Positivity Overdose

We all know that negative company feeds negative attitudes; but for someone who already has a serious negativity problem, overly positive company can be as bad. Even the Bible acknowledges that “Singing cheerful songs to a person with a heavy heart is like taking someone’s coat in cold weather or pouring vinegar in a wound” (Prov. 25:20, New Living Translation). Some translations render the word for “vinegar” as “salt,” which may be the better choice because salt is used in the Bible as a symbol of both good and ill, in one place sealing the destruction of a razed city and in another sealing a holy covenant.

Cheerful words can certainly increase either happiness or misery, depending on the recipient’s state of mind. Dedicated positive thinkers rarely understand this. They tend to expect “count your blessings” urging to have the same effect on the person who is only briefly discouraged and the one in the grip of serious depression. In truth, the latter will hear it as mockery and insensitivity (“All you have to do is the impossible, and if you can’t you’re just stupid”), which can only increase misery. One wonders sometimes if the “rejoice and be happy” types really understand what it is to suffer serious pain. I personally confess to having committed the sin of gloating when misfortune befell such acquaintances: “Bet they don’t find being Pollyannas so easy now!”

But doesn’t the Bible tell us to rejoice and be thankful at all times?

Yes, but the mistake we make is to confuse joy with happiness, and near-manic happiness at that. Paul may have put it best when he said, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Phil. 4:12b). Unlike “law of attraction” thinking which maintains the presumed link between happiness and “good” circumstances even as it reverses their standard order, unlike “Hallelujah anyway” thinking which implies unhappiness is sinful even when one has every reason for it, “contentment” carries a low-key tone of quiet trust. It implies willingness to accept circumstances rather than fight them, patience to wait for the best instead of trying to force it, a mind that focuses on the good in the situation but doesn’t feel obligated to ignore the bad. (The whole of Philippians 4 provides useful context here, emphasizing God’s goodness and provision as the force underlying all circumstances.)

Emotional illness, like physical illness, weakens a person to the point where even “good medicine” can deal a lethal blow if the dose is measured for a healthier patient. For severe depression, the best cure is long-term steady intake of God’s Word–emphasizing God’s responsibility, not the patient’s, and mixed with large servings of rest time and gentle human empathy.

And with quarantine from the overly positive.

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  1. I once knew a couple who were into that “Health and Wealth” belief that God gives “good” Christians everything they want or need. My husband was out of work for a long time, I had chronic health problems, and they kept telling me we lacked faith. A few years later they both had serious health problems, he lost his job, and they almost had nervous breakdowns as a result. They gave up on Christianity completely because God hadn’t delivered according to their specifications.

  2. Well said, Jan. One thing God is not, is predictable. And I honestly don’t see how anyone who’s paid any attention to the Bible record, or general Christian history, or the state of Christianity in today’s world as a whole for that matter, can possibly embrace the idea that saintliness and worldly success are always directly proportional.

  3. Strangely enough, I sometimes wonder if my comfortable life is evidence not of saintliness, but of complacency. I know so many godly people who endure painful trials, yet God has chosen to give me a wonderful husband, believing children, health, strength, and financial security. There have certainly been trials in my life, but not of the magnitude that many have borne. Since we know that testing produces endurance (James 1), should I pray for more testing?

    • Katherine Swarts

       /  January 22, 2012

      Don’t ask me; I get enough headaches (sometimes literally) wondering about the same thing myself. Though you might be interested in a post I did at my other blog a couple of weeks ago, http://newsongsfromtheheart.blogspot.com/2011/12/thorn-in-flesh.html, which touches on the potential implications–and potential dangers–of praying for hardships and testing.

      When it comes to the question of “is it prosperity or hardship that indicates whether God is pleased with you?,” human tendency is to seize on one or the other as *the* universal answer, and to forget there are many godly people in *each* of the categories “healthy and wealthy,” “average comfortable life,” and “one trouble after another.” Not to mention the many cases of people who fall into different categories at different stages of life (consider Job as a picture of extremes). And not to forget that any person’s level of testing is to a large extent relative and based on personal perception.

      So if I were asked to suggest one principle that would work for everybody, I’d say to pray neither for prosperity nor for suffering, but for spiritual growth itself–trusting God to know best what will nurture that growth in your individual life.


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