Introduction to Positively Powerless, How a Forgotten Movement Undermined Christianity by L.L. Martin, WestBow Press, 2016.
In the process of writing, I was asked about the topic of my book and found it hard to answer such a seemingly easy question. Saying it was a critique of the positive thinking movement from a Christian perspective would typically elicit puzzlement. Aren’t Christians supposed to be hopeful and encouraging? However, this is not the simple idea of having a good or bad attitude in life.
I bet you have muttered “think positive” before an uncertain moment or stated this maxim in encouragement to a friend. Have you ever paused to think about what you are really saying and the implications of it? How exactly will positive thoughts help? You might think I am over-analyzing the issue. Yet there is a long and extensive history behind the idea of positive thinking, and it reveals how the expression “think positive” became a part of the American vernacular. Positive thinking was a vast movement which took the twentieth century by storm and radically changed American culture. Evidence of this philosophy is everywhere once you are aware of it. It can hide in plain view because it became such a natural way of thinking in our society.
Secular and sacred motivational approaches gained prominence in mid-twentieth century America, but these things developed from an older movement named “New Thought” whose beginnings are mostly forgotten – somehow passing out of common historical memory. New Thought believed in a mystical power of thoughts that could alter our outward reality. Of particular concern to the Christian are the movement’s roots in occult, mystical, and Eastern religious ideas that are in distinct conflict with Christianity. My research into this was eye-opening, and the first chapter will delve into this disconcerting background.
This non-biblical philosophy invaded the church during the twentieth century and continues to be influential long after the fact. Much of this “invasion” was subtle, coming in by the side door as Christians themselves were influenced by it. These teachings were often cushioned in biblical language, which made them harder to detect, yet there is little excuse for how so many believers fell for it. The core temptation is an ancient one, and we should have been on better guard against it – to be elaborated upon in chapter two.
The book contains content we might prefer to avoid such as chapters on pride and sin. Positive thinking has itself contributed to our discomfort about these core Christian beliefs, and blurred our spiritual vision. Evading our sin makes it difficult to see our need of a Savior. When the church catches the spirit of the age, it becomes spiritually weak.
While intended to be a positive movement, it can lead to disillusionment and despair. Have you ever felt like a failure in the Christian life or that you must hide your struggles with sin? Maybe you have been on a perpetual search for a spiritual secret that would finally bring you that evasive victory. Perhaps you sensed something was not quite right in certain approaches to faith but were unable to put your finger on it. The positive thinking mindset is at work in these scenarios.
Its cultural impact led to Christians developing false expectations or illusions about themselves and their spirituality. A quest for what we might become in life took precedence. It turned us inward and distracted us from the hope found in Jesus Christ. The central message of Christianity is not about becoming a better you, but about Jesus who lived a perfect life for you.
The aim of this book is to be an advocate for neither positivity nor negativity, but for biblical balance and realism. Positive thinking tilted Christianity off balance, and we need the scales to be realigned. The chapter entitled “The Already But Not Yet” will further explain this crucial idea that has been neglected by many. We are lopsided Christians. Present and future aspects of our faith have been confused, and this has distorted our perceptions of life in this world. We are supposed to feel a bit restless and disappointed in this life. Maybe that sounds unhopeful or gloomy to you. Yet it is neglect of biblical balance that actually dashes our hope by creating false ones. The best life is not now but in the future on the new heaven and earth. Hebrews 11:1 reminds us that “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (New International Version).
We’ve been led to believe that any form of negativity is wrong, but thinking about true and good things may not necessarily be positive. Sometimes the truth hurts. It convicts. It may humble us and open our eyes. We need these humbling moments more often than we care to admit and in order to grow into the likeness of our Savior.
Christianity is all about paradox: power is found through weakness, to live we must die to self, and to be lifted high we must stoop low. The Christian life is uniquely different from our natural inclinations and in stark conflict with the positive thinking paradigm. Some aspects of this book may seem a bit hard-hitting but it is only because we have become so accustomed to the pervasive cultural dogma of self-affirmation and self-fulfillment. Several chapters will address the paradoxes and tensions of the Christian life in an attempt to bring clarity about the nature of Christian humility and how we should view ourselves as Christians.
This book seeks to offer hope. A movement that claimed to offer power turned out to be powerless, and the only solution is in the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As Christians, we must continue to live in light of the gospel by which we were saved. Chapter 8 will delve into the great doctrine of justification by faith which is tremendously relevant to how we live our lives. When we live in light of the gospel, it creates a radical new dynamic for confident Christian living.
It was awkward to write about certain topics such as pride and self-righteousness. You feel hypocritical writing about a problem when you have not conquered it yourself. Yet who is really qualified to write about these things except our Lord Jesus Christ who lived a perfect life on our behalf? Please know I am a fellow sinner on this road with you.
Thank you for obtaining a copy of Positively Powerless. I hope it will give you a new or heightened awareness of how positive thinking has been harmful to the Christian faith. Throughout the book, I have been evasive about current Christian ministries and individuals. Instead of telling you what to think about the teachings of a specific author or pastor, I hope it will help you exercise personal discernment with any Christian material to which you expose yourself. Are you being encouraged to fix your thoughts on Jesus, or is it just giving you more of yourself? As the author of Hebrews implores: “Therefore, holy brothers and sisters, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus…” (Hebrews 3:1).
Personal thoughts: Can you believe that writing the intro and the back cover description were the most difficult things to do? Yes! Regarding the back cover, it is really a special type of writing – more like marketing. Normally an author would not write this, but when you self-publish it is all up to you. I did finally, out of frustration, hire someone to assist me with the back cover but they only tweaked my own attempts slightly. I was expecting them to come up with something completely different – which maybe was a false expectation on my part? And the intro? Ugh. I wrote, re-wrote, and edited it multiple times – and still wasn’t completely satisfied. It is hard to step back from your own work and introduce it.