world – watching with Christ in Gethsemane.”
Third, and finally, notice that the transformative view of the present is in light of Eternity. This present age is only to be understood in light of the eternal rays of God’s everlasting love and glory. Notice that over and over Paul discusses that we are groaning, that all of Creation is groaning in fact, with a hope not yet seen of the immense glorification of our bodies and all of Creation (v. 19-25). This glory is not Sweet-By-And-By escapism but rather the permeation of an eschatological reality of glory that pierces through every aspect of life. Eternity is shining through to us, even in the darkness, whispering and reminding us with echoes in our soul that God is a God who keeps His promises – God is a God in Whom we can be assured that all injustices will be made justice, that all wrongs will be made right, that all healing will be completed, and that all joy will be made unspeakable. This age, and all its absurdities and obscenities, reminds us that everything we are going through matters and is part of the tapestry of Eternity as it molds us into the eternal agent God desires us to be. As 20th Century Swedish theologian Bishop Anders Nygren (1890-1978) said,
“Just as the present [age] is to be followed by eternity, it has already been preceded by an eternity. Only when we see our present existence set in God’s activity, which goes from eternity to eternity, do we get it in right perspective. Then man comes to see that everything that comes to the Christian in this life—and consequently the suffering of the present too—must work together for good to him.”
The craziness of this world is surrounded and penetrated by the beauty and splendor of Eternity. That should remain at the center of our minds as we watch our world unraveling around us. That, at the center of our minds, burns up indifference and pessimism and hastens us to press further and further into the heart of the Father.
 C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters in Signature Classics (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2003), pg. 272-274
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, pg. 369-370
 Anders Nygren as quoted in R. Kent Hughes, Romans: Righteousness from Heaven (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991), pg. 161
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Michael H. Erskine is a high school Social Studies Teacher, has an M.A. in History & School Administration, serves as a Bible teacher in the local church, and is happily married to his beautiful wife Amanda.