What is the Christian response to the power of positive thinking? Is Jesus the “Master of positive thinking”?
What are the origins and influences of the science of positive thinking and personal development? Is it biblical when we know that this science mainly advocates the exaltation of the self? Autosuggestion, visualization and mental imagery? What do you think of the fact that some philosophers or psychologists claim that Jesus is a great master of positive thinking? To justify the concept of personal development is biblical, some people quote the following passages: Jeremiah 29:11; Deuteronomy 28:13, 3 John 1:1-2. What should the Christian’s position be with regard to this philosophical trend?
First of all, the positive thinking/personal development movement has nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity. This is entirely a development of secular humanism and has not a shred of Christianity in it.
Second, to the psychologist, positive thinking does have some positive effects. This is undeniable. Positive thinking creates less stress and can, in many cases, actually help people to move in a “healthier” direction in their lives if we look at things from an entirely human perspective–if we keep God out of the equation. From a secular point of view, positive thinking has its value, and psychologists will agree. They might call it something like a type of cognigive therapy.
Then you ask a harder question. Is the power of positive thinking “biblical.” The answer is 95% no and 5% yes (please do not take these numbers seriously) What I mean is this. There are things stated in the Bible that sound fairly significantly like encouragement to positive thinking if they are taken out of context. Jesus advised that we not worry. He asked, rhetorically, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to you life?” (paraphrasing Matthew 6:27). There is some in common with what Jesus says here and what the purveyors of positive thinking say. To suggest to stop worrying or to think positively is pretty similar. Of course, Jesus’ advice, after his awesome statements about worrying is that we should “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all of these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33). So, Jesus is talking about something VERY different from the self-focused purveyors of humanistic positive thinking. They are more likely to suggest to seek self first.
Another passage (many more can be used and I am sure are used by the positive thinking folks) is Philippians 4:8 “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” Again, this is something rather similar to some of the things what positive thinking preachers would advocate, although their advised focus would be on good things happening to the positive thinker, not necessarily to others.
One reason that there is at some marginal parallel between what Jesus said and the humanist positive thinking people say is that, at least on some level, as a practical matter, positive thinking works to a certain extent. God knows this and he therefore tells his people to focus on positive things. However, as a philosophy of life, positive thinking–focused on our own personal selfish gain is not a godly way of life at all. In some ways it is the diametric opposite of Christianity. Paul said, “Rather in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests, but each of you to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4).
I would imagine that some of the more enlightened positive thinking crowd out there may even include some of this less selfish advice in their self-help motivational speeches, but the essence of their philosophy is clear and it definitely is not Christian philosophy. It is not even close to Christian thinking.
By the way, if you read Jeremiah 29:11-12 it definitely will not support what the positive thinking people say. That is putting it mildly. If you look at the context, in Jeremiah 29:10 God tells his people that this “blessing” will come, but only after waiting for seventy years!!!! Can you imagine one of these positive thinking peddlers telling their audience that it will all go well for them, but only after thinking positively for seventy years. Using this passage to support positive thinking is really laughable! The use of Deuteronomy 28:13 out of its context is even more insane as a positive thinking passage. Just read the rest of the chapter! Read Deuteronomy 28:15-68. The amount of “negative” promised here is a lot more than the positive, and the difference between the two is not how positively one thinks, but whether or not one obey’s God. Again, this is fantastically shallow use of the scripture to apply these passages in a positive thinking perspective. In fact, these passages tend more in the opposite direction.
There is no innate power in positive thinking, and to say that Christianity supports this philosophy is crazy. It is heretical. It is totally unjustified. Are there statements in the Bible which support the general idea that thinking in positive terms is better than focusing all the time on the negative? Sure! This is because it is true. However, positive thinking about our sin will not solve the problem of sin. We need negative thinking about sin, as in we need to stop sinning and we need to repent of our sin. Positive thinking will help us out on a surface level as human beings and I am sure some psychologists will even agree with this premise. Jesus even made some statements which verify this on some level, but as a philosophy of life it is about as unchristian as one can get.