The Problem with being Positive

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What is known as “positive psychology” is a popular thought-psychology that began in the late 1800s, grew traction in the 1990s, and fills much of our society today. Positive psychology essentially focuses on the positive emotions while attempting to ignore the negative ones. It appears in many Pinterest quotes, cheesy fridge magnets, and, sadly, all too many pulpits and pews. It was made famous by the prosperity theology popularised by Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking. In this psycho-therapeutic doctrine, good thoughts and experiences are morally good, and sad thoughts and experiences are morally bad. There is a multi-layered history to this largely Gnostic worldview but, upon observation, it’s clear that this popular approach to life has seeped into the church. It is a problem, which needs to be addressed.

The positive concepts of encouragement, contentment, joy, hope, peace, and trust can be found in dozens of admonitions and comforting words in the Bible. Many such are found on the lips of Jesus. But what positive psychology promotes is something far off the mark of biblical truth. And just as Christians are right to warn each other to be on guard towards a prevalent feminist culture, pop psychology (which does away with sin), and other aspects of post-postmodern movements, Christians should be equally admonished to beware of the prevalent positive psychology.

Many in our church, and no doubt many of our friends and even family members, live with unrelenting suffering. How can we respond to them helpfully? How can we respond, taking their pain seriously without reaching a threshold of compassion and then simply telling them to “trust and obey”? In other words, how can minister to them faithfully and biblically rather than falling into the Pinterest positivity? I maintain that if we don’t do better than positive psychology, we will discourage our suffering brothers and sisters.

Many Christians do helpfully bear the burdens of those suffering way beyond the front door of their pain. Many Christians are willing to go deep with them in their affliction. However, in too many cases, when the sufferer honestly shares their sorrow, we can be quick to condemn the afflicted as having a lack of trust in God, or of being discontented or lacking biblical joy. We are quick to tell them to “snap out of it” and to quit with the negative feelings and to just “trust God.” Though well-intentioned, we should be quick about making such an immediate spiritual diagnosis. Such “accusations” (which is often how the afflicted hear them) communicates that God is displeased with them. This can be extremely harmful.

Appropriating God’s voice is a weighty thing. I grieve at the thought that many who live with chronic illness and suffering are privately living in the cellars of their personal grief and are too afraid to bring it out in the light of gospel-saturated relationships. Their silence remains muted because they have sensed that their distress—especially what seems to be unyielding distress—is deemed to be unacceptable and incongruent with a mature Christian walk.

My experience in dealing with several people living with such suffering is that, often, their relationship with Christ is stronger and dearer than it was before the onslaught of their chronic affliction. They have experienced the power of the gospel in drawing them closer both to God and to fellow Christians.

I’ve also seen the damage when someone uses biblical terminology (whether well-intentioned or not) to justify their own discomfort with dealing with those who suffer. It is often easier to proof-text rather than to sit, listen, and weep with those weeping.

Unwise, insensitive admonitions of discontentment and immaturity only create distance, not only between the speaker and the hearer, but between the speaker and the problem. It says, “Your broken situation makes me uncomfortable. So, by relegating your disposition as sinful, I can distance myself from it and relinquish responsibility to walk you through it.” Of course, if you understand the New Testament teaching about the body of Christ, even here you cannot do that (Galatians 6:1–2; etc.)!

We must realise that a Christian can be sad and tempted to despair in their suffering and yet remain faithful. For example, you can mourn and be joyful. You can praise and still long. Perhaps in their chronic sufferings, Christians are enabled to physically feel what it means to be an exile on this side of eternity; perhaps more acutely than many who have robust health. The Bible provides such examples.

The book of Job tells the story of a man who sat in sackcloth and ashes, and whose friends rebuked him in his lament. They were clearly wrong. Indeed, God stepped in and rebuked Job, enough to make him tremble. After all, Job was a sinful man. But his sin was not identified with his physical condition. His sin was never identified as him being discouraged in his suffering.

In the New Testament, we read of Paul content in prison, even facing death. We see the Holy Spirit’s power in his life. Yet we also read that he felt “the sentence of death” in himself (2 Corinthians 1:9). We read that he feared and that he needed the prayers of others (2 Corinthians 7:5). We read in the Psalms where David groaned at the anguish of darkness. And we read of his hope at the same time (see Psalms 42–43).

Jesus himself both rejoiced and was known as a Man of Sorrows. The Lord Jesus was both the one who crushed the serpent’s head while also the one who would not bruise or break a bruised reed. The Bible has enormous capacity for concurrent experiences and emotions. Why would our God-imaging, God-made souls be capable of anything less? So yes, weeping and worshipping can co-exist. In fact, maybe this is the most powerful expression of worship.

Christians need to believe that, in glory, God will make all things completely new. Christians with chronic illness should cling to this. But it is important that the collective Christian-consciousness recognise that the years ahead for persistent sufferers are nevertheless stripped of a lot of what many fellow Christians enjoy now. Though those chronically suffering look forward to glory, their pain is real—now. Jesus faced horrific difficulties the three days before his resurrection. Promised glory? Absolutely. But preceded by a lot of pain, even darkness.

Hurting people can simultaneously believe that God is enough, while at the same time asking the church body to love them well. After all, God created the church as a means to experience the “enoughness” of God.

Those in their daily experience of being debilitated can continue to repeatedly plead with the Lord to heal them or to provide them with peace about their losses. This is gospel hope. Let’s encourage them for this demonstration of faith. Do they always respond well? Perhaps I can answer with a question: Do you? Let’s be discerning and, if need be, let us be direct. Let’s not be dismissive.

I have been blessed with great health and so I have to work hard at relating to what it must be like to feel unwell most of the day. But I owe it to my brothers and sisters who suffer to do so. Being deliberate guards me—and most importantly them—from an unwise and unhelpful positive response. Those who live with continual brokenness need us to avoid positive platitudes. Sometimes they simply need for us to be present.

Our brothers and sisters with chronic suffering can testify that God has been good to them all the days of their life. But they can also look at the hard life of a broken body and say that this is not good, at least as God originally intended. Sin has ushered in a lot of badness. The response of lament to the badness is not necessarily sinful. Rather, it is a righteous attempt to hang onto God. Instead of distancing ourselves from those who suffer, let us approach them intent to help them to hang on to the one who one day will make the chronically ill chronically well. This the positive response we should foster.