I used to listen to the radio on my way to work, and the station I tuned into was a local Christian one. Their slogan claimed that they played, not biblically-sound songs, but “positive hits.” I would always think to myself: What in the world does that mean? Has being “positive” somehow become an acceptable substitute for Christianity today?
In reality, this question has implications that reach far beyond the world of music. Positive thinking, which originated in pagan religions such as Hinduism, is a very popular practice in the world, but it (like many other unbiblical teachings) has managed to infiltrate the church in many ways.
For instance, how many times have you been accused (by professing believers!) of being “too negative,” just for speaking truth?
Or been told, when you’ve expressed your fears or concerns, that you just need to “speak more positively” about the situation so that it will turn in your favor?
Now, to be clear, it is possible for us to be overly pessimistic, to allow despair to drag us down to the point where we aren’t grasping the hope-filled truths of Scripture. But notice the difference even in the terminology. Despair and hope are biblical concepts, and they are appropriate labels for our experiences in the “highs and lows” of life.
But the words negative and positive are ambiguous and subjective. Life isn’t a magnet, after all! What sounds negative to one person could be “neutral” or “positive” to another, and vice versa.
For instance, what I consider to be good or bad differs from what a non-Christian believes. I rejoice in God’s judgment and holy character–those are good things to me– but to an unbeliever, talking about His justice would certainly seem too “negative” for their taste! And conversely, while an unbeliever may really enjoy an “upbeat” song about getting drunk and sleeping around, I would hate to have to endure listening to it while grocery shopping or walking through the mall.
Here are some more reasons why positive thinking is not the same as biblical thinking:
1. Positive thinking is superstitious.
There’s a trend in our culture to mix together anything that seems “spiritual,” “religious,” or “inspirational” as though they were all the same. Christianity gets lumped in with everything else, including pagan spirituality. But don’t be deceived–superstition has no place in the true Christian faith.
Advocates of positive thinking say that you can affect or change the outcome of a situation just by thinking (or speaking) about it differently. “My friend was just diagnosed with cancer… but I’m not going to believe it! I’m going to believe that she’s as good as healed, and she will be.” This superstitious belief directly contradicts the biblical truth that God alone is sovereign over the events of our lives. He is the one ordaining what comes to pass.
When we pray to the Lord who reigns over history for His will to be done, it isn’t superstition. But if we try to make things happen the way we want them to through positive thinking, we are trying to take His place on the throne.
Another very similar teaching is that we can change ourselves through positive thinking. “You just need to remind yourself of how valuable you are, and soon enough, you’ll become a better person!” But this too contradicts Scripture. Remember what Jeremiah 13:23 says? “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Then may you also do good who are accustomed to do evil.” There is no true, lasting, inward transformation without God’s work in our hearts. He, the Creator and Sustainer of all, is the only one who can take a heart of stone and make it into a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26).
2. Positive thinking ignores the “negative” truths we need to embrace.
No one in his right mind could argue that the Bible is a “positive” book. Just a simple survey of its contents would debunk that.
More of its pages are devoted to describing God’s judgment on Israel for their sins (the Old Testament prophets), than on pleasant descriptions of heaven. Jesus’ teachings were centered more on the reality of hell than most other subjects. Anyone who picks up the Bible expecting some light, happy reading is in for a surprise.
However, that doesn’t mean that the main focus in Scripture is “gloom and doom.” It’s really all about the gospel–the good news of Christ’s glory and our reunion with God as His people through His work. But in order to understand and receive that good news, we need the bad news first.
Consider Christ on the cross. Scripture teaches that to the unbelieving world, it is foolishness, an offense, a stumbling block. Surely the bloody crucifixion of Jesus is way too “negative,” right? Let’s just picture him as a nice, accepting teacher, rather than a bleeding Savior.
But to believers, this is the precious truth that brings tears of joy to our eyes–that our loving Redeemer endured such a horrific punishment on our behalf, to pay for our sins and reconcile us to God! In His pain and suffering, in His stripes and scars, all we can see is persevering love, love that isn’t afraid to bleed, the victorious love of God for His people.
Those of the world can’t see that. They want to avert their eyes, ignore the cross, think about “happier,” less bloody things. They don’t want to acknowledge “negative” truths like sin, hell, and the wrath of God.
So they put them out of their mind. They are deceived by their lusts; they think that the evil things they desire and enjoy are better than Christ.
But as believers, we are different. We were once the same way, but our minds have been transformed, and continue to be conformed to Scripture so that we perceive everything through the mind of Christ.
3. Positive thinking overlooks sin and the Fall.
Take a look at this description of positive thinking from a secular website:
Positive thinking is a mental and emotional attitude that focuses on the bright side of life and expects positive results. A positive person anticipates happiness, health and success, and believes he or she can overcome any obstacle and difficulty. (Remez Sasson, successconsciousness.com)
Let’s break each part down biblically.
“…the bright side of life”: The Bible, and our personal experiences, teach us that life is, more often than not, anything but bright. Thanks to the Fall, everything–even nature–has been corrupted by sin and death. With Christ, life is meaningful and brings us joy, yes. But it is also difficult, painful, and full of vanity. Rather than valuing this life so much, we should be looking forward to the glorious life to come–our heavenly inheritance with God.
“…expects positive results”: I guess that’s what Job should’ve done, right? Maybe if he had been just a bit more optimistic, he never would have suffered through the loss of his family and health, huh? On the contrary, we can expect suffering much more often than “positive results.”
“…anticipates happiness, health and success”: These are the things unbelievers hunger after. When they inevitably fail to obtain one, two, or all three, their world is shaken. But if we have Christ, even if we are faced with unhappiness, sickness, and failure in this life, we can still rejoice and persevere, because He is the great treasure we can never lose.
“…believes he or she can overcome any obstacle and difficulty”: It’s all about the human spirit. Just believe in yourself, and you can do anything you put your mind to. These are the lies that completely ignore the reality of human depravity and weakness. The truth is, apart from Christ, we can do nothing. He is the Overcomer, conquering even our stubborn, sinful hearts to make us lovers of God. He is the one who delivers our souls and give us true strength.
4. Positive thinking tries to steal glory from Christ.
If we could use positive thinking to transform ourselves and make life better, we would be the ones to receive the praise. Positive thinking points back to ourselves as the Answer. That is not only wrong–it’s a wicked attempt to glorify the creature rather than the Creator.
But the fact is, positive thinking just doesn’t work. It’s biblical thinking–which glorifies Christ and not man–that is truly transformative.
Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. (Philippians 4:8)
Who determines what is “true, noble, just, pure, lovely, of good report,” or “praiseworthy”? God Himself in His Word! Meditating on godly, joy-giving things is not the same as vague positive thinking. It’s taking in the truths of Scripture so that the Holy Spirit uses them to change us from the inside out.
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. (Romans 12:1-2)
Our minds are renewed so that we embrace, not the “good and acceptable and perfect will” of man and the world, but of God. If we are transformed into the image of the world, it dishonors Christ. But if we transformed into the image of Jesus, it brings Him glory.
In the end, we don’t need positive thinking. We don’t need rose-tinted glasses. Our bare eyes can look plainly and boldly at all the suffering around us, and yet rejoice. Why?
Because we see beyond those things to the truth of who God is and what He’s done for us through Christ. The “negatives” of life can’t keep us from Him. Nothing can separate believers from His love. He’s redeemed us and purchased us to live with Him forever. Now that’s a truth to meditate on!