In 1952, a New York pastor named Norman Vincent Peale penned a book that has influenced generations that followed, called, “The Power of Positive Thinking.” Many of his thoughts and ideas were picked up by Robert Schuller, who repackaged them as “Possibility Thinking,” and built a religious empire from them.
These ideas, once seen as counter to the gospel, have now become mainstream, even in evangelical, supposedly Bible-believing Christianity. Christianity has been completely redefined, deemphasizing sin and lostness and separation from God and replacing it with a man-centered, self-reliant, relentlessly positive message – grace without the fall, redemption without the need for forgiveness.
In the Peale/Schuller world, our problem is low self-esteem and a lack of confidence in our own abilities to do great things for God. The solution is for us to think positive, believe in ourselves, dream big dreams and believe that God will help us reach our dreams. Man’s chief end is no longer to give glory to God, but God’s chief end is to bring happiness to us.
My concern is that over time this concept has gained ground and begun to establish itself as settled doctrine. Too many are replacing the hard, cold facts of the true gospel with the cotton candy of self-esteem and “you can do it” motivational approaches. A popular radio network bills itself as “positive and encouraging.” Sermons often become group therapy sessions in which the pastor helps people feel good about themselves but avoids confronting his listeners with anything that might make them uncomfortable or feel guilty or bad. That would be counter-productive, of course. They might go down the street to the other church that would give them what they want and let them leave feeling all warm and fuzzy about themselves. We divorce ourselves from anything controversial, negative, difficult or condemning.
I was attending the funeral of one of our church member’s father in a church from another denomination. I saw something that flabbergasted me. Perusing the hymnal, I found an interesting phenomenon. There was a section of songs about the birth of Christ and about his life. There were songs about the triumphal entry of Christ. Then, the hymnal skipped to songs about the resurrection of Christ. Anyone see a problem? They skipped from the life of Christ to the resurrection of Christ, but ignored the death of Christ. Christ’s crucifixion is ugly and unpleasant – all that talk about the blood and all! Do they not see the irony of celebrating the resurrection of Christ without acknowledging his death?
Can We Lie Our Way to Revival?
In my first ministry (I was an associate pastor), I was trying to organize the church library – a neglected mess. I came across a box full of old weekly newsletters that the church had sent out during the previous pastor’s tenure. I perused the one from the first week of April. In church, the preceding Sunday, heaven had come down and glory had filled the souls of all who attended. In the second week, God’s presence had fallen on the place is such measure that they could hardly stand the blessing. The third week was better than the first and second weeks combined. Obviously, the church was teetering on the brink of a true revival, the likes of which had not been seen since the Great Awakenings!
The fourth newsletter of April was the pastor’s resignation letter. I knew that during the month before his forced resignation, heaven was not coming down at that church and glory was not filling anyone’s soul. He was hyping, “encouraging” the church, putting a positive spin on things. Or, to put it more bluntly, he was ignoring the truth. He was lying.
Ever noticed the new tendency among churches to hype their churches on social media? “What a wonderful fellowship we have at First Church!” Nothing wrong with being thankful for what God is doing, but sometimes it seems a little desperate to me. Do we think we can hype our way to revival and growth?
The problem is not with being positive about the glory and power of God, or with encouraging people to trust in him. The problem comes when we ignore the hard truths of scripture so that we can feel good about ourselves without dealing with the real problems of our souls. Biblical Christianity boasts in Christ, not in ourselves.
Many today operate with a Bible that is about 35 pages long. We ignore most of the Old Testament because it is so harsh and negative. Sometimes we poach a promise that God gave to Israel, such as in Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” We only want to hear about the God of love, and simply ignore his wrath, his holiness, and his justice. We want to be assured that “my God will supply all your need” without bothering with the kind of generous, sacrificial giving that the Philippians demonstrated prior to that promise. We love “ask and you will receive” and other verses like that.
God obviously did not understand the need for positive and encouraging messages. When he gave his Ten Commandments, he worded 8 of them in the negative. “Thou shalt not.” Obviously, he just doesn’t get it. He could have worded those commands positive. “You should honor life.” “Be faithful to your husband or wife.” But he is so old-fashioned and culturally irrelevant.
