The REAL Power of Positive Thinking - The Religion of Success
There is presently in our society much negativism or "doom-thinking," also among the youth. It appears that many people do not feel good about themselves or about life in general. They do not like what they are doing or where they are going. An increasing number of juveniles, unable to cope with life's situations and society's demands, are taking the way of suicide.
In the book, Five Cries of Youth, by Merton P. Strommen, 1 it is stated that one out of every five young people suffers from a terrible lack of self-esteem. Many youth apparently have a bad self-image, do not feel good about themselves, and consider themselves to be quite unattractive or worthless. Many youth feel lonely and misunderstood, and this leads to a sense of isolation, often within their own families. I am afraid that what is true of the youth, is true of many older people as well.
It would seem, then, that there is a great need for "positive thinking." Do young people not need to be told that they should not dwell on the negative aspects of life, but should be more optimistic and have a better view of themselves? After all, life is not as bad as we often think, and life is only what we make of it!
Peale and Schuller
We should be aware of the fact that there is a large and growing religious movement that is built up around the idea of "positive thinking." It is a movement that has not only religious ramifications but also economic and political meaning. It is a movement which has been called by some "a new reformation."2 It is a movement which stresses that we can turn into reality whatever we truly want: success, power, wealth, and honor. There are no limits, really, for "the impossible dream" 3 will come true if only we have faith.
There are some very prominent people who are preaching this Gospel of success through "positive thinking." Already in 1952, Norman Vincent Peale published his now famous book, The Power of Positive Thinking,4 in which he promised that if one carefully reads his book and applies the techniques suggested in it, "you can experience an amazing improvement within yourself ... you will become a more popular, esteemed and well-liked individual ... you may attain a degree of health not hitherto known by you..." The principles and techniques which Peale puts forward are presented as being tested and proven, "scientific yet simple principles" which are also at the same time "applied Christianity." Christian and scientific — it seems an unbeatable combination!
This movement has since then never died. Not only did Peale's book become "the greatest inspirational bestseller of our time" (as the cover of the 1985 pocketbook edition claims), but scores of other books like it have been published since. A very prominent author in this respect is television evangelist Robert H. Schuller, who speaks about "possibility thinking" and whose ties to Norman Vincent Peale are quite obvious. It is especially Schuller who has in our time put forward "the theology of self-esteem" or self-love. 5 Schuller, too, promises that the reading of his book will positively change the lives of the readers.
The publisher's market has now become deluged with a flood of religious self-help books which preach success through positive thinking or mind cures. The following titles are just a sampling: Love Yourself, You Can Learn To Like Yourself, You're Better Than You Think, Building a Child's Self-Esteem, Your Better Self, You're Someone Special. The list of books may be endless, but the message is basically the same: you can change your life by discovering your own worth, by raising your self-esteem, and by thinking positively about yourself, your aims and your future. You can bring about whatever you want, if only you want it badly enough and will sacrifice and work for it.
There is even the clear statement that this is God's will and Christ's teaching for our lives. God wants us to feel good about ourselves. After all, Christ came to take away our sins so that we would forge ahead through Him. There are now no limits for the Christian. A favorite text used by Peale and Schuller is Philippians 4:13, "I can do all things in Him who strengthens me." Peale advises that this text be repeated ten times per day. 6
The method or technique of positive thinking is indeed relatively simple: it is a matter of conditioning the mind and the responses. Constantly filter out the bad thoughts and replace them with positive thoughts. Repeat specific formulas and work with wallet cards containing texts or slogans. Prayer functions in a special way as a form of self-hypnosis. Believe that you can do something, and it will eventually come about.
This "positive thinking" movement is not as new as some would believe, but dates back to previous centuries. It is a common feature of humanistic thought that people are directed to the positive powers and abilities within themselves.
Dennis H. Voskuil, associate professor of religion at Hope College, has written an interesting survey on "the Gospel of Success in American Popular Religion." 7 From the survey I gratefully take some of the following information.
