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AMAZING! A Panglossian Predicament!

Updated: Jun 21

Please know this article is not meant to be hurtful, but helpful.

Have you ever noticed that some preachers always speak in extravagant terms? Everything always seems wonderful. Everything is always great! Everything is always perfect! Everything is always AMAZING! Every picture has a smile! They have an AMAZING MARRIAGE, AMAZING kids, and an AMAZING ministry! Bad stuff in their lives is rarely, if ever, seen or discussed. Even when a negative experience forces its way to the surface, it is always presented in a most AMAZING way as part of an AMAZINGLY grand and blessed scheme. What is up with that?

Have you ever heard the story of Brown's cheerfulness? His optimism was a source of wonder and admiration to his friends. Either his religion or his philosophy taught him to accept everything as a wise dispensation. But then he had a large share of worldly goods, his friends argued, and nothing but adversity would shake his faith. Therefore when a flood washed away a promising crop the neighbors were very much astonished to hear him say: "It's all for the best. I was blessed with an overabundance last year." In the winter his house burned to the ground. To his neighbors' solicitations he calmly responded: "The house never suited us anyway, so it is all for the best."

Other calamities befell Brown, but still, he refused to be disheartened. The climax came when he was in a railroad accident. Both feet were so badly crushed that amputation was necessary. Sympathetic friends gathered from all quarters. They dreaded to hear the lamentations they were sure would greet them, for even Brown could hardly be expected, to pass this lightly by.

"Guess you are pretty well discouraged aren't you with both feet cut off?" ventured someone. "Do you think this is all for the best?" But Brown nodded his head, smiling wanly, and said: “They were always cold anyway.”

Well, there are always a few "Brownian Pollyannas" among us! There is no failure. There is no pain. There is no sadness. Even if there is, there is always some AMAZING twist to rectify things. Their lives are always AMAZING, phenomenal, and blessed. God is always doing mighty or powerful works in their ministry. They seem to have been born with the silver spiritual spoon in their mouths! There is always a silver lining around even the darkest clouds!

Over the years I have collected various quotes from preachers about this. Read these statements and see if you know what I am talking about.

"It is Youth Rally week! Will you pray for us and with us that God would do a mighty work?"

"No great work of God in the past or in the present has ever been built without the people of that work being willing to get behind their leader and willingly offer themselves to follow their leaders and work. We wonder why so few great works exist today...."

"Great meetings today with this great church. Fantastic crowd to say the least."

"Really enjoyed having....... with us today. He preached two great messages on the family."

"Great day at church today. Good singing, powerful preaching, and sweet fellowship. Thankful for my church!"

"Great Crowd, packed altars, great liberty, and a sweet heavenly wind .

“Powerful day today working the streets....”

“What an amazing service at…!!!

“Praise God for an amazing Vacation Bible School”

“It’s been a great week in….with some powerful and productive meetings, sweet Bible presentations, making some amazing contacts…”

What is up with these excessive superlatives and these extravagant descriptions? Can their ministry ever just be "ok? "normal?" "routine?"

Enter Dr. Pangloss

When I was in college, we read a book called Candide. "Candide" is a satirical novella written by the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, and published in 1759. It is one of Voltaire's most famous works and a cornerstone of Western literature.

"Candide" is often considered to contain elements of an anti-Christian diatribe, but it's more accurate to describe it as a critique of religious hypocrisy and dogma rather than an outright attack on Christianity itself. Voltaire was a prominent critic of organized religion, particularly the Catholic Church, and he used his works to highlight the corruption, hypocrisy, and intolerance he observed within religious institutions.

The story follows the adventures of Candide, a young man who lives in the castle of Baron Thunder-ten-Tronckh in Westphalia. He is taught by the optimistic philosopher Dr. Pangloss (The model for Dr. Pangloss was the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz), who instills in him the belief that "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds." Candide is expelled from the castle after being caught kissing the Baron's daughter, Cunégonde, and embarks on a journey that takes him across Europe and the Americas, during which he faces numerous hardships, including war, natural disasters, and betrayal. The central theme is the critique of unfounded optimism, particularly the philosophical optimism advocated by Pangloss, which Voltaire satirizes through the numerous calamities that befall Candide and his companions.

Being "Panglossian" refers to adopting an overly optimistic perspective, believing that everything happens for the best in the best of all possible worlds, regardless of evidence to the contrary. Here are several reasons why someone might adopt a Panglossian outlook:

  1. Psychological Comfort: Believing that everything happens for a reason can provide emotional comfort and reduce anxiety. This mindset can help individuals cope with difficult situations by maintaining a sense of hope and purpose.

  2. Cognitive Bias: Humans have a tendency to look for patterns and meaning in events, often leading to a confirmation bias where they focus on evidence that supports their optimistic beliefs while ignoring contrary evidence.