Of course, we all want to hear positive truths, and the Bible has many of them. But when we sacrifice the full weight of negativity that Scripture contains on the altar of positive and encouraging Christianity, we come face to face with two realities.
- We are negative people with some very negative problems.
- There is no salvation or spiritual transformation until we deal with the negatives of our existence.
My Doctor is NOT Positive or Encouraging!!
I currently have a large and rather unsightly crater on my right cheekbone. I went to the doctor last week and she was insufferably negative. Why couldn’t she have been more positive, more encouraging? She told me I had a cancer on my face! How insulting. And then she gave me a very painful shot, which numbed my cheek. Then she burned that thing growing on my cheek. (By the way, if anyone every invites you to a Dave-BQ, just say no! Burning Dave was not an appetizing smell.) She then cut and scraped the burned cancer away. Over and over, she burned me, then scraped me, until there was (hopefully) no cancer left, but an ugly hole!
Shouldn’t she have been a little more positive?
Of course not. Because I had a problem on my face. Cancer! It needed to be dealt with. I did not excoriate her for her negativity, I paid her for her help! I had a problem that needed to be dealt with and I could only be healthy if she took an aggressive approach to my cancer.
It is my belief that the modern positive, encouraging Christianity is simply helping people feel good about their sickness instead of treating it with the truth of the gospel. I am convinced that much of modern “Christianity” is more about air-conditioning the bus to hell rather than leading people toward heaven.
I am considering writing a book – so far I only have the title in mind. “The Power of Negative Thinking.” When I preached this message in my church, a lady came to me and said, “I am mad at you. I have worked in a Christian bookstore for 20 years and I have had to sell the most awful nonsense. Why didn’t you write a book like that so I could sell it!”
Here is my biblical conviction. There is no positive spiritual impact until we stare into the depths of our negative nature and deal with it. Ignoring our depravity is not mercy and grace, but a form of spiritual suicide – akin to ignoring a cancer because it makes you feel bad. The joy of salvation, of redemption, and of spiritual renewal only comes after the dark night of mourning over sin
Here are four truths I believe are well-substantiated in the Bible and need to be held at the front of our minds.
1) We have a negative nature
The mantra of the modern world is that “people are basically good inside.” Everyone wants to hear that and to believe that, but the Bible gives a very different judgment against our nature.
Genesis 6:5 The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
Genesis 8:21 And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”
We have a sin problem, a heart problem. Our hearts are prone toward evil and cannot be trusted to guide us in the right ways.
How many times, as a child grows up, does he hear the “trust your heart” message. The Bible gives a completely different truth.
Jeremiah 17:9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?
Our hearts are deceptive and will lead us astray. We must not trust ourselves but trust our Savior and his Word.
Read through Romans 3:9-20 to get a biblical description of human nature. It is anything but positive and encouraging. It can be summed up in Romans 3:23, which tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Our hearts have a cancer, called sin. Ignoring that cancer is not loving or helpful. A cancer ignored consumes and destroys. I did not want my doctor to call my cancer a “beauty mark.” I wanted her to deal aggressively and violently with it. It hurt. It is ugly. But it is now (hopefully) gone for good!
2) We are inclined to ignore our negativity!
But we treat sin differently than I treated my skin cancer. We like to live in the land of fantasy, feasting on mental and spiritual candy instead of on the meat of the Word. We are living on Positive Twinkies and it is little wonder that we are not spiritually healthy.
I am currently on a fairly strict diet (down about 30 pounds from my fattest) that doesn’t allow sugar. But before I got on this, I had developed a strategy of self-delusion that was working very well. Every time I would order something horrible at a restaurant, I would ask the person behind the counter, “Now, you have removed all the fat, calories and sugar from this, right?” And they would always smile and assure me that they had. They were lying to me, and I liked it.
That is, I am afraid, what much of modern Christianity has become – people lying to other people about how wonderful they are and those being lied to smiling and nodding in response. We are living on a diet of sugar and wondering why we aren’t growing spiritually. Duh!
Here are the facts. Sugar is bad for me. A high fat, high sugar diet is slowly killing me through obesity. And no amount of positive spin or jolly jokes will change that. And the soul of man is being destroyed by sin. No amount of “I’m okay, you’re okay” sugar or “your best life now” dessert will grow your soul.
