A Pepper Grinder Post

Positive Thinking

I have a very uneasy relationship with positive thinking.  On the one hand, I do think that I am probably too prone to think negative things about myself and others, and I could sometimes do with an intravenous injection of Norman Vincent Peale or one of his many modern protégés.  On the other hand, I have never found positive thinking very effective because, when it comes down to it, no matter how many positive mantras I repeat to myself, I just don’t believe them. 

To be fair, I have sometimes (especially with help from my wife) thought about positive things that I truly DID believe and reminded myself of those things and thought about ways that my negative thoughts were false and that really HAS helped me.  But most things I have read or heard about positive thinking sound like the goal is to get yourself to believe something that isn’t true, so that, somehow, miraculously, it will be true after you believe it.

sunriseLet me give you an example of the kind of positive thinking that troubles me.  Recently, on my wife’s recommendation, I listened to a couple of teaching sessions done by a Christian woman, aimed primarily at Christian moms.  I have a lot of respect for this woman, and I agreed with almost everything she said, but there was one part that disturbed me.  She was talking about how the messages we give ourselves can actually make changes in our brain chemistry and DNA.  She recommended that we practice giving ourselves positive messages, and she said that one of the most important times to do this was when we first woke up.  Her advice was that moms wake up and immediately say to themselves something like, “I’m a great mom.”

Now I actually thought it made a lot of sense that the messages we give ourselves right at the start of the day could affect our whole day.  What disturbed me was the focus and what message she recommended.

The focus of “I’m a great mom” is clearly ME.  I don’t know about anyone else, but if the foundation for my having a good day is ME, then my day is going to suck!

crooked treeThe other problem I had was the suggested message itself.  I think that King David was a man who truly loved God, and who had many gifts.  I have no doubt that he is enjoying paradise with God.  On the other hand, looking at his track record, I think he was a lousy dad.  Would everything have been better if David had waked up each morning and said, “I’m a great dad”?

I do believe we can give ourselves distorted negative messages, and that is destructive.  On the other hand, I don’t think the answer is to give ourselves untrue positive messages.  This reminds me of something I heard about American kids having some of the worst math and science skills among the wealthier countries of the world, but also having the most positive feelings about those skills.  We have produced a generation of kids who have poor skills, and who think they are the best thing since sliced bread.  Is that a good thing?  I’m not saying the answer is to go to the other extreme and have kids who constantly go around with the gloomy feeling that they are morons and failures.  My suggestion would be to aim for our kids to have a realistic assessment of their gifts and their failings.  The one would encourage them; the other would encourage them to strive to do better.

It seems to me that secular positive thinking is often embraced by the church.  I hear things being said by Christians which sound identical to what secular positive thinking gurus would say.  This bothers me, because I think it can give the impression that a modern, secular, self-help technique is actually a Biblical teaching.

proud treeWhat is more disturbing to me is how this teaching is transformed in some charismatic circles.  Instead of cheerful positive messages like, “I’m a great mom,” we get messages that express a confident certainty that God will act in the way we want him to.  We are told that if we shell out our money and come to a conference, God will meet with us and do mighty things in our lives.  We are taught that praying in faith means praying with a certainty that God will do what we want him to do.  Some people tell us that rather than asking God for something, we should just “claim” it, since he has already promised it.

I’m not saying that God doesn’t act miraculously or that there are never times we can be certain God will do something.  My problem is that it just doesn’t seem humble.  To me, when I see people acting this way, it feels as though God is a puppet and they are the puppeteer.  They may say that the power comes from God and the glory goes to him, but it feels as though they say to jump, and God asks, “How high?”

It also seems presumptuous.  Were there times that God wanted to heal people through the apostles?  Absolutely.  Were there times that he wanted to bring many people to Christ through the preaching of someone like Peter or Stephen?  Definitely.  But there were also the days that he wanted one of those spirit-filled believers to be beaten or imprisoned or murdered.  My problem is that it seems that some of the people who talk the most expectantly about seeing God’s power at work have a pretty narrow idea of what he will do.  They are believing God for a miraculous healing or a financial windfall.  But where does that leave them if God wants that brother with cancer to join him in heaven, or if he wants to deepen someone’s faith by bringing her through poverty and suffering?

OK.  So how should we think?  Is positive thinking something we should just ditch completely?  Believe it or not, I don’t think so.  I actually think there is a type of positive thinking that is very good.  I do buy the idea that how we choose to think can control how we feel, and maybe it even changes our brain chemistry.  What I think we need are positive messages which are really true. 

Here are some that come to mind, but I’m sure there are many more:

  • God is in control
  • God loves me
  • God will always take care of me
  • I have been forgiven by God (assuming that you’ve ASKED him to forgive you)
  • God has chosen me and I am his child
  • God can use me to do things I could not do on my own

That’s the kind of positive thinking I’d like to start my day out with.