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Optimism and Health

Would it make a difference to us if, when Jesus healed people, he commended them on their optimism rather than their faith? We know these two terms are similar in that they both express positive expectations about the future; but there are differences partially captured by the artist for this Sabbath School quarterly. The figure for lesson six on Faith and Healing appears to be in thoughtful meditation or prayer. The open palms and serene expression indicate a receptive spirit and acceptance of God’s will. The figure for lesson eleven on Optimism and Healing is quite a contrast. The upward thrust of his arms and the radiant smile convey energy, enthusiasm, and strength of belief. One can almost hear him shout, “Praise the Lord!”

Both figures portray two different moods in a Christian’s life, that have important roles in health and healing; however, to be honest, isn’t optimism more difficult to sustain, especially if one doesn’t naturally have that temperament? Does an optimistic spirit increase the possibility of healing? That seems to be the message in Psalm 37:4, “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

In recent years optimism has been given considerable attention as researchers attempt to unlock the biological link between attitude and health. While nothing has been proved conclusively, studies support the mind-body connection. Christians are not surprised by this as we believe that God created us as holistic beings and that this integration means that the mind can influence the body either for good or ill. There are some, however, who voice a cautionary note about optimism. In his book, Anatomy of Hope: How People Prevail in the Face of Illness (Random House, 2003), the author, Dr. Jerome Groopman, a Harvard Medical School professor, describes patients he has cared for over the years who have had to confront very serious diseases. He contrasts patients who go through stages of illness maintaining optimism versus patients who are grounded in what he terms “true hope.” He believes that optimists are less realistic about illness because of their assumption that “everything will work out for the best.” If disease worsens they may blame themselves for not being optimistic enough. Focusing primarily on positive outcomes affects the quality of their decision making because their choices do not include the realities of their condition. By contrast, those who rely on hope function at a higher cognitive level in their decisions because they accept and address the negative as well as positive aspects of their disease. Of course, there are no guarantees for either group.

Over the years there have been many pastors with television audiences who have made healing ministries a significant part of their outreach. They endorse vigorous optimistic faith as the key to access heavens rewards such as health, wealth, and success. Jason Byassee describes such ministries as giving so much credit to the importance of a positive attitude that God can seem unnecessary (“Be Happy: The health and wealth gospel,” Christian Century, July 12, 2005, pp. 20-23). He refers to such ministries as promoting a “prosperity gospel: just improve your attitude, keep your chin up, and God’s blessings will rain down on you (p 20).

Years ago I turned to one such program when the charismatic minister was encouraging the viewers to request a small piece of red cloth that he had prayed over as a contact point for releasing faith for physical healing. He also emphasized the importance of sending seed money to activate the healing. Out of curiosity I sent a $2.00 donation to the ministry, obtained my cloth, and then began receiving a succession of items (i.e., mustard seeds, communion wafers, bag of meal) and colorful documents about pending miracles that would be mine just as soon as I released the seed money in my hands. It began to feel too much like attempting to manipulate God; I removed my name from the mailing list.

Those who Jesus healed did not conform to some faith or attitude model. Jesus healed some individuals at a distance so it is the faith of the intercessor that was described, not the invalid’s. He allowed healing for many who believed that simply touching his garment would be sufficient. No doubt there were many optimistic about what he could do for them, others “quietly hopeful”, and some like the lame man at the pool of Bethsaida, surprised that a stranger walking by could perform a healing miracle. Perhaps one of the most significant healings was for the paralytic whose faith is not described but who had four friends who carried him to Jesus. It was the friends’ faith that brought him to Jesus via the roof. It was the friends’’ faith that moved Jesus deeply. Jesus healed not only the man’s paralyzed body but his paralyzed soul and the man left praising God.

When we read that Jesus healed ALL who were brought to him and then remember those for whom we have prayed earnestly but who were not healed, we are left with weighty questions. What advantage in the area of healing does the Christian have over the person who does not belief in God? The secular optimist is limited to trusting in the latest research findings, the newest medications, keeping fingers crossed for “good luck.” Optimism is based on what is tangible. For the Christian, however, the trajectory of faith and optimism does not end with the prayer request but instead arcs into the New and Forever Kingdom of God. Optimism is based on belief and faith in God’s promises and one of the most precious about that future time is that perfect health will be the blessed norm.

It is much harder on God to not answer our prayers for healing than it is on us to not be healed. God has so much more at stake. His character is the supreme revelation of love and certainly healing is consistent with love. When he allows a miscarriage, the death of children, prolonged suffering from diseases, or the untimely death of an optimistic, committed Christian we can struggle greatly to reconcile his character with his response to the situation. Our loss, however, will last only our lifetime. God can lose sons and daughters for eternity who turn again him for not granting their prayers for healing.

There are times when faith seems shredded and we are left only with fragments wedged by unanswered questions. God understands when we depend more on others than on him during these times. In a letter written by Ellen White to a woman experiencing severe doubt and fear she stated, “I know that the Lord loves you. If you cannot rely on your own faith, rely upon the faith of others. We believe and hope for you. God accepts our faith in your behalf.” (Testimonies, Vol. 2, p.319).

God is never confused by the manner in which we struggle to find him when our prayers are not answered as we hoped. He fully understands our feeling of separation from him. He longs for the day when he can finally fulfill all that he has promised. He will restore to us more than simply a spirit of optimism which looks to the future. He will invite us to begin The Future with him.

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Joan Hughson, M.S., R.N., is Assistant Professor of Nursing at Pacific Union College, Angwin, California.

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