  3. Cultural and Religious Beliefs: Some cultural and religious teachings promote the idea that a higher power has a benevolent plan for everything. Adherents of these beliefs may naturally adopt a Panglossian outlook as part of their faith or cultural upbringing.

  4. Personal Experience: Individuals who have experienced positive outcomes from negative situations might develop an optimistic outlook, believing that even apparent setbacks are steps towards something better.

  5. Influence of Authority Figures: Like Candide being influenced by Dr. Pangloss, people can adopt optimistic views if taught by influential mentors, leaders, or thinkers who advocate for such perspectives.

  6. Positive Psychology: Modern psychological approaches often emphasize the benefits of positive thinking and optimism for mental health. This can encourage a Panglossian outlook as a means to foster resilience and well-being.

  7. Avoidance of Negativity: Some individuals might prefer to avoid negative thoughts and emotions. By adopting an overly optimistic perspective, they shield themselves from the discomfort of confronting harsh realities.

  8. Social Dynamics: In some social or professional environments, expressing optimism and positivity might be encouraged or rewarded, leading individuals to adopt a Panglossian stance to fit in or advance. Some preachers strive to project an unreal image of success so that others will be drawn to them and their ministry. They know how to "angle the camera....and game the system to get what they want."

  9. Philosophical Beliefs: Some people may genuinely believe in the philosophical arguments for optimism, such as the idea that the world is the best it could be given the nature of reality and existence.

  10. PRIDE: Desiring to appear better than others may lead one to adopt the Panlossian mindset. This is very common today on social media where people can paint any picture they want of themselves.

  11. Survival Mechanism: Maintaining a positive outlook might have survival benefits. Optimism can lead to perseverance, increased social bonds, and proactive problem-solving, all of which could enhance survival.

While a Panglossian outlook can provide various psychological and social benefits, it is also important to balance optimism with realism to effectively navigate and address challenges in life.

While a Panglossian philosophy—extreme optimism believing that everything happens for the best—can offer comfort and hope, it also carries several dangers and drawbacks:

  1. Complacency: Believing that everything is for the best can lead to a lack of motivation to improve or change undesirable circumstances. This complacency can prevent individuals from taking necessary actions to address problems or injustices.

  2. Irritating - This approach to life can be exceedingly irritating to those who are around a person of this temperament, especially if those people are going through difficult times.

  3. Ignoring Reality: A Panglossian outlook may cause people to disregard or minimize real dangers, problems, and challenges. This can lead to poor decision-making and a failure to prepare adequately for potential risks.

  4. Perpetuating Injustice: By accepting all events as part of a benevolent plan, individuals may become indifferent to suffering and injustice. This attitude can perpetuate harmful systems and prevent efforts to advocate for social change.

  5. Stunted Personal Growth: Recognizing and learning from failures and difficulties is essential for personal development. An overly optimistic outlook can hinder this growth by not acknowledging and addressing weaknesses and mistakes.

  6. Loss of Credibility: Excessive optimism can undermine an individual's credibility. Others may view their perspective as naive or unrealistic, making it difficult for them to be taken seriously in important discussions or negotiations.

  7. Psychological Distress: When reality inevitably contradicts an overly optimistic outlook, it can lead to significant psychological distress. The dissonance between expectation and reality can result in feelings of disillusionment and betrayal. Someone may even experience the "dark night of the soul" (a profound spiritual crisis or experience of intense inner turmoil, despair, and emptiness. It is often characterized by feelings of abandonment, doubt, confusion, and a sense of being spiritually lost or disconnected from the divine). During this period, individuals may undergo a profound transformation, confronting their deepest fears, doubts, and weaknesses.

  8. Inadequate Problem-Solving: Effective problem-solving often requires a realistic assessment of the situation. Panglossian optimism can cloud judgment and lead to superficial solutions that do not address the root causes of issues.

  9. Encouraging Passivity: If individuals believe that everything will work out for the best regardless of their actions, they may adopt a passive approach to life. This passivity can hinder proactive behaviors and reduce overall agency.

  10. Strained Relationships: Extreme optimism can strain relationships, especially if it leads to dismissing or invalidating the concerns and feelings of others. Loved ones might feel unsupported or misunderstood if their legitimate worries are constantly downplayed. Alienation can occur, becuase who really wants to be around someone that seems so "perfect."

  11. Health Risks: In the context of health and safety, Panglossian attitudes can be particularly dangerous. For instance, ignoring medical advice or safety precautions because of a belief that everything will turn out fine can have serious or even fatal consequences. I have witnessed this personally many times.

Although a Panglossian philosophy might offer short-term comfort, it poses significant risks. Balancing optimism with realism is crucial for addressing life's challenges effectively and promoting personal and societal well-being.

