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. To think positive just for the sake of thinking positive, hoping to get God to respond to as we think positively is just another Charismatic calisthenic that wears us all out. But to think positive because we're convinced deep down inside that no matter what it looks like right now, it's going to get better because of who God is in us and who we are in Him, then that's a different story.

    There aren't any magic words in the scripture that just by saying them every thing will change. But my experience has been that when I speak what I'm hearing from God  in my heart it has a power to change things in my life. And what I hear is never negative. I never hear God saying this is a big mess and it's not going to get any better.

    I live in a developing country as a missionary and I'm learning to think positively and expect good things to happen, and they do. I can't control how, when or why but He does. At least for me that shift in thinking didn't come naturally but that's why Paul says we have to renew our minds and learn to think differently.

    Today after waiting four years for our residency cards, we went to immigration only to find that the machine that makes the cards is not working so we must come back in two weeks. This has been a long frustrating process and this was a day we looked forward to. But in the middle of that we get to choose to either be stressed out or to trust in His goodness to make all of this happen. That's my choice. I'm not sure how allowing myself not to trust Him would make me more real or relevant. And that's the key.

    Positive thinking for the sake of thinking positive is just religious striving. But to be able to trust Him when life doesn't look good or even secure is part of who we are in our relationship with Him. Our positive thinking isn't even a goal, knowing Him is the goal and that inevitably produces positive thinking. 

  5. Yes, thank you Phil for bringing up this issue. And thank you everyone for your comments so far, especially Dominique and wairus. Reading this post and the responses takes me back to the darkest day in my life – my attempted suicide. At that moment, I could not generate a single positive thought. I felt there was no positive future for me, but God intervened and began to take me on a journey beyond my imagination. That was in 1992. Now it’s over 15 years later and I am truly happy to be alive! I have had valley days along the way – but never as bad as July, 1992. The evidence is there in the lives of those from Scripture. I take strength from the life of King David (among others). He was one of the greatest when it came to praising and worshiping God – yet there were times when he really had some dark moments. And he didn’t run from those moments, but faced them honestly – looking to God for his deliverance. Over the years, I’ve been able to share my story with others and on a few occasions that I know of – those who were planning to take their own lives – didn’t because of my story. Thank God for His deliverance. So thank you Phil for bringing up this timely discussion. It is an issue that is addressed in my book.
    Allen Paul Weaver III
    author, Transition: Breaking Through the Barriers

  6. 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!

  7. 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 

  8. 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.

  9. Yep, porn's bad.

    'Ol Screwtape says it well:

    "Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy's ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden. Hence we always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable. An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula. It is more certain; and it's better style. To get the man's soul and give him nothing in return—that is what really gladdens our Father's heart."


    Chapter IX…Just in case you've never had the pleasure.

    Anyway, porn is one of the devil's bait and switch games.  It seems like sex, (a wholesome thing), but it tends to gradually warp the addict's tastes away from that which will produce the most joy. 

    I think people would resist more if they were truly aware of how their healthy urges were being warped and exploited.

    Nothin' Pollyanna 'bout this post!  In fact, when I get to thinking on it, I think the Screwtape Letters is one of the least "Positive" bit of Christian literature I've ever enjoyed.

  10. 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…

  11. 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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