One of the best selling religious books of the 20th century was Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking. The book contains much Biblical truth. One important Biblical theme that Peale emphasized was that of gratitude, and he was right about that. If you remember to be thankful for all the many ways God has blessed you, you are going to be a more positive person and you are going to have a much happier life. There is indeed much power in being grateful and thinking positive. I know for myself that it does me more good to focus on being thankful for what I have, rather than being angry and resentful about what I do not have.
But Norman Vincent Peale sometimes made the mistake of overemphasizing positive thinking to the point of excluding some other important Biblical truths. The Bible talks not only about gratitude, but there is also much in God’s Word about sin and failure and temptation and God’s wrath and judgment and death. But Peale did not pay much attention to those more negative themes, so he had an incomplete Gospel message. Positive thinking alone cannot express the totality of the Gospel message; and in faith, as in all of life, there is room for some negative thinking.
Imagine going to a mechanic. Your brakes have been making lots of noise, and even though you do not know much about brakes, you are quite sure there is something wrong. Your mechanic, however, is a positive thinker and doesn’t want to be negative with you, so he says, “Hey, your brakes are fine! Have a great day.” You reply, “But they are making an awful lot of noise.” And he says, “Don’t be such a complainer. Have a more positive approach to life and you will be a happier person.” I would get a different mechanic. In life, as in faith, when there is a problem, we have to be realistic and face it, even if it is unpleasant.
The Bible does not begin with positive thinking. Instead, it begins with the negative message that you are a sinner, even, as the catechism says, ‘a lost and condemned creature.’ That is not a positive image at all, but that is what the Bible says. Romans 3 says, “No one is righteous, no one understands, no one truly seeks God. All have turned away and together have become worthless. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
But the Bible begins with this negative truth so that it can move on to the more positive truth. Later, in Romans 5, Paul wrote: “While we were yet sinners and enemies of God, Christ died for us, and now, since we have been justified by faith, we can have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” We have to hear the bad news first so that we can be ready to hear the good news. Your mechanic must first be willing to tell you the bad news that your brakes are bad and it’s going to cost you some money. But then the very good news is that your brakes will work for you when you need them.
The worship service in my tradition begins each week with a time of self-examination and confession of sin. Later, when we say the Creed, we remember Jesus’ sufferings and death on the cross. When we receive communion, we hear about the blood of Christ, shed for us because of our sins. Once a year, on Ash Wednesday, we even get ashes smeared on our forehead as we hear these words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” These are not very positive thoughts. Sin, death, temptation, failure, ashes to ashes and dust to dust; these are all a part of the Christian message, and they all bring to mind negative images.
But the Biblical message is not stuck on the negative. Rather, the negative message is there to drive you to the positive message, which is the most positive message the world has ever known. As we worship, we also confess in the Creed our faith that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and has promised that all who die believing in him will also rise from the dead and live forever in God’s perfect home in heaven. There is no more positive or hopeful message in all the world.
If your mechanic says ‘don’t worry, be happy, your brakes are fine,’ and you believe him, you won’t spend the money to get them fixed. Then, in time, you will be in trouble and you will be sorry. And if you live your life by the “eat, drink, and be merry” philosophy and refuse to confront the negative message that the Bible begins with; the negatives will all still be there, but you will not have the faith to overcome them. So we talk about sin first so we can then hear about forgiveness. We talk about death so that we can then hear about resurrection. The Bible tells us something bad so it can tell us something good.
Norman Vincent Peale talked about the power of positive thinking, and there certainly is a power in such a positive and grateful approach to life. But there is also in God’s Word what we could call the power of negative thinking, powerful in that it is the truth, and that it drives us toward what we need most. And then, with that in mind, the Bible presents the most positive of all outlooks on life; an outlook that is marked by gratitude and not resentment or complaining, marked by the anticipation not of death, but of an eternal future in God’s good home.
Job 5:17-18 — Blessed is the one whom God corrects; so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty. For he wounds, but he also binds up; he injures, but his hands also heal.
Psalm 112:6-7 — Surely the righteous will never be shaken; they will be remembered forever. They will have no fear of bad news; their hearts are steadfast, trusting in the Lord.
Hosea 6:1 — Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces, but he will heal us; he has injured us, but he will bind up our wounds.
From the cowardice that dare not face new truth; from the laziness that is contented with half truth; from the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth, Good Lord, deliver me. Amen. –Prayer from Kenya