Voskuil sees the notion of "success" as being "deeply embedded in the American ethos." Americans have traditionally been fascinated by achievement and they just love a "rags-to-riches" tale. Especially fascinating is the notion that people achieved success on their own, by sheer willpower and determination. The American ideal is "the self-made man."
The "New Thought" tradition of self-help in America goes back to the "mentalist" school of the previous century. The mentalist school believes that the mind holds the key to success or failure. In the 1830s, a clockmaker called Phineas Quimby began to achieve popularity by teaching that disease is the result of wrong thinking and advocating that if you change someone's thinking, you cure his sickness. Thus was developed the process of "mind-cure."
It was Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, who popularized and institutionalized the ideas of Quimby. Disease could be overcome, it was taught, by the thought processes in the mind.
Mind-cure techniques were used mostly in connection with the healing of disease. In time, however, the same techniques were applied to the attaining of wealth. It was Prentice Mulford who began to preach the message, "To think success brings success." There was a shift from health to wealth. Various writers such as Emmet Fox, Harry Emerson Fosdick, and finally Norman Vincent Peale began to promote the theory of "positive thinking." Voskuil makes the interesting remark, "American evangelicalism has a long tradition of viewing religion as a vehicle to health, wealth and happiness." People such as Kathryn Kuhlman, Oral Roberts, and Robert Schuller are all a part of this tradition.
It is important to note that the positive thinking movement is based not so much on the Word of God as on (modern) humanistic psychology. Jay E. Adams has written, "The self-love, self-worth did not originate out of new exegetical and theological study; it was accommodated and incorporated into the teaching of the church. Its fundamental concepts were hammered out elsewhere."8 These ideas go back to those of psychologists such as Alfred Adler ("will to power") and Abraham Maslow ("self-actualization"). These men have taught that a man's most important purpose and drive is to be successful and achieve respect. We cannot love God and our neighbor, we are told, if we do not love ourselves; we cannot live with others, if we cannot live with ourselves! Appreciating our own worth and achieving our own dignity are, then, our highest goals.
There is great danger that in the present-day religious "positive thinking," self-esteem movement, the Gospel has become completely psychologized.
We need not completely discount the benefits of psychology for our lives. There are certainly elements in "positive thinking" which are to be appreciated. Voskuil complains that many of the critics have taken "cheap shots" at Schuller and have not acknowledged some of the "genuine contributions."9 We will take care, then, to show appreciation where this is warranted.
It cannot be denied that "positive thinking" is indeed "an effective technique for self-improvement"10 Those who have an optimistic and positive attitude in life generally perform better than those with a negative outlook. This connection has also been proven with respect to some types of illnesses, especially those of a psychosomatic character. Patients with a positive attitude and a sunny disposition heal better and more quickly than others. The same holds true in the business world: a positive attitude does garnish more results. Dale Carnegie proved this point in 1938 when he wrote his bestseller, How To Win Friends And Influence People. Richard De Vos and Jay vanAndel proved this point again when they built up the Amway Corporation on the principles of "positive thinking." Voskuil has written, "Up to a point, positive thinking works."
It is good to set a goal in life and then to proceed positively and determinedly in a wholehearted attempt to reach that goal. Too many people have no specific goals or have set their sights too low. It is good to emphasize that one must work hard and sacrifice in order to achieve the goal set. Positive thinkers certainly know how to fill their time!
I can also appreciate Peale's emphasis on the necessity and efficacy of prayer. All too often, prayer is forgotten in our daily routine. I also appreciate his advice to study the Scriptures regularly. But prayer should not be used as a magical mantra, nor should texts be taken out of context and hung as energizing formulas on the door of the fridge. A serious case must be made against the biblicistic manner in which Peale and Schuller use the Scriptures!
It is important that serious criticism be exercised on the widespread "positive thinking" movement as we are faced with it today. "Positive thinking" is both terribly insufficient and dangerously misleading.
