Engaging Culture

Enough With the Positive Thinking!

In the world of Christian television, positive thinking abounds. Prosperity teaching, positive confessions, taking dominion, overcoming, and more fill the airwaves. Personally, I generally default to the positive. It’s the way I’m wired. And I completely understand the trend to the positive. In a world where people are beaten down, broken, and defeated, part of the gospel message is to encourage, proclaim victory, and honor the finished work of the cross. However, there’s also
something to be said about suffering and sadness, and I wonder how much of the real Christian experience we miss when we undercut genuine sorrow. I was thinking about that after reading this fascinating article in Newsweek called “Happiness: Enough Already” by Sharon Begley.

Her article reveals research that seems to point us to the value of sadness. As she mentions, Aristotle saw sadness as a muse, and great artists and leaders from Lincoln to Van Gogh, Emily Dickinson, and Churchill struggled with bouts of depression and sorrow. The Apostle Paul had a “thorn in the flesh,” and while John was banished alone on an island (how depressing is that?), he experienced a vision that resulted in the Book of Revelation. Moses had speech problems and begged God to use someone else. He needed Aaron to speak for him to Pharaoh, and yet is considered the greatest prophet.

I think the thing that most attracts me to the Bible is its honesty. The Bible isn’t a positive thinking manual. It shows life in all it’s brutal truth, and doesn’t gloss over the tough stories of betrayal, sin, and loss. Certainly there is redemption, but God doesn’t take Biblical characters out of their torment, he takes them through it.

Are we missing something by not giving value to our sadness? Are we living shallow lives by refusing to acknowledge times of depression and frustration? Today, people are too quick to grab medication to placate their sense of sorrow. We feel guilty that as believers we have sad thoughts. And the clinical definition is so wide just about anyone could be diagnosed with depression.

Society is looking for the full-time high, but perhaps we as Christians should think twice before pushing the positive thinking thing too hard. Certainly a positive outlook and upbeat attitude can overcome challenges and frustrations. But at the same time – and on a much deeper level – there may be much to be learned from the insight we gain while trudging through the valleys.


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  1. Good post, I agree.

    Positive thinking isn't bad, but I think we've taken it to an extreme when we attempt to ignore sadness. It's the same with word-of-faith healing that attempts to ignore sickness. Happiness, like healing, is a process. I believe part of that process is understanding sadness. Certainly not to the extent of having routine pity parties, but including it in a much larger process.

    Ultimately, I believe it's all part of the process of regeneration that was started in the ministry of Christ. There's a better appreciation for God's grace, mercy, and love when we've gone through the trenches and seen him come to the rescue. That builds our faith.

    I'd rather have a sincere happiness that has been born out of God's love than a synthetic happiness from a pill.

  2. I see the seek-sensitive movement to be on the same (or close to same) continuum as the positive thinking movement.  If you're on Facebook, you should check out the Seeker Insensitive group.

      "A group for those who feel it's time for the "Seeker Sensitive" church pendulum to swing a little more in the other direction. We should worry less about impressing people with our cool church programs, gifts, and well rehearsed stage-timings and focus more on having an authentic and real relationship with Jesus Christ. This may or may not be very popular with many people, but Jesus wasn't always the most popular guy. Seriously…there were a lot of people that really hated his guts."

     It kind of goes back to the heart of the gospel.   

  3. As someone who struggles daily with an illness that creates really bad days as well as bad days, I just want to say thank you!

    I have grown quite weary of the comments I have received through the past 10+ years when I am having a bad day such as, If you just speak positive your whole day will be great and the pain will go away and everything will be right in the world. Uggggh!

    Thankfully, God has given me grace to realize that many of these people mean well but they truly don't understand.

    I, personally, have discovered within the church body that many people like the positive message because going through depression, illness, obstacles, whatever, is very challenging and sometimes time consuming. It is much easier to be positive and avoid the journey of healing whatever that may look like. I think we have forgotten, as well, that much good comes out of evil – or bad moments. I have learned more about who God is in my darkest hours than I ever did in my sunshine hours.

    Somewhere along the line we have come to believe that it isn't okay to have a bad day because if we are really saved, we have no reason to be anything other than positive. I always want to ask those individuals, "What about Christ in the garden in such despair, or in the temple in anger, or the scriptures that talk about God being a 'jealous' God." I always wonder what they do with those scriptures.

    Now, in fairness, I find positive thinking a good thing in balance and it helps me on really bad days to remember that a good day is coming. However, having said that, I have never bought into the ideology that when I am having a bad day, to profess that in honesty only brings about more bad days. Sometimes a good cry is just that: a good cry.

