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Ruminating on society's obsession with "thinking positively"

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A Joel Osteen quote that is floating around on social media these days is, “If you can’t be positive, keep quiet.” It’s a slight variation of the old adage, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” However, the variation makes all the difference in the world. While generations past would’ve characterized certain speech as complaining, bickering, or murmuring, the current generation uses “negative” as a catchall term. “Positive”, on the other hand, is supposed to encompass everything on the opposite side. Using “positive” and “negative” in such a way, though, can be very dangerous, especially when done so under the guise of Christian teaching.

Thanks to the "power of positive thinking" message popularized by so many preachers, many people think that the Christian life is one in which people are always obligated to be “positive”, meaning they have to always conjure up an exterior of cheerfulness and suppress whatever urges there may be—however legitimate—to face head on the unpleasant aspects of life. The popular Christian radio network K Love has as their tag line, “Positive and encouraging radio”, a slogan that implies that if it isn’t “positive”, it must inherently be unedifying.

If Christian radio wants to help people do what Paul told the Philippians to do—think on things that are praiseworthy, true and excellent, rather than on everything that, if deeply contemplated, would make us unbearably miserable—then they should stick to Paul’s own terminology. By casting the situation in terms of “positive” and “negative”, people are guilt-tripped into feeling like they’re being a wet blanket if they can’t go through life with a toothpaste smile plastered across their face.

If pastors want to exhort their parishioners to not bicker, complain, grovel in ungratefulness, and always obsess about what is worst in life, they don’t have to resort to using the unhelpful and often misleading term “negative”. If “negative” means acknowledging that life sometimes isn’t all butterflies and kittens, then it’s certainly okay—not merely okay, but essential to mental health—to be “negative” at times. People with melancholy personalities are not handicapped from keeping the Christian command to “rejoice in the Lord always”, and people with “cheerful” personalities don’t have any special advantage. Being an encourager or being a downer to the people around you has less to do with being “positive” or “negative”, in the Joel Osteen sense of the words, than it has to do with the state of the heart.

The problem with the way “positive” is used so often in the evangelical world is that it overlooks how depressing, for lack of a better word, so much of the Bible itself is. The lamentation psalms are in the Bible for our edification, though they are not exactly uplifting. The lamentation psalms show a fallen world, a world that religious people are free to acknowledge as fallen without any pressure to “put a good face” on situations that aren’t good.

Preachers who so stress the “power of positive thinking” would have us, it seems, keep the pain of the people around us at arm’s length. Really acknowledging it and letting it sadden us would give us a “negative” state of mind. Such an approach to life, though it may be well meaning, comes across as an attempt to insulate oneself from living in the real world, as it is. In many ways, this mentality has more in common with Eastern religion, which portrays evil as merely an illusion, than it does Christianity, which acknowledges the good and bad in the world head on. This is not how Jesus, whom Scripture calls a man of sorrows, lived his life. He wept at Lazarus’ grave; he didn’t stay away from the pain and sadness around him, but fully took it upon himself.

The Bible never commands people to think positively, and it never condemns people for thinking negatively. What it commands is joy and what it condemns is complaining and ingratitude. Paul doesn’t tell the Corinthians to not grieve lost loved ones, but rather not to grieve “as those with no hope”. Acknowledging that this world is, as Luther’s Catechism calls it, a “vale of tears”, is not being “negative”—it is merely echoing the words of Ecclesiastes. Life under the sun, in this fallen world, even for the most devout believer is full of vanity and meaninglessness. Thankfully, we live in a world that Christ has redeemed and is redeeming and it would be ingratitude to fail to remember this. It’s okay for Christians to be sad, though, recognizing that the world isn’t yet what it should be and never will be until Christ returns.

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