Positive Thoughts

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.

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  1. Thank you for this post. I needed it today.

  2. The vast amount of negative energy in the world does lead us to the hope that we will find respite in something like “The Secret.” I have a positive thought, yes, thats it, to your Christian alternative. It is grounded.

  3. There is a lot of positive energy in Australia at the moment after the recent apology of the Prime Minister to indigenous Australians for state policies of the past. Like your friend, a number of Australian politicians refused to join in, preferring to focus on the current problems that are still unsolved and fretting about imaginary compensation claims rather than expressing some good will. So I get your point that negative thinking can hold us back from doing good things. I like to call it “hopeful thinking” but “faithful thinking” works just as well.

  4. I have a friend who after reading the Secret, constantly puts herself down for bad things that happen, as if she brought them on by negative thinking. I really like your thoughts on this, and will definitely share this post with her. Thank you!

  5. I hope this is helpful for your friend. To summarize my thoughts: I do believe positive thoughts are generally more helpful for us than negative ones, so it is a good aspect of “mental hygiene” to get into the habit of choosing hope and optimism as the anchors around which we organize our thinking. However, because all things are in God’s hands, who “causes his sun to rise on the bad as well as the good, and sends down rain to fall on the upright and the wicked alike” (Matthew 5:45) we must remember that whether our thoughts are positive or not, whether we are “good” or not, our lives will include both blessings and trials. Therefore, we think positively not in order to make good things happen, but because we have placed trust in God who will always lead us to a happy ending — even if the path to get there is sometimes very difficult along the way.

  6. . . .and we hold loosely to our desire to “control” everything around us, everything that affects our life and our comfort. We are NOT the center of the universe!

    I think this is easier for some of us and harder for others, because of differences in personality, etc. But I think it is an essential part of a life of faith (=trust) for any of us. As Job said early in his trial, “The LORD gives and the LORD takes away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”

    Blessings to all,

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