May I also say that we do not want to swing too far in the opposite direction.

We do not want to be cynical. Cynicism involves a general distrust of people's motives and a belief that people are primarily motivated by self-interest. Cynics often expect the worst from situations and people. We do not want to become pessimists. Pessimism is a tendency to focus on the negative aspects of life and to expect unfavorable outcomes. Pessimists are inclined to see the glass as half-empty and believe that bad things are more likely to happen. We do not want to become overly skeptical. Skeptics are always questioning the validity of certain claims or beliefs, requiring strong evidence before accepting them. This approach often involves doubting what appears to be optimistic views and seeking more concrete, empirical support.

I am an optimist by nature, but I am also a realist. I strive to see the world as it is, without the influence of excessive optimism or pessimism. It is important to acknowledge the positive and negative aspects of situations and make decisions based on a balanced view of reality. It is also important to remember that sometimes we may never know the "rhyme or reason" for what we experience in this life and only eternity will reveal God's purpose.

We must avoid pragmatism as a philosophy of life. Pragmatism is not altogether bad, but it is if adopted as a way of life it is. Pragmatists focus on practical and realistic approaches to problems. They prioritize actions and solutions that are effective and based on real-world evidence, rather than idealistic or overly optimistic beliefs. There is nothing wrong, per say, with being pragmatic, however, we must temper that with a biblical worldview and by following biblical truth.

But, you may ask, how does Romans 8:28 fit into this?

28 And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.

This verse is the sine qua non of biblical understanding concerning this matter. The Bible teaches that "all things" work together for good....but only in a certain context (i.e. those who love God and are called according to his purpose).

Mounce in his commentary on Romans states:

In both cases it would be God who is at work in the circumstances of life. God directs the affairs of life in such a way that, for those who love him, the outcome is always beneficial. The “good” of which Paul spoke is not necessarily what we think is best,(191) but as the following verse implies, the good is conformity to the likeness of Christ. With this in mind, it is easier to see how our difficulties are part of God’s total plan for changing us from what we are by nature to what he intends us to be. Moral advance utilizes hardship more often than not. (1)

(191) Those who think that this verse promises material wealth have missed the point.

Witmer writes the following:

Believers, Paul began, know of sanctification’s certainty, and that knowledge is gained by spiritual perception. Christians know intuitively (oidamen)—though they may not always fully understand and sense it experientially—that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him (lit., “to the ones who love God He works all things together unto good”). The things themselves may not be good, but God harmonizes them together for believers’ ultimate good, because His goal is to bring them to perfection in His presence (cf. Eph. 1:4; 5:27; Col. 1:22; Jude 24). Even adversities and afflictions contribute to that end. The active voice present tense of the verb synergei (“He works together”) emphasizes that this is a continuing activity of God. And His working is on behalf of “those who love Him,” who are further identified as the ones who have been called according to His purpose. It is significant that a believer’s love for God follows God’s calling of him and is undoubtedly the product of the indwelling Holy Spirit (cf. Rom. 5:5; 1 John 4:19). The word for “purpose” is prothesin, God’s plan (Paul used the same word in Rom. 9:11; Eph. 1:11; 3:11). “Called” means more than being invited to receive Christ; it means to be summoned to and given salvation (cf. Rom. 1:6; 8:30). (2)

When a person loves and follows God, seeking to conform to the image of Christ, they may claim this promise.

Even then, we must remember that none of us love and follow God as completely as we should. Some people, preachers included, get out of God's will and make mistakes. They then try to save face by attempting to hide their errors and claim verses that were never meant to apply to them.

We must never seek to present our lives as perfect. Everyone knows better anyway. We must biblically and realistically face our days with hope and faith in God, knowing that as we yield to him. I close with this selection.

It is abundantly obvious of many a single adversity—that a great and permanent good may come out of it. This is often verified, as when the disease brought on by intemperance has germinated; and the loss by a daring speculation has checked the adventurer, and turned him into the way of safe though moderate prosperity. Apart from Christianity, man has often found that it was good for him to have been afflicted—that, under the severe but salutary discipline, wisdom has been increased, and character strengthened, and the rough independence of human wilfulness tamed, and many asperities of temper have been worn away. And so of many an infliction on the man who is a candidate for the world above. The overthrow of his fortune has given him a strong practical set for eternity; the death of his child has weaned him from all idolatry; the tempests of life have fastened him more steadfastly to the hold of religious principle. He is made perfect by sufferings. (3)

(1) Robert H. Mounce, Romans, vol. 27, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 187–188.

(2) John A. Witmer, “Romans,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 473–474.

(3) Joseph S. Exell, The Biblical Illustrator: Romans, vol. 2 (New York; Chicago; Toronto; London; Edinburgh: Fleming H. Revell Company, n.d.), 151–152.

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