Summary: The challenge is to choose hope for the future rather than learn helplessness from the past.

Title: Optimism 101

Text: Joel 2:23-32 (1:4-13, 12-18)

Thesis: The challenge is to choose hope for the future rather than learn helplessness from the past.


Learned Helplessness is a term I came across in my reading this week. It is a technical term originally used in reference to animal psychology but is also appropriately applied to human behavior as well. Learned helplessness describes an animal or a person who has learned to behave helplessly, even when there is opportunity to avoid an unpleasant or harmful circumstance. It is essentially, in humans, it is a mental state in which the person perceives he or she has no control over the outcome of a situation. (

A pertinent example of learned helplessness would be the tragic and heart-rending case of Jaycee Dugard who was kidnapped when she was 11 years old while waiting for her school bus. Jaycee was held captive for 18 years, living in sheds and tents in the backyard of her captor… despite numerous opportunities to escape she felt she had no control over her situation.

Self improvement coach and Guru Brian Tracy couches it a little differently. He sums that kind of behavior up in what he calls “The Law of Belief.” The Law of Belief states, “Whatever you believe, with feeling, becomes your reality; you always act in a manner consistent with your beliefs.” In other words, what we think either inhibits and limits us or energizes and frees us.

For example we cite the story of the chained elephant… a huge elephant can be held in place by a chain around one leg attached to a stake in the ground. The huge elephant could easily rip the stake from the ground or break the chain. But the elephant was chained to that stake when he was a very young elephant.

As a baby elephant he had attempted time and time again to break free but could not and so, at some point the little elephant decided there was no point in trying to break free and stopped trying. Now he is an old elephant who is fully capable of breaking free but does not believe that he can. (

The obvious application is that as people we can, by negative thinking, convince ourselves that we are hopelessly chained or restrained or limited or trapped in an inescapable situation.

So what do we do when we realize we have learned helplessness behavior? The key to unlearning helplessness and learning hopefulness is to replace “limiting beliefs and attitudes” with “empowering beliefs and attitudes.”

Despite the fact that our text today is an ancient text that speaks of a people and a time far removed from us… it is remarkably pertinent and helpful in instructing us in understanding the process of learning helplessness and how we may choose to be hopeful instead.

Learned helplessness is usually rooted in past experiences.

I. Learning helplessness from the past

What the locust swarm has left the great locusts

have eaten; what the great locusts have left the young locusts have eaten; what the young locusts have left other locusts have eaten. Joel 1:4-13

Let me begin by saying that whatever we magnify looms larger than it really. I hate walking into those little cob web strands dangling across walkways and sometimes on my front stoop. And it is the time of year when spiders are looking to find a way into my house for the winter.

One evening I came home and there was a tiny little spider right on my front door. I usually shift into Zen mode and gently remove whatever and go my way but I swatted the thing and it swung down around my feet and began scurrying about… so I went about stamping my feet to get the thing.

It was a tiny little spider but in my mind I had placed it on a glass and slid it under the lens of a microscope… where it became the monster that it really is. Big. Furry. Evil legged. Bulging eyes. Intent on dining on me over the next couple of winters.

When you dwell negatively on something it becomes very large. That’s what the people in our text were doing.

Joel is noted among what we call the Minor Prophets. The book of Joel has the feel of obscurity. Most of us would have to do considerable thumbing through the Old Testament to even find the book of Joel. It is not a text that gets a lot of attention apart from references to the Day of the Lord and the end-time judgment of the nations and the restoration of the nation of Israel. So those who specialize in charting the end times have a special prophetic appreciation for the book of Joel. But while the book of Joel has a certain end-time appeal, it also has a timeliness about it that makes it especially pertinent and instructive for the present.

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