Positive Thinking vs. Godly Comfort

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How do you tell a “dark night of the soul” (a period of spiritual desolation God uses to test your reliance on Him) from plain old clinical depression? Support from strong spiritual mentors is helpful both in discerning the difference and in getting through either. But what many Christians get instead is “Job’s comforters” advice:

  • “Just snap out of it.”
  • “You must have done something wrong; fix that and everything will be fine.”
  • “If God seems far away, you’re the one who moved.”

My all-time favorite is, “You’ve got to think positive,” often phrased as “Look at all God’s given you; don’t be such an ingrate,” or “Complaining is a sin.” Like Job’s friends, you started out to make me feel better and wound up kicking me with blame-toed boots while I was already down.

Confession time: Studying at Wheaton Graduate School twenty years ago, I regularly heard, “How can you moan about your problems when God’s so good to you?” from one fellow student. When she had to return home because of her father’s severe illness, I silently gloated over the thought that she wouldn’t find it so easy to be perennially cheerful now. I know that attitude was nothing to be proud of and wouldn’t pass the “What Would Jesus Do?” test. There are more Christlike ways to deal with “positive thinkers,” even when you’re at your worst emotionally.

Choose Your Companions Carefully

If someone never shows a trace of unhappiness and can’t understand why you aren’t like that–which leads you to feel jealous and resentful–don’t feel guilty about limiting contact with that person. As St. Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 8, sincere Christians are entirely capable of doing blameless-in-themselves things that can exert bad influence on fellow believers. Your spiritual growth will be better nurtured among less cheerful contacts.

Let me quickly clarify that neither should your contacts be gloom-and-doom types who are all too eager to join you in one pity party after another–that really is the sort of complaining God hates. What you need to look for are empathetic and insightful people who are good listeners, genuinely sympathize with your pain, and dispense advice in small tactful doses. If you have trouble finding anyone, try visiting a Celebrate Recovery or mental-health peer support group.

Be a Giver

If you’re really in an emotional pit, you may not feel like associating with anyone at all. Withdrawing into self-pity, however, will just bring you down lower and lower. By contrast, