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Article No. 185

Positive thinking?

Having read several reviews of a book called ‘Smile or die’ I felt that I had to buy it in order to see the whole argument. I have now skimmed the book and am ready to make some initial comments from a Christian point of view.

The book - by an American author (Barbara Ehrenreich, ISBN 978 1 84708 42, price under £10 at Amazon) - holds up for ridicule the widespread practice in the USA of what is often referred to as ‘positive thinking’ and then explores related developments such as the so called ‘prosperity gospel’ preached in some churches, and the infiltration of  a wrong spirit of optimism in big business and, particularly, in  the banking community.

There is plenty of scope for criticism of the near universal demand in the U S A for positive thinking, but there are also some very sound ideas behind positive thinking - ideas that come from an approach to life that is generally acceptable and that many live by. Indeed it must be true to say that many find that a positive approach to life is essential for a ‘happy’ life. Perhaps we could say that what this book is against is the wrong use of positive thinking - an objection to giving up the idea of  critical appraisal in our daily lives which is implicit in some versions of positive thinking. The book does give full weight to the good aspects of positive thinking - and holds up for criticism only those aspects that seem to have taken a wrong turn in popular practice.  

The book starts with a focus on the case of cancer - a disease that afflicted the author of this book. She suffered cancer of the breast and had to undergo all the usual difficult treatments that so many women know all about. She was fortunate in that the treatment was successful and she is now free from cancer.

While undergoing treatment she met, along the way, evidence of a widespread facile approach to the illness. Fluffy teddies were available, with special ribbons for cancer sufferers to remind them to be positive. The idea behind this was that positive thinking would hasten their recovery. She found that  similar advice was presented to cancer sufferers at all stages of the treatment - and this was immediately apparent when she explored the internet. It seems everyone believed that being positive was important for recovery.

Being scientifically trained herself, this author believed that there was little or no medical justification for such an idea. Nor could she accept that the advice peddled to cancer sufferers to “accept” the illness - was right. Some even suggested that those with cancer should be grateful - that cancer was a ‘gift’, deserving of gratitude.  That, for example, the consequent baldness from the treatment was an opportunity to indulge their playful side - maybe with tattoos! Clearly a scientist, battling for her life with cancer, would find such trite suggestions not only fatuous but also  deeply offensive.

This experience with one aspect of ‘positive thinking’ started the author on an investigative trail resulting in the book. Anyone who knows America will recognise immediately the prevalence of positive thinking. It is also current in our own country but to a lesser degree. Some might say it has become part of the American psyche at the present time. If so, then recent events may have changed people’s attitude towards it!

Whilst it is obviously right to criticize the idea that changing the way one thinks will cure cancer, is there any value to be had from positive thinking?

I have never had  cancer, nor has any member of my family suffered from it, except the very elderly. However, many people would find themselves in such deep distress at the discovery that they ‘had cancer’ that anything that helped them to find the will and courage to fight back against such a serious disease might be worthwhile. If someone is sunk in sadness and apathy at the discovery of their illness it is possible that they could sink into severe depression, in which case even the simple idea of thinking positively about it might hold out a lifeline to take them to a more balanced view of the situation.

What is reprehensible of course is the holding out of false hope - that if they think positively enough then they will be cured. Those promoting such ideas obviously lay themselves open to criticism. An even worse effect could result from the idea that thinking positively affects the course of the disease; sufferers may get the idea that positive thinking could cure them -  and blame themselves for lack of positive thinking as the disease takes its course. Feeling guilty because they cannot make themselves positive enough is obviously deeply wrong.   

We are getting perilously close at this point to the old idea of a Judgemental God who afflicts those who do evil.  Christians generally today do not believe that God punishes us by sending sickness. The idea that AIDS was sent by a God who hated homosexuality is surely dead and buried in the minds of most modern Christians. Just as the idea of a few decades ago, that God smote York Minster with fire because the Archbishop of York had just appointed the Reverend David Jenkins to be the new Bishop of Durham, is now surely only held by what might be termed the less orthodox Christians. Most Christians believe that God sends neither fire nor sickness on his children for their sins.

Having looked at positive thinking in the medical context, the author of  this book then moves to other areas of American life where positive thinking prevails in one form or another. She looks at the workplace - where large firms use motivational speakers to try to inspire their sales force - and how it is used by companies to smooth the departure of  those being sacked (or as the Americans call it: being ‘let go’). She mentions how motivational speakers are even being used in colleges to motivate students. Her thesis is that the whole of American society appears to be becoming infected with the virus of the wrong sort of positive thinking.

Her final example is the banking sector of the country. She considers that an attitude of false optimism seemed to have gripped the whole of the banking sector - with the fatal results we now all see. She sees the optimistic ’positive thinking’ attitude as permeating the banking fraternity - a false optimism that, she thinks, may have led them to the calamitous results for not only banking, nor just America but for the whole world. Bankers, of course, may have other and deeper reasons for the collapse we have seen recently!

