Editorial | The Cup Half Full
How would you describe a partially filled cup of water? A cup half full, or a cup half empty? We can so easily be dragged down into a mire of seeing life sceptically; all our disappointments lead us to a cynical outlook in which we see the negative rather than the positive. And the spirit of our age is very much that way too. But the problem with the ‘cup half full’ approach is that it too easily appears as mere positivism for the sake of it. None of us can stand wilful naivety, talking up poor behaviour and attitudes as if they are something good, excusing what is clearly wrong, turning a blind eye to reality just because we want to see something positive, and have our own wishes for reality stated as somehow true. Perhaps we hanker for the positivism of early childhood to actually be proven true… But we secretly realize that the Alice in Wonderland approach to life is not only unrealistic, but unhelpful and unhealthy. There is malice in wonderland as well, and we have to see it for what it is. But because we are aware of all this… do we then see the cup as half empty? Are we to really look cynically at our brethren, lack confidence in our own salvation, fail to perceive the good, living beneath the grey cloud of a reality we perceive as only oppressive and negative? We sin, we have sinned and we will continue committing sin… and so do others. Every sin is avoidable in the sense that sin is not inevitable; it is culpable exactly because it is not inevitable. And so the past, the past of our own failures and those of others, tends to exist within us as a fountain of continual regret, so often mulled over, and leading to a general outlook which sees the cup half empty rather than half full. And so often it is a ‘cup half full’ spirit which leads to a negative view of our brethren, which robs our collective life of the joy and mutual upbuilding which ought to characterize it.
God perceives sin, dysfunction and failure more keenly than any. And yet He imputes righteousness to those in Christ. We are clothed with His Son, He sees us as Him. He sees us so positively, without in any way being the kindly schoolteacher or parent who turns a blind eye. He turns no blind eye, and yet our status in Christ means that He views us with enthusiasm and positive hope for eternal relationship with us. Paul, the one who expounded these things more specifically than any other, is a parade example of positivity about his brethren. He saw the weaknesses of his Corinthians, and yet he could say that he was confident in them in every way: “I rejoice that in everything I can have perfect confidence in you” (2 Cor. 7:16). He saw them as the innocent Eve in Eden (2 Cor. 11:3). “He which raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise up us also by Jesus, and shall present us (not 'hopefully, if you get your act together!') with you” (2 Cor. 4:14) sounds as if Paul fully expected the Corinthians to be there, and to be joined at the right hand side of the judgment seat by himself and Titus. 1 Cor. 15:51 has the same certainty of their acceptance: “We shall be changed”. “We (Paul and Corinth) know... we have a building of God... eternal in the heavens” (2 Cor. 5:1). Truly could Paul write: “Our hope of you is steadfast, knowing that, as you are partakers of the sufferings, so shall you be also of the consolation” (2 Cor. 1:7). But these were the Corinthians who denied the resurrection, who practiced gross immorality, got drunk at the breaking of bread, who loved Paul the less the more he loved them. Paul was counting them as righteous, whilst turning no blind eye to their weakness.