    Anyway, thanks for bringing this up for discussion because I think it is very relevant. I just had one of my articles about Oprah's webnar (new age reconciled with Christianity) published and its basically the same thing. People no longer want to reason, or feel. They just want life to be easy and rosy.

    Remaining Steadfast,




  4. Amen, Phil. it was great to meet you in Nashville, by the way!

    This is a big part of my new show on Sirius 161. I counsel and deal with people every day that have had their pain or suffering invalidated by followers of Jesus. Many followers have the misguided belief that if you are really a believer, you're not supposed to have problems. You should just walk around smiling and singing praise choruses all the time.

    Why are we uncomfortable with sorrow? Jesus himself was a man of sorrows. Those of us that live in America don't know persecution like many of our brothers and sisters around the globe, but would we really be so insensitive to them and just give them a, "Aw, buck up little camper. it will be alright…"

    Our happy veneer covers up the reality of what is happening in our churches. Over 40% of pastors visiting porn sites weekly – 70% of lay leaders doing the same. 40% of evangelical women hitting porn sites. A higher divorce rate inside the church that outside the church. Child abuse, spousal abuse, a deteriorating base of morality and more indicate that we are not really all that happy.

    The preacher that says this is just a matter of perspective is woefully delusional. Masking pain never thoroughly treats it.

    Sure we often don't know what to say, but you know what? I find that most often our words aren't remembered (unless we say something really stupid). Our presence is remembered. Job's friends were outstanding for the first few days. Then they just HAD to say something.

    I find that recognizing, and not invalidating pain, leads to genuine joy and happiness. Maybe not as quickly as we would like, but it does come.

    On our show tomorrow night, we are going to talk about the pain of abortion. We will have on people that have had them to talk about their pain, and the pain they feel that was inflicted upon them by the church. Hopefully, many will identify and feel the freedom of the conspiracy of grace.

    Thanks for this post!

  5. I would really like to see some empirical evidence supporting your claim that 40%of pastors and 70% of lay leaders view porn weekly. That makes for great attention grabbing rhetoric but if it's not true, then it's slander. I find those numbers hard to believe so if you have some links let's check our your evidence. TOJNAT 

  6. I don't know about the 70% of lay leaders but I know as a former denominational worker in an evangelical denomination that the number of pastors who view porn is in the 30 – 40% area whether that is weekly or monthly, I'm not sure.

    It's a rampant issue in society in general.

     I think the general numbers come from this article and related studies.


    A Barna Research Group study released in November 2003 found four out of five born-again Christians believe pornography to be morally unacceptable. The Bible likens lust to adultery and fornication, both expressly forbidden. Nevertheless, Mr. Burgin’s disaster is far from unique:

    ·      A 2003 survey from Internet Filter Review reported that 47 percent of Christians admit pornography is a major problem in their homes.

    ·      An internet survey conducted by Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in 2002 found 30 percent of 6,000 pastors had viewed internet porn in the last 30 days.

    ·      A Christianity Today Leadership Survey in 2001 reported 37 percent of pastors have viewed internet porn.

    ·      Family Safe Media reports 53 percent of men belonging to the Christian organization Promise Keepers visit porn sites every week.

    ·      One in seven calls to Focus on the Family’s Pastoral Care Hotline is related to internet pornography.

    ·      Today’s Christian Woman in 2003 found that one in six women, including Christians, struggles with pornography addiction.

  7. We have a serious problem in our society…and because we get out of the "bubble" we often stray too far and if you let culture it will influence you. Like I said almost every TV show on primetime cable has sexually innapropriate material-even a sporting event you can't watch without seeing scantily clad cheerleaders…we have to be careful to be in the world, but not of it…lust is a powerful thing and the fact that-that many pastors are struggling with it, shows how big the problem is. I'm assuming those numbers to be higher for the general church goers…

    I think we should all be praying for the church and Christians in America…no wonder the Christians in China pray for American Christians to go thru persecution…

  8. Yeah…Jesus cried and got pissed off…so why shouldn't we?

    It's so cute to hear you talking about how useless and secular positive thinking (faith) is when you don't have any. Why don't you just crawl in a corner and cry if you think feeling bad will make you feel better?

    Just because Jesus said to weep with those who weep doesn't mean we should whine with those who whine. No wait…I take that back. Maybe it will~ teach you not to whine and cry.

    WAHHHHHHhhhhh! (insert sob story)

    There, happy?

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