How Did “Pollyanna” Get Such a Bad Rap? June 09 2017

(Part of BCF’S blog series: “Society, Selflessness, and the Scriptures")

The 1960 movie “Pollyanna” (the Hayley Mills version) was on a classic movie channel this past weekend.  Although I didn’t watch it, it reminded me of my reaction to it when I first saw it maybe 20 years ago.  Prior to that I had only heard “Pollyanna” mentioned in a derogatory context, like “don’t be such a Pollyanna.”  The implication was that a Pollyanna was someone who was naively optimistic, or who did not understand the realities of the world. In other words, the real world contains unfair treatment, difficult circumstances, and people who do evil – and you are naïve if these things don’t bother you.

Well, it’s true.  The real world does contain unfair treatment, difficult circumstances, and people who do evil. But the Scriptures are quite clear that even these things cannot cause us to lose hope or take away the supernatural joy we can have even when things are not going well, humanly speaking.

The story line of Pollyanna, based on the 1913 novel by that name, is that the young daughter of missionary parents was sent to live with her aunt after both of Pollyanna’s parents had died. Pollyanna’s parents had taught her to look on the bright side of every circumstance.  So she grew up with an effusive optimism and invented “The Glad Game,” which she invited others to play with her.  The game originated when Pollyanna was hoping to get a doll for Christmas but found only a pair of  crutches  inside the missionary barrel. Her father said that she could be glad about the crutches because she didn't need to use them.

It so happened that Pollyanna’s aunt was just the opposite: very dour and cynical, looking at everything in a way that showed how miserable a life she had.  But the aunt was wealthy and wielded great power and influence in the small town where she lived. Pollyanna’s optimism becomes contagious to just about everyone in the town except for her Aunt Polly.   Reality then set in for Pollyanna’s own life when she falls from a tree and her legs are severely injured.  She is bedridden and not even The Glad Game seems meaningful anymore.  The townspeople rally around her and show how their lives have been transformed by how Pollyanna could find something to be joyful about in every circumstance.  In the end, even Aunt Polly learns to find joy in focusing on things to be thankful for.

Enter Paul-iana (a.k.a. the Apostle Paul).  Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Paul wrote some tremendously encouraging reminders to the churches (and by extension, to us) about gratitude. And it’s good to remember that Paul wrote these things even though he did not have exactly a life of ease.  So before we get into his message, let’s look at what his life was like.

In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul was admonishing the church about allowing themselves to be deceived by false gospels.  “But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ” (verse 3).  It seemed that the Corinthians were being tempted to abandon Paul’s teaching for a “different gospel” (verse 4).  He was compelled to remind them how much he cared about them and was concerned for them by recounting how he had labored to help prevent the Corinthian believers from being led astray. Paul states in verses 23-28 that he was:

“in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.  Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches.”

In the context of Chapter 11, Paul was saying to the Corinthians “Why would I go through all this if I was not concerned about you?”  The Paul who experienced all these difficulties is the same Paul who wrote profound reminders that we are to have joy in all circumstances.  This was not just a nice spiritual theory for him; he lived it.  Here are just a few samples.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 – “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (the memory verses for our church as we have been studying 1 Thessalonians)

Philippians 4:4 – “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice.” (written from confinement in prison, as were the next two passages)

Philippians 1:3-4 – “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all .…”

Philippians 1:18 – “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in this I rejoice.  Yes, and I will rejoice …”  (in response to those who were preaching the gospel with impure motives)

Galatians 5:22 – “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, JOY, peace patience, kindness, goodness faithfulness, gentleness, self-control …”

2 Corinthians 7:4 – “Great is my confidence in you; great is my boasting on your behalf.  I am filled with comfort; I am overflowing with joy in all our affliction.”

2 Timothy 1:4 – “longing to see you, even as I recall your tears, so that I may be filled with joy.”

So it was not as if Paul was oblivious to the realities of the world when he wrote these things.  On the contrary, he had experienced the real world, and its dangers, more than many of us ever will.  If the world wants to call “in everything give thanks” being a “Pollyanna,” so be it.  It would seem from the Scriptures that a characteristic of being a Christian is to find ways to be thankful in every circumstance, and we should be unafraid of finding ways to express our gratitude.  The Lord didn’t say this would be easy; but as we learn, and sometimes fail, He transforms our life and gives us hope that is not dependent on earthly outcomes.  

At the same time, we don’t want to minimize how difficult it can be for our brothers and sisters when they go through difficult times.  Paul is also the one who reminded us that we are to “encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11); we are to restore with gentleness those caught in any trespass (Galatians 6:1); and we are to “encourage one another day after day…" (Hebrews 3:13 – in other words, don’t give up on people).  And we dare not try to take the place of the Holy Spirit by preaching thankfulness at an inappropriate time.  Rather, if we by God’s grace live a life of gratitude, it can encourage others to do the same; or it may open up opportunities to have conversations about what God has done in our lives to make us more thankful.  It is ironic that the stigma of Pollyanna seems to prevent parents from giving that name to their daughters (I’ve never met a Pollyanna), and yet she represents (though imperfectly) a characteristic that is so important in the Christian life.  I should probably watch it again.

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Steve Smith