Amongst her examples the author also mentions the churches in America - some of which preach the gospel of positive thinking to a high degree. Some of these churches adopt what is often called the ‘prosperity gospel’ - the idea that if the Christian will give freely of their own money to God’s work (often benefiting the preacher!), then God will reward them handsomely. God has all the wealth in the world and is just waiting to give some of it into the lives of those who trust him and donate their money.  This is a tune that can be played in many different ways. Personally, I find a similarity with the Priests who peddled indulgences for cash in the Middle Ages!

As in the case of sickness, there is a deep truth for Christians in the warning. It is true that God calls for us to trust him and to freely share our goods with those in need. However the idea that one can gain materially from giving is not a doctrine that most Christians would support. The gain  through giving for the Christian is spiritual, not material.

I hope I have fairly represented the theme of the book - if you need more detail then I recommend buying it.

Turning now to my Christian reaction to the book - how do I view what is being suggested here? Is the author right in seeing the ‘positive thinking’ movement (it is a cross, I think, between a movement and an ideology!) as a present danger in the USA? And how is it faring in Britain?

I agree that the book gives us a salutary warning. Positive thinking - as a movement - has widely infected the thinking of millions in the USA. For some of them that will mean a foolish optimism and an uncritical approach to life.  On the other hand - when not taken too far there is much to be said for positive thinking!  As with many things - the idea that being positive is a good thing  can be very healthy and helpful if used wisely and in moderation!

As a Christian I believe in  positive thinking!  I believe in it, not because I have been brainwashed, but because I believe it is absolutely basic to the Christian gospel. The good news of the gospel is that we have a God who took the initiative in giving us Jesus as a human being who would open the way for us to be reconciled with God. Without such reconciliation we find ourselves separated from God by a barrier of sin. The gospel is intrinsically good news of the most positive kind. We can come to the Father through the Son and we can receive all that God purposes to give us through the Holy Spirit.

But it is not only the four gospels that gives us this message. St Paul wrote a number of letters to young churches and these letters are brimful of faith and optimism and hope. He saw the purposes of God as ripening and eventually resulting in the coming of God’s Kingdom, which is both here and coming. St Paul has had a tremendously powerful influence of the faith of Christians down the centuries. Over and over again in his letters he is supremely positive. Allow me to give half a dozen of his verses to illustrate:

1    Now to Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3.20-21)

2    Finally be strong in the Lord and in  the strength of his might… (Ephesians 6.10)

3    It was for freedom that Christ set us free…(Galatians 5.1)

4    Finally brethren rejoice, be made complete, be comforted, be like minded, live in peace, and the God of love and peace shall be with you.  (2 Corinthians 13.11

5    Therefore if any man is in Christ he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.  (2 Corinthians 5.17)

6    Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, rejoice! Let your forbearing spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near. Be anxious for nothing , but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God . And the peace of God which surpasses all comprehension shall guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4.4-7)

And there are many more. Indeed his whole explanation of what God has done, is doing and will do in Jesus is highly positive. Such claims are not provable or able to be tested in any scientific sense - except that there is the witness of many millions of Christians down the centuries that God delivers what he promises in the New Testament.

So if we are enjoined to ‘think positively’ by society we can, as Christians, agree that there is every reason to be positive. The difference between facile optimism (the target of this book) and Christian confidence is shown in the aim of secular positive thinking, which might be said to be happiness. The Christian, however, is positive because he has a deep joy in his heart - the spiritual certainty of God’s presence with him. The Lord Jesus Christ has conquered death and we are part of his Kingdom. In due course, whatever sickness or trouble we encounter,  we shall be sustained and blessed by Him and, eventually, in death, will go to be with Him.

Indeed there is more!  As Christians we can also say that we believe that God is with us in all that happens in our lives. Because this world is God’s creation we believe that nothing happens that He has not foreseen and permitted to happen. He accompanies us, guides us, leads us in the way that we should go. We believe that God is not only in control of his world - his creation - but we believe that he is in control of our lives. Should cancer or some other terrible disease strike us, then we will continue to believe and trust in God, knowing that one day all that is presently unclear to us (for example the presence of pain and suffering) will be made plain.

Not only do we enjoy a supremely positive faith in Jesus Christ - but we are among millions who, down the ages, have trusted in God in exactly the same manner. If that is not ‘positive thinking’ - then what is?  But it is thinking based on fact - the fact of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ and the fact of the testimony of countless other Christians who have found the biblical message to be true. It is also based on the fact of our own past experience. I have trusted him these many decades and I have never found him wanting. At times I have been deeply perplexed - but always, as I have continued to trust, the darkness has cleared and the way ahead has become plain.

The world seeks happiness. It is apparent in all the many attempts to seek fulfilment, money and self gratification, and people do this because they think that the route to happiness lies that way. It doesn’t! There is a more worthwhile quality than happiness and that is joy. God imparts his joy into our hearts and our lives when we accept Jesus as Lord. That joy makes us the most positive people around. Nothing to do with us. No credit to us. It is all from Him and to Him we give the glory.

Buy the book - be on your guard against secular and facile positive thinking - adopt a critical stance that examines the facts - but find the true joy of the Lord when you open your life afresh to Jesus Christ. That will really make you positive!

Tony Cross
January 2010

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