Where I come from the Christian Pessimist is a rare breed, silenced by the sound of a thousand voices crying out “Pardon“, plastered on smiles spread across the faces of the faithful.
It is only in the hidden places that the cracks begin to show. In private, the questions emerge:
Why is the world so dark and full of so much pain?
Why am I still so discontent? I’m unhappy, and I feel guilty for this unhappiness.
I’m trapped in sin, and I am ashamed to admit it. Why do my struggles persist?
I wouldn’t go so far as to say these questions are silenced—the Church is certainly a place that welcomes hardship and pain. Rather, too often Christians treat despair as a means to an end, insisting that pain is merely a stepping stone that leads us to the happiness of the Cross; we assert that dissatisfaction is something that we are drawn out of once we truly follow Christ.
What recourse is there then when we kneel at the foot of the Cross, and find that weakness and want are still our companions?
The Hidden Discontent
There is this insidious notion in Christianity that because we are recipients of God’s great gift, we are no longer allowed to acknowledge the hurt that makes this gift necessary; at least not in a current, tangible way. Sure, we can lament the brokenness of our past, but our oh-so-human community insists on propping up a false sense of superiority—of course we are happier than the rest of the world, we are saved!
Too often, our testimonies are a structured narrative arc tied up with a nice bow. We were broken, then we were saved, and now we are loved; a true story, but a simplified one. Far too simple a story for the Christian Pessimist—simple to the point of dishonesty. Many, many Christians I know have trouble formulating a testimony because they don’t feel like their stories fit this traditional narrative. We feel like our tale is lacking some grand conclusion that brings glory to God, because so much of our current situation is like that of our previous life: we are still hollow inhabitants of a painful world, only now united by a hope outside ourselves.
The Christian Pessimist is shouldered with a pressing awareness of our continued brokenness, a hidden discontent that is not negated by our forgiveness or our joy.
I had often called myself an optimist, to avoid the too evident blasphemy of pessimism. But all the optimism of the age had been false and disheartening for this reason, that it had always been trying to prove that we fit in to the world… But now I really was happy, for I had learnt that man is a monstrosity.
-G.K Chesterton, Orthodoxy
Chesterton speaks of this same discontent, asserting that the worldly “optimism of the age” tells us that we are cured of our nature by faith, despite the fact that in our hearts we revel at hearing that we are still weak, and that it is not our own lack of faith which makes us so.
When we diminish this discontent, we do serious damage to those who still feel it. We tell them that their hurt is their own fault, a lack of some critical surrender in themselves. Sometimes we need to stare into the brokenness, taste it, and let it remind us of the goodness of Christ—that he too saw this pain, and was not content to leave it be.
The Joy in the Darkness
If there is one thing I want to convey it is that you are not alone in feeling this discontent. You are not a worse Christian because your heart aches at seeing first the darkness and the pain in the world. We are not yet made whole, despite the promise that we will be one day. This brokenness cannot break you.
The Christian Pessimist isn’t unable to feel joy or accept forgiveness, they are just acutely aware of their own brokenness, and the brokenness of the world around them. They find despair more quickly impressed on their hearts, and an empathy for those in pain more readily available. To gloss over that darkness is to deny God the glory of redeeming it, and to vastly reduce the joy of our salvation.
I apologize for my Edgar Allan Poe impression. I don’t mean to portray myself or others as purely negative, I just really want to convey that it is okay to have negative feelings, even as a Christian.
Now for the important bit:
Thank God for this discontent, because there is so much joy in pessimism.
…the Christian view of human sin is that we are deeply flawed and can’t save ourselves and we may indeed have some terribly bad stages of history ahead. No other religion has as dark a view of human depravity. We are capable of great evil.
-Tim Keller, When Hope and History Rhyme
The Gospel isn’t just a story for ministers and saints; it’s a story for those of us who have hit rock bottom. It is a tale for the weak and weary, and that doesn’t just apply to those outside the church. When the pessimist sees their own flaws, God reaches out saying “I see them too,” and we are still loved.
We may see a world dominated by spite and shortcomings, but we are—all of us, no matter how diminished—perched on the precipice of grace. The divide between our perception of what we deserve and that which we have received is so immeasurably wide that we can’t help but rejoice. Even the lowliest of us are God’s dear children, adopted into a family we have done nothing to earn.
The lachrymose heart is often seen as lesser than the rejoicing one; we forget that Jesus himself had both in equal measure. Despair should not drive out joy, it should serve to increase it.
Though there is joy to be found in the acceptance of our still fractured hearts, there is also a risk of becoming fixated on these wounds. The Christian Pessimist walks a tenuous line between the truth and the grace that lay at the heart of the Gospel.
Christianity, paradoxically, is far more pessimistic and far more optimistic than any other worldview — simultaneously.
-Tim Keller, When Hope and History Rhyme
As with anything, pessimism can become an obsession rather than a predisposition. If we allow our capacity for despair to eclipse our deliverance from that despair, we render null the joy that this deliverance should bring. Even the Christian Pessimist must take into account the disparity in the Gospel—great brokenness coexisting with great joy.
My hope is that as Christians we will grow more comfortable with acknowledging the broken bits within ourselves; that we are not freed from the need for salvation because we have already received it. I pray that we Christian Pessimists can see our role in bringing the one truly good story to a world we see as dark, and still worth loving—because that is the story that has already been brought to us of dark hearts.
Though our wounds persist, our hope for healing has never been more certain.
Then He said to them, “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me.”