Study the Old Testament passages about the false prophets of Israel. They ignored the sin of Israel and preached a message of God’s love and acceptance of Israel even if they did not repent.
Jeremiah 6:13-15 “For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush.
False prophets ignored shame and repentance. They offered “peace, peace” to people who intended to remain in their sins and refused to turn to God. The marker of a false prophet in the Old Testament was one who offered the blessing of God without repentance or reformation. They were relentlessly positive!
Much of what we do in American Christianity has way more in common with the message of the false prophets than with the true prophets of God.
Anyone want to read a biblical prophecy that has clearly been fulfilled in our day? Look at 2 Timothy 4:3-4.
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.
We want to hear that we are basically good, that we should simply be who we are and not change. God loves us too much to judge us for our sins, doesn’t he? A quick look at churches across America tells us that we can gather quite a crowd tickling people’s ears with the desirable message of human goodness. Who wants to hear about judgment, death and destruction anyway?
But ignoring the negative message is not love and does not lead to spiritual healing. It is spiritual malpractice!
3) Negativity is Necessary!
A few weeks ago, I took our dog on his final, one-way trip. It was time for him. I stayed with him while the vet game him a tranquilizer shot that would render him unconscious. I petted him as he gradually went to sleep. Then, the vet came back in and administered the chemicals that would end his long life.
I think that is what much of modern religion is doing. It is anesthetizing us, rendering us unconscious and spiritually unaware of our dire condition, so that we do not feel the death blow that our sin will eventually bring to us. Human beings are lost and headed to eternal hell. There is nothing we can do about it, nothing we can do to save ourselves or earn the favor of God. Our only hope is to repent of that sin and trust in Jesus, to come face to face with the spiritual darkness that envelopes us and find life and hope through Christ. We are being lulled into a sleep of death.
A gospel without sin is no gospel at all. It is anesthesia so that you will not feel the death blow when judgment comes. It is an attempt to air condition the bus to hell. Our obsessive attempt to “stay positive” denies the reality of our wicked, sinful natures.
It may draw a crowd but it leaves that crowd in its sinful condition, destined for hell.
Look at what Jesus said when he preached.
Matthew 4:17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Luke 5:32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
Luke 13:5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Luke 15:7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
Luke 24:46-47 “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
There is no heaven without facing hell. There is no forgiveness without redemption through his blood. Those who wish to rise with Christ to new life must also be buried with him into death. We are called to take up our crosses and die so that we might live.
Any message that ignores that is not blessing people (regardless of how they feel about it), but is condemning them to an eternity without real hope. But real hope comes after the long night of repentance, when the morning of life dawns.
4) Negativity Brings Blessings!
Evidently, James (like Paul, Peter, John and other NT writers) did not get the memo about positivity. He wrote to believers in the early church and said, in James 4:7-10,
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you
No message to think positively, to believe in themselves or to feel good about who they are. Cleanse your hands! Can you believe he called them to “be wretched?” Can you imagine any of the purveyors of positivity to ask people to mourn or weep, or to turn their joy to gloom? That is so foreign to our modern ways. We have developed far beyond the negativity of the prophets, the Apostles, and our Savior, haven’t we?
But it is the hard road that leads to life and hope and joy. Without some negative thinking, there is no salvation, no spiritual transformation. There is no true wisdom until we realize we lack it. There can be no positive blessing until we realize the truth of our sinful natures and spiritual impotence.
Oh, certainly Christians can and should be kind, tactful, and encouraging to one another in Christ. But we cannot ignore the hard, cold truths of the gospel – that we are depraved and deserving of death without the intervention of Christ. We cannot tell people to believe in themselves but to cast themselves onto the mercy and grace of Christ.
Here is my prayer: That the church of Jesus Christ would embrace truth – that we are lost and undeserving sinners whose only hope is the righteousness of Christ, not our own. That we would face up to the hopeless negativity of our souls and break through that to find the glorious freedom of repentance, the blessing of believing in Christ instead of in ourselves, of trusting him instead of our hearts. May we foreswear the sugar diet that so many popular preachers are feeding their people and embrace the meat of biblical truth.
May we realize that joy only comes in the morning, not by ignoring the darkness.