There is a problem with the current belief about the power of positive thinking. There are simply some things that cannot be fixed by changing the way you think about them. If someone you love dies, thinking positive thoughts won’t bring them back. If your bank account is a bunch of zeros, no amount of positive thinking will fill it back up. If you are diagnosed with cancer, thinking positive thoughts will not make the cancer disappear. Preaching the power of positive thinking only works in a place where things are going well for most of the people most of the time.
Below is a quote of a typical example of a proponent of the power of positive thinking.
“Can you guess what the most successful and happy people think about all day long? The answer is simple. Healthy, happy people think about what they want, and how to get it, most of the time. The power of positive thinking and developing a positive attitude are two of the most important qualities a person can have to change their life.
When you think and talk about what you want and how to get it, you feel happier and in greater control of your life. When you are thinking about something that makes you happy, your brain actually releases endorphins, which give you a generalized feeling of well-being. As a result, you develop a positive attitude.”
– Brian Tracy
There have been literally hundreds of books and self-help guides and studies that tout the power of positive thinking. After all, who doesn’t love an optimist? And many followers of Jesus, looking to baptize the power of positive thinking, find a ready verse in a letter that Paul wrote to the church at Philippi.
“Finally, brothers (and sisters), whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” [emphasis mine]
– Paul, in Philippians 4:8
At first blush, this verse may sound like an endorsement for the power of positive thinking. It is not. Now don’t get me wrong, there is something to be said about focusing on the positive things in your life; those things that are going right, rather than the things that are going wrong. We all know people who are by nature pessimists. Like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, the glass is always half-empty. Even when things are going well, they’re looking ahead preparing themselves for that moment when they just know things will go badly. These people are difficult to be around. Their mood has a habit of infecting those around them. Half the time you just want to shake them and tell them to “Snap out of it!” You want them to look at that half-empty glass and focus on what is there, not on what is missing.
Optimists, on the other hand, have a gift. Some would say a rare gift. Almost without fail true optimists will see their half-empty glasses as half-full. They are the Tiggers of the Hundred Acre Wood. It’s fashionable to wish that everyone could simply, by a force of sheer will, shed their Eeyore selves. And many people have bought the idea that if they just try hard enough they can become positive people. And, that once they become those better selves, their lives will in fact be better as well.
But there is a problem with pushing this glass half-full analogy too far. It doesn’t matter if your glass is half-full or half-empty if that glass was filled from a tap in Flint, Michigan. Either way you look at that glass, half-empty or half-full, it doesn’t matter. If you drink it you’ll get lead poisoning. That is the problem with the current belief about the power of positive thinking. There are simply some things that cannot be fixed by changing the way you think about them. If someone you love dies, thinking positive thoughts won’t bring them back. If your bank account is a bunch of zeros, no amount of positive thinking will fill it back up. If you are diagnosed with cancer, thinking positive thoughts will not make the cancer disappear. Preaching the power of positive thinking only works in a place where things are going well for most of the people most of the time.
For example, Joel Osteen, the high priest of the power of positive thought, once said this to his followers, “It may look like the difficulty is going to defeat you. But you need to keep telling yourself, ‘This sickness can’t take my life.’ ‘This cancer can’t defeat me.’ ‘No bad break, no disappointment, no accident can shorten one second of my divine destiny.’ You can repeat that to yourself until you’re blue in the face, but it won’t change reality. Perhaps the sickness will take your life. Perhaps the cancer will defeat you. Bad breaks, disappointments, and accidents frustrate our lives all the time. And when the inevitable happens and the power of positive thinking betrays you where will you be? Where will you turn?
The Apostle Paul was not a first century equivalent of a self-help guru. The words that he wrote rest on a foundation more solid than positive thinking. These words rest on Jesus’ shoulders. The very One who said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) Jesus didn’t tell the sick and the hurting and the depressed, “Embrace the power of positive thinking.” He said, “Embrace me. I’m the one who can lift your burden.”
Just a few sentences farther on in chapter 4 of Philippians, Paul also penned another famously misread verse. “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” But read in their context they are a powerful testimony to the peace that comes only through Jesus.
Paul wrote, “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”
– Philippians 4:11-13
So then, why does Paul exhort the Philippians to think about whatever is true and just and pure and lovely and commendable? It isn’t so that by an effort of your will you can change yourself, or even the situations in which you find yourself. Paul calls those baptized children of God in Philippi, as he calls you as a baptized child of God, to begin to think like the child of God that you are by grace through Jesus. Only when you rest on that foundation can you do what Paul instructs. May you find that peace that comes only through Jesus, whether your glass is half-empty or half-full.
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