Cruel Optimism

by Jason Micheli

Ecclesiastes 4, 1 Peter 4  (click to see Scripture text)

September 26, 2020

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For the wedding of Jim Moore and Gail Bush

Surely, Solomon knows better. 

Near the end of his life, in full possession of the sum of his earthly wisdom, Solomon surely knows that while two is better than one two is still not yet sufficient. Solomon, after all, is the son of David and Bathsheba, the widow of Uriah the Hittite. That scripture rudely insists on referring to Bathsheba as the widow of Uriah even after David marries her is but the Bible’s way of witnessing to the fraught and contingent nature of our relationships with one another. Even a faith as intense as David’s is no guarantee that together we will prove reliable stewards of the manifold grace of God.

While it’s certainly the case that the Lord God concludes in Genesis that “It is not good that man should be alone,” it’s nonetheless true that the rest of scripture demonstrates that two, while better than one, is still not enough to make us into those who are ready to meet the end that is near. This is because, as sinful creatures, we stubbornly look to other objects to fulfill us and to grant us the flourishing we rightly desire. Sometimes the object to which we turn is food or drink or work. At other times it’s a fantasy of the good life or a political project. Often, though, it’s someone we love, a spouse or a child. As Simeon Zahl notes, affect theorists call this “cruel optimism.”

Cruel optimism is the condition of maintaining an attachment to a significantly problematic object, problematic because the object you desire and optimistically believe will make you happy, complete you, and give you meaning or purpose, is actually not capable of fulfilling you and, therefore, becomes an obstacle to your flourishment.

From a Law and Gospel perspective, “cruel optimism” is a non-religious way to name the fact that our relationships and all of human existence unfolds under the condition that Christians call “sin.” A consequence, or at least an indicator, of the Fall is that we are “prone to trying to locate answers to [our] problems in objects in the world that by definition cannot deliver on the “salvation” they promise” (Zahl).  

As Augustine argues in the City of God, a key conclusion to draw from the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is that objects in the world are not designed to provide lasting satisfaction or to help us in our deepest needs. And that includes the object in the world that you call you. We were not created by God to provide lasting satisfaction to another or to fill another’s deepest needs. No  wife should have to love so much and no husband can. Rather, the objects and creatures that make up God’s good world, Augustine says, are meant to be “used” for the sake of enjoying God, from whom their goodness derives, rather than to be “enjoyed” as ends in themselves. To believe in creation ex nihilo is to understand that “created things will always fail us when treated as ends in themselves.” And this is why the Apostle Peter exhorts us to stewards of unmerited mercy and pardon to one another, for the nature of sin is such that we will persist in trying to treat the gifts of God as ends in themselves anyway. 

Though such grace is wise counsel, it’s not enough for even the best marriages. With the Old Adam in us, we cling to cruel optimism. This is why it’s good news indeed that the same God who declared that it would not be good for us to be alone has not left us alone in our covenants with one another. 

Earlier, Peter instructed those called to marriage to submit to one another. 

It’s often missed how the Greek word Peter uses for submit is ὑποτασσέσθω. It’s a word we recite in the Nicene Creed. ὑποτασσέσθω describes the very being of God, the life of God. The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit exist eternally in a relationship of mutual submission. 

Peter’s instruction for wives and husbands to submit to another, then, is not so much an exhortation as it is an indication that with your “I do’s” today the two of you are being caught up in the participation of a third person, the Three-Personned God, the Creator of all that is, seen and unseen, who alone can still our restless hearts. 

The love that can cover a multitude of sins— and, notice, Peter simply assumes that our relationships with another will be an occasion for a multitude of sins to be committed— is not the love we bring to a relationship but the love we discover in a relationship. 

That is, a love that comes to us extra nos. 

From outside of us. 

Because it is the love of God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit— the threefold chord not even Sin and Death can break. The love that covers a multitude of sins is the same love the Apostle Paul points to in his famous hymn to love 1 Corinthians 13. Only Jesus, who was before creation and who was raised from the dead, is without beginning and end. Like Peter today, Paul is talking about Jesus. 

“Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind, Jesus is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Jesus does not insist on his own way.” Jesus bore all things, bearing in his body our betrayal and our sin and our shame. Jesus believed all things, fulfilling the law for us. Jesus endured endures all things, in our place, upon the cross, when we were yet his enemies. 

Christ Jesus is the love whose arms were stretched upon a cross so that our hearts might be crucified by love. 

Therefore, Jim and Gail, long after this day it’s important to remember that your wedding began not by the two of you looking upon one another but towards me as the representative of Christ and his bride, the Church, for when the day comes— and it will surely come— when you’re bearing the burden of each other’s cruel optimism, look not to each other for salvation but to the third person, the Personned God, who pledges himself to you this day. 





“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.”


“The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.”


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