The Prosperity Gospel, The Secret, the Prayer of Jabez, What the Bleep?… like many people who desire to orient my life around the love of God rather than my desires, I find many of the pop-culture “think positive and get what you want” movements to be troubling. I think they are primrose paths that distract people into a tar-baby-like relationship with their appetites, encouraging a focus on the stuff of ambition rather than cultivating a deep faith shaped by gratitude for blessings and patient trust to see through trials.
Having said this, I also think that those of us who intuitively reject the Pied Piper song of the Prosperity Gospel and its many Christian and New Age cousins need to be aware of the temptation to fall into opposite errors. This was brought home to me just last night when I was talking to a good friend.
He’s a devout Christian, and we were talking about discussions that my wife and I are having about my stepdaughter’s eventual transition from living at home to living in a residential care facility (she is severely handicapped and for all her life, her mom has been her primary caregiver. Now she’s almost 23 and like most young adults, has a profoundly ambivalent relationship about still living with mom and dad). My friend, meaning well I am sure, jumped in with, “Oh, I know this is really going to be traumatic for both Fran and Rhiannon, it will be extremely difficult…”
I cut him off right there. “I’m not sure why you’re saying all this, but you’re not telling me anything that none of us have already thought of. Frankly, we prefer to think in terms of how much this will provide relief to Fran after over two decades of dedicated caregiving, how it will finally give Rhiannon some independence from her mom and dad, and how it will shift our relationship with her from a primarily care-giving relationship to one in which the time we spend together is about family intimacy and having fun.”
My friend replied, “Yes, but… ” and I cut him off again. “Oh, yes, Fran will go through the empty nest syndrome and Rhiannon will have to face all the fears of leaving the nest. And those normal life transitions will be even more difficult because of all the emotion tied up with Rhiannon’s disabilities. But does it really help us to dwell on these problems? Wouldn’t it be more indicative of our faith if we place our attention on the blessings that await us when we make this challenging transition?”
I know my friend meant well, but I think one of the reasons why malarky like The Secret exist at all is because so many people are programmed to seize upon the negativities of life, that we never stop to celebrate the blessings. This creates an internal sense of life as a continual struggle and a relentless challenge. Believe me, I have no interest in getting caught up in the ersatz magical claims that “positive thinking = positive results.” I know life simply doesn’t work that way, no matter what the gurus insist. But I think just because we don’t believe that positive thoughts contain magical power is no reason to settle for dwelling on the negative.
For me, the Christian alternative to The Secret is “positive thinking = choosing to have faith in God.” With this formula, when we do encounter life’s inevitable challenges and frustrations, we are liberated from the terror of fearing that such difficulties are somehow our fault, because our thinking was faulty. Rather, we can trust that whatever life brings us, whether blessing or trial, falls safely within the realm of God’s love, which means we can respond and be present to life’s gift with trust, faith, and a commitment to make the best choices we can in whatever situation we may find ourselves in. “The best choices” include maintaining a deep hope for both immediate and future blessings, always doing our best in order to help such blessings come to fruition (the key word here is help, not make), holding a commitment to never give up, continually trusting in God, and — yes — persevering in keeping our thoughts positive and optimistic.
Here’s the crucial difference: as people of faith, we maintain positive thoughts not because we believe that such thoughts afford us control over our situation. Rather, we maintain positive thoughts as a grateful response to the love of God in whom we place our trust, whether our circumstances be joyful or sorrowful.