In his 2009 book The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life, Ben Sherwood describes an intriguing phenomenon known as the Stockdale Paradox (after Admiral James Stockdale, the highest-ranking P.O.W. of the Vietnam War), which suggests a counterintuitive link between optimism and survival:
When [interviewer Jim Collins] asked Stockdale to explain which American prisoners did not survive captivity in Vietnam, the admiral replied, “Oh, that’s easy. The optimists.”
Collins was perplexed, but Stockdale explained that the optimists “were the ones who said ‘we’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go; and then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”
Stockdale went on: “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” (41-42)
Note that according to Stockdale it isn’t optimism per se that leads to heartbreak and despair, but an optimism of baseless expectations for specific and immediate improvement. Although such optimism is always energizing at first, the excitement invariably sours to disillusionment as the optimist is faced with a stark incongruity between the world as it actually is and the world as he imagined it to be.
This lesson, of course, applies as much to spiritual survival as it does to the physical. The prosperity “gospel,” with its promises of material wealth and temporal bliss, leaves its believers vulnerable to the same kind of heartbreak described above. Compare the empty we’re-going-to-be-out-by-Christmas optimism Stockdale recalls from Vietnam with the prosperity optimism preached by the likes of Joel Osteen:
God promises your payday is on its way. If you’ll learn to be a prisoner of hope and get up every day expecting God’s favor, you’ll see God do amazing things. You’ll overcome every obstacle. You’ll defeat every enemy. And I believe and declare you’ll see every dream, every promise God has put in your heart. It will come to pass (It’s Your Time, 16).
Perhaps surprisingly, my issue with these declarations isn’t the ridiculous boldness with which they are announced, for as Christians we certainly do believe that every obstacle will be overcome and every enemy defeated. No, the main problem (apart from their being entirely too “self”-oriented), is the perceived immediacy of these promises’ fulfillment. One doesn’t get the impression from Osteen that the truly faithful may potentially face a lifetime of failure, depression, sickness, or persecution. Rather, the believer will “see” every dream and every promise come to pass—a striking verb to employ, given that the New Testament uniformly pits faith against sight.
Our hope as Christians is much more forward-looking. While we indeed already possess all things in Christ, the same reality is not yet true of us in ourselves, and won’t be until the final day. Our inheritance is secure, though we do not yet experience it in its fullness. And the prosperity pushers who teach otherwise—that Christian victory is something to be obtained here, now, “before Christmas,”—are just setting their listeners up for a spiritual death by heartbreak.