By Michelle Ami Reyes

Thoughts on Joy from a Would-Be Pessimist

I don’t do small chat well. Sitting around at gatherings and talking about everyone’s favorite TV show is my version of nails on a chalkboard. I’d rather just introduce myself to people by saying, “Hi. My name is Michelle. How are you fighting against racism these days?” I’m an Enneagram 8 and my personality naturally leans toward talking about the heavier things, the pains and the problems in our world. It’s the stuff that seems to matter the most. Why on earth would someone want to talk about their favorite TV show when white nationalism plagues our country and Black and Brown bodies are still being shot in the streets?

I’ll admit it. I’m a pessimist by nature. Nevertheless, I also like being critically minded. I like reading widely and expanding my thoughts on contemporary issues. Sometimes, I even like being a pessimist. But I have to also confess that what I’m not as good at is choosing joy and seeing the good and the beauty in this world. Things like enjoying the moment, not taking myself too seriously, resting, and laughing at the little things feel hard to do while caught up amid the evils of this world.

The Problem of Evil

My favorite book of the Bible is Ecclesiastes. I’ll never forget the first time I read chapter 1, which states, “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless....There is nothing new under the sun” (vv. 2; 9), and I thought, “Exactly!” The world has always been evil. We should not be surprised by racism and injustice. It has been with us since the first days of humanity and things are not getting “better” as some Christians want to believe.

Granted, some of my pessimism is born from my educational background and experiences. Studying German history in grad school has made it easier for me to accept the reality that this world is broken, evil, and dark. At the same time, though, I am aware of my own inability at times to stop and see beauty in the every day.

How am I supposed to be joyful in a world that is so wretched? Why should I be happy when live in a country riddled with sex trafficking, gang violence, mass incarceration, fatherless children, racism, and systemic injustice? After a day spent helping a starving mother and her children or caring for a victim of assault (a not so uncommon day in the life of our ministry here in East Austin), stopping to read a book or take a nap can sometimes feel trite, superficial even.

Flashes of Light

However, we need both, I think — the optimist and the pessimist — for the sake of our soul, our understanding of God, and for the effectiveness of our lives in this world. If we only see the good and the beautiful, we blind ourselves to the dark realities around us and become useless to the hurting and those in need. If we only see evil and injustice, we can forget to see God; we can forget to cling to him, let alone hope in him.

We pessimists have the tendency, as Henri Nouwen says in his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, to “call trust naïve, care romantic, and forgiveness sentimental. [We] sneer at enthusiasm, ridicule spiritual fervor, and despise charismatic behavior. [We] consider ourselves realists who see reality for what it truly is and who are not deceived by ‘escapist emotions.’ But in belittling God’s joy, our darkness only calls forth more darkness.”

Nouwen continues:

“People who have come to know the joy of God do not deny the darkness, but they choose not to live in it. They claim that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted more than the darkness itself and that a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness. They point each other to flashes of light here and there, and remind each other that they reveal the hidden but real presence of God. They discover that there are people who heal each other’s wounds, forgive each other’s offenses, share their possessions, foster the spirit of community, celebrate the gifts they have received, and live in constant anticipation of the full manifestation of God’s glory.”

These thoughts from Nouwen give me hope; for he encourages a both/and approach to the realities of our world. It’s not simply about choosing either pessimism or joy. That would be the easy choice and, if those were my only two options, nine times out of ten I would choose the former.

The truth is that we need to see both the darkness and the flashes of light. We need to see the evil in this world, but more importantly our focus should be on the God of this world.

Every moment of each day, every thought I have, every word I speak can be grounded in hard truths that point to God. It’s not about ignoring the darkness. It’s about believing that the light will win. It’s about clinging to God’s victory over Satan’s current rule of destruction and despair.

Why Pessimists Need God's Word

The best remedy for a would-be pessimist like me is to stay rooted in God’s Word. I need to read and be daily reminded of God’s sovereignty, and his promise of justice and victory over sin, death, and evil.

I need to remember 1 Corinthians 15:56-57: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

I need to cling to Romans 8:38-39: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

And I need to reflect again and again on 2 Thessalonians 3:3: “But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one” along with many, many more passages in Scripture. 

I may have read these verses ten or a hundred times already, but the project of the Christian life is learning and re-learning these truths. Every time my thoughts want to turn to numbness and disillusionment, I can meditate again on the truth that one day Jesus will have full victory and everything will change for the good. Every time I question the impact of my feeble attempts at activism and justice, I can ground myself in the reality that the Lord is faithful and that I am loved by him.

I might not ever find happiness in talking about favorite TV shows or the latest food trend. But I do know I can find joy in God amidst the suffering of this world. His Word is that flash of light that shines in the darkness and reminds me that he has more power than I can either see or imagine. God’s Word reminds me to cling to the power of the light over darkness, to cling to hope, and fight for light to beget more light. That is a truth I can cling to in the midst of our current cultural moment and civil unrest. 

Photo by Mary from StockSnap.

About the Author

Michelle Reyes (PhD) is the Vice President of the Asian American Christian Collaborative and Co-Executive Director of Pax. She is also the Scholar-in-Residence at Hope Community Church, a minority-led multicultural church in East Austin, Texas, where her husband, Aaron, serves as lead pastor. Michelle's work on faith and culture has been featured in Christianity Today, The Gospel Coalition, Missio Alliance, Faithfully Magazine and more. Her forthcoming book on cross-cultural relationships is called Becoming All Things: How Small Changes Lead to Lasting Connections Across Cultures (Zondervan; April 27, 2021). Follow Michelle on Twitter and Instagram.

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