It is simply not true that we can "achieve whatever we believe." Reality cannot always be changed by the thought processes of the mind. This is a wrong view on the world and on man. The theory of positive thinking suggests that we can shape our own destiny and that we are in control of our lives. The Bible tells us, however, that this is not the case. We are finite and mortal, and success depends not on our dedication or effort but on the blessing of God which He gives in His grace! The theory of positive thinking, as promoted today by many self-esteem activists, actually leads to the deification of man, the idea that man thinks to be godly and in control of his life!
In this way "positive thinking" can lead to great despair. People who have really believed that they would achieve success, and who have given it their best shot but yet have failed, will become utterly devastated and desperate. The theory of positive thinking holds no comfort for those who did not achieve their set goal. It actually seeks to avoid dealing with some of the harsh realities of life under sinful and broken conditions. There is no room here for the anguish and lamentation which is expressed in the Scriptures over the sin and the failure of man and, therefore, for the Scriptural comfort which the Lord gives in such circumstances. Failure and falling short are simply nonexistent in this sweet-sounding but very harsh philosophy.
There is in "positive thinking" the strong assertion that we deserve "success." We have a right to be popular, happy, rich, etc. We are of infinite worth to God and should regard ourselves much higher than we do. But, instead, the Bible teaches us that we are worthy of eternal damnation and that we have forfeited all the blessings of God. Conceived and born in sin, we are children of wrath. Schuller and his friends knowingly disregard the terrible reality and effect of hereditary sin.
Besides, it is utterly wrong to regard life in terms of material "success." It has been pointed out that the story of Christ's life was hardly one of "success" in human terms. In order to have self-esteem, positive thinkers say, you must have success. Your worth is based on what you are and what you achieve.
But the Word of God measures success in terms of obedience to the Word of God. There lies the "secret" to the "success" of Christ! The wicked may prosper in a worldly sense and be very successful, but only the righteous will endure (Psalm 73). These are two mutually exclusive views on what "success" is.
Positive thinkers say that man's greatest problem is his lack of self-esteem. But the Bible tells us that our "problem" is exactly that we esteem ourselves too highly! It is precisely our sin that we do not serve God first and seek the interests of our neighbor but that we seek ourselves. We do not consider God worthy of all praise but foster our own worth. Schuller and others urge us to love ourselves (before we can love others), but the Lord urges us to loathe ourselves because of our sins. 11 For only then will we see Christ, not merely as an "example" but as the one and only Mediator!
Ultimately, the theory of "positive thinking" includes no Scriptural understanding of sin and grace. It preaches man's self-worth and so denies the grace of God. Modern theologians tell us that there must be something "valuable" and "worthy" in us for God to save us in His Son! But the Bible tells us that there was and is no such value in us. Christ died for us "while we were yet sinners...," says the Word (Romans 5:8). We were weak, sinners, and enemies of God when Christ died for us; there was obviously nothing in us!
The Real Power
The theory of "positive thinking" as outlined above is a negation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It breaks down the Truth of the Gospel and the real manner of positive thinking which Christians should make their own.
It may be true that many people have a poor self-image. Mostly this is true because they have a wrong criterion. Whoever measures himself in terms of the success prescribed by the positive thinkers is bound soon to be discouraged!
When we let the Word of God work in us, we do not overestimate ourselves as having any worth of ourselves. We know that we are sinful and that we deserve eternal death. We learn more and more to loathe ourselves because of our sinful pride.
At the same time, we learn more and more to love God for His boundless grace and undeserved mercy in Jesus Christ. We know that we have been received by God in Christ and have been made worthy partakers of the table of the Lord.
We will learn to cope with the brokenness of life in God's strength. We may cast all our anxieties upon Him and live secure in His providential care. We will know that in life and death, with body and soul, we belong to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ. Then, indeed, we can say with Paul, "I can do all things in Him who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13).
This gives us a Scripturally-positive outlook on life — on life that is marred and scarred by sin, but which can be lived happily in the grace of God in Christ — a life in which God receives the glory and we say, "Worthy is the Lamb."