RECENTLY, A WELL-KNOWN SPEAKER CAME TO TOWN, bringing his tour, his infectious smile and seeming sincerity, and his motivational message. I have heard him speak on his nationally broadcast television show, articulate his outlook on life in media interviews, and read excerpts from one of his best-selling books, which has chapter titles like, “Enlarge your Vision,” “Develop a Healthy Self-Image,” “Discover the Power of Your Thoughts and Words,” and “Choose to Be Happy”. His message seems to boil down to this: “God loves you, and if you believe in Jesus, all will be well and you can be happy and achieve your dreams and ambitions”. This is the essence of what has been called the Prosperity Gospel or the Health and Wealth Gospel; it also has affinities to the so-called Therapeutic Gospel. This message may be many things, but it is not the Gospel—the euangelion, the “Good News,” of the New Testament Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The lineage of the “Prosperity-Health & Wealth-Therapeutic” gospel no doubt has many historic roots, but its contemporary manifestation can be traced to Norman Vincent Peale’s career, particularly as exemplified in his best-selling book The Power of Positive Thinking (1952).
THE GENERAL IDEA OF “POSITIVE THINKING” IS AS AMERICAN AS APPLE PIE AND BASEBALL, but it has its detractors. Oliver Burkeman, the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, argues that “positive thinking, … the effort to convince yourself that things will turn out fine, … can reinforce the belief that it would be absolutely terrible if they didn’t.” By contrast, “thinking in sober detail about worst-case scenarios—a technique the Stoics called ‘the premeditation of evils’—can help to sap the future of its anxiety-producing power.” Psychologist Julie Norem calls this “defensive pessimism”, and I am in the one third of Americans she says instinctively use this strategy. Tim Elmore, a Christian leadership expert, while he agrees that younger children and some immature teens need positive reinforcement and affirmation, argues that eventually young adults (I would add many older adults) need to hear these “negative” messages:
- Life is difficult.
- You are not in control.
- You are not that important.
- You are going to die.
- Your life is not about you.
Elmore is affirmatively citing Richard Rohr, a Roman Catholic priest and Franciscan friar (http://sojo.net/magazine/1998/05/boys-men).
THE IRONY OF THE POSITIVE THINKING “GOSPEL” is that ultimately it is bad news. Despite its smiley face optimism, there is no grace in this message. God may love you, but ultimately your success or failure in life (and maybe afterwards) is entirely up to you. If you don’t really, really believe by “stepping out in faith” (which may mean anything from sending in a contribution to starting your own business or “ministry”) it is all your own fault, and then, well, God can’t do much for you. God helps those who go after their dreams, the rest of us have to be happy with leftovers.
GOD, OF COURSE, DOES LOVE US. So much so that he sent his one and only-begotten Son to die for us (Gospel of John, 3:16). And we do need to believe in Jesus Christ to become part of God’s family (Gospel of John, 1:12-13). But Jesus himself began his preaching of “the good news of God”, not with “positive thinking” or a soothing therapeutic message, but with this declaration: “ ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom is near. Repent and believe the good news’ ” (Gospel of Mark, 1:15). In his account of the same event, the apostle Matthew chooses to emphasize Jesus’ call to repent: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Gospel of Matthew, 4:17). In case we’ve missed the point, Jesus nails it down for us: “Unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Gospel of Luke, 13:5).
“REPENT!” SURELY THAT WOULD BE A BUZZKILL at positive thinking motivational conferences. Indeed, it would, which is why you won’t hear it there. What does it even mean to repent? The Greek word which it translates is metanoeō, which literally means “to change one’s mind”: About oneself: “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me a sinner’. I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God” (Gospel of Luke, 18:13-14); “When [the prodigal son] came to his senses, he said, ‘ . . . I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son . . . “ (Gospel of Luke, 15:11-31). I hope you know the rest of the story. I will speculatively surmise that both the tax collector and the prodigal son began their respective careers with high self-esteem, grand dreams, and a positive outlook on life. Eventually, the truth of the “negative” message dawned on them: “Life is difficult. You are not in control. You are not that important. You are going to die.” About Jesus Christ: And they also realized a change of mind about the centrality of God and what he expects—“Your life is not about you.” Life—real life, not an imagined personal vision of health and prosperity—is about Jesus Christ, who he is and what he did: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 5:8). That is the Gospel and that is good news.
The apostle Paul, paraphrasing and augmenting the prophet Isaiah, also wrote,
I KNOW THE GOSPEL IS MORE THAN REPENTANCE, but it is never less. There is no power in positive thinking to make us come to our senses, realize our true estate, and believe the true Gospel. And, as Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland affirms, we should believe the Good News of Jesus Christ, not for the feelings or pragmatic results it may bring, but simply because it is true.
Beyond that, positive thinking doesn’t even work in the hustle and bustle of earthly life. I won’t say it’s wonder-working, but there is power in negative thinking. As Inspector “Dirty Harry” Callahan put it, “Man’s got to know his limitations.”