All was not well with the Thessalonians either. He had to warn them too: “Abstain from fornication” (1 Thess. 4:3), and he had to teach them that when a believer dies, that is not the end, he will be resurrected at the last day (1 Thess. 4:13). 1 Thess. 5:14 clearly states that there were amongst them the “disorderly… faint-hearted… the weak”. But in 1 Thess. 1:3 Paul writes of his “Remembering [‘making mention of’] without ceasing before our God and Father your work of faith, labour of love and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ”. Paul brought to God’s attention, as it were, their faith, hope and love. And we must ask ourselves as to how much of our prayer time is taken up with telling God the good things about others? Paul says he did this “without ceasing”. Quite a challenge to our prayer life, which so easily tends towards self -centredness. Paul was not blind to their faults, but before the presence of God in prayer, he told the Father of their better side. Nor were the Philippians perfect. Paul lamented: “For they all seek their own, not the things of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 2:21), in conscious allusion to his earlier words that such self-seeking should not be the case amongst the ecclesia (1 Cor. 10:24). Paul was clearly disappointed in how little care there was for the spiritual welfare of others; he felt Timothy was the only one who ‘got it’. And yet he is so positive about his Philippian brethren, whilst seeing their deep weaknesses. His ‘cup half full’ approach was therefore not the result of some naive, Alice in Wonderland optimism. It was the more notable because he was not blind to the weaknesses of his brethren. He really believed what he wrote about the imputation of righteousness. In Phil. 2:30, Paul comments about Epaphroditus: “For the work of Christ he came near to death, hazarding his life to supply that which was lacking in your service toward me”. Their ministry to Paul was “lacking”; and yet Paul speaks so positively of their great love for him in chapter 1. In Phil. 4:10 he writes of how their care for him had “revived”, and excuses their lack of service to him as not having had the opportunity to do so: “But I rejoice in the Lord greatly, that now at length you have revived your thought for me. I know you did indeed take thought for me, but you lacked opportunity”. The rebuke in Phil. 2:30 stands as it does; but Paul positively seeks to excuse them, whilst not turning a blind eye. This is a worked example of the mind which thinks on positive spiritual things (:8) having the love which covers weakness; not in a naive, cup half full way, not papering over disappointment and failure, but genuinely wanting to move on from that which is past and press forward positively. Seeing the cup half full is no call to naivety or pretending not to notice things; for that is no basis for legitimate, authentic relationship. Just as Paul praises the Corinthians for their love of him and then reveals their lack of love and respect for him, so with the Philippians Paul is so positive about their care and love for him, and yet is not blind to the fact that their lack of service led to Epaphroditus nearly losing his life. This is not merely seeing the cup half full rather than half empty; this is the rightful praise of others for what devotion they do show, even if it is lacking, insufficient (Gk.), more than half empty. Paul’s attitude was surely a reflection of how the Father sees us His wayward children, focusing with joy upon what little obedience and devotion we do show rather than overly lamenting ‘that which is lacking in [our] service toward Him’. We must “forget” what is past and look forward to what is ahead (Phil. 3:13), and that is what Paul did concerning the failure of the Philippians to care for him at one point. “Forgetting the past” doesn’t mean to delete past events from our memory banks- because that is not within our power to do. And Paul talks freely about his awful past, he had not obliterated his memories. So Paul presumably means that we are not to wallow in past failure, especially failures of others toward us. The certainty of what is ahead means we will focus on that; the glass is not only half full rather than half empty, but more than half full. We admit we have not yet attained perfection, but this doesn’t mean we are to allow the past to exist as a fountain of constant regret. We are to look forward in sure hope to the things ahead- which is to know Christ, to be perfectly and fully like Him through the resurrection to life (Phil. 3:10,11,14). Paul sees this hope as being “ahead”. He looks forward to it without any doubt as to whether it shall be true for him; because ‘hope’ means a confident assurance that what we hope for we shall certainly receive. It is not a mere ‘hoping for the best’.
The Full Cup
Paul wouldn’t allow the failure of the Philippians to disturb his own very personal hope.
Whether or not they helped him was of no personal consequence to him, because “I have all things and abound”. “I have all things” is quoting from Jacob in Gen. 33:11. Having earlier deceived Esau of the blessing, he asks Esau to now “take away my blessing, for God has dealt with me in grace, and I have all things”. Jacob eagerly resigned all the material blessings he once held dear, because God’s grace was “all things” to him. The same argument is used to Paul in 2 Cor. 11, where he is told that having God’s grace is sufficient; we need nothing more, because with that we have all things. Being “filled” is a major New Testament theme; our cup is not half full, it is full, indeed “my cup overflows” (Ps. 23:5). We shall be saved. That is the good news of the Gospel. The positive experience of that grace means that we shall have a hopeful, positive outlook upon all things, and upon our brethren.