New Spiritual Disciplines: No.3 – The discipline of Optimism


Each day this week, we're looking at a new spiritual discipline for the modern world. Inspired by Richard Foster's classic book Celebration of Discipline, we've created a list of additional practices and attitudes which – when brought before God – could powerfully and prophetically impact our culture, our community and our selves. Read, reflect, think and pray through the article and the questions at the end. You might want to start with article No. 1, which includes a longer introduction.

There aren't many things that Britain leads the world in anymore, but we're still the world champions of cynicism. While our American cousins are predisposed to see things at their face value; to see the glass as half-full and cheer it on towards fulness, we're much more complicated. British people are naturally inclined to look for subtext, an agenda, a sign of something untrustworthy beneath the surface. We're great at deconstruction; first-class at finding fault.

There are a million pop-psychology explanations for this phenomenon, and I won't go into them there. Suffice to say that as a caricature we're a cynical, often negative bunch, and many of us struggle with seeing others find happiness and success. And while thankfully that's an extreme version of how most of us think and operate, to some extent there's a kernel of truth in it for almost all of us. We'd probably all agree, too, that these aren't the parts of ourselves that we like the most or feel proudest of.

Cynicism is easy. Throwing stones of criticism and questioning motives are often the lowest forms of engagement.

I for one would love to be less cynical; to lose that negative first reaction to others that finds me instantly questioning their motives. I'd love to assume the best of people (and organisations, and churches) as a starting point. I'd rather look foolish for being too trusting than too suspicious. The question is, how do you start?

All this week we're exploring new spiritual disciplines; attitudes we could look to assume in the modern world that with God's help could transform and renew us. And if so many of us wrestle with these feelings of cynicism, perhaps this is an area that deserves such an attitude change; an area into which we need to invite God to speak and work. I want to suggest that a Spiritual Discipline of optimism could be helpful here.

Optimism isn't quite the opposite of cynicism, but it is perhaps one of the antidotes (and frankly it's high time I stopped making up words). Optimism means confronting those feelings of cynicism or negativity and interrogating them for signs of fairness. Optimism means always starting from a position of trust, rather than mistrust. Optimism means leaving people space to prove you were wrong to think the best of them, rather than waiting eagerly for them to show you were right not to.

What might happen if we asked God each day that we might be characterised by a spirit of optimism? We'd probably celebrate and encourage each other more. We'd certainly learn to trust one another better. Our communication, both on and offline, would be far more fragrant to the watching world. Inevitably we'll occasionally be let down, but my hunch is that far more will flourish, including within us. Optimistic people get the vicarious thrill of sharing in one another's victories; cynics just have to tiptoe quietly into the background when they get proved wrong. I know which group I'd rather be in; I also know I need God's help to get me there.

Questions for reflection

1. Do you struggle with cynicism, pessimism or general feelings of negativity towards others? Which of those is the biggest issue for you?

2. How easy or difficult do you find it to engage optimistically with others? What are the barriers to this for you?

3. What could you practically do to positively interact with someone toward whom you've previously harboured a cynical attitude?

Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. You can follow him on Twitter: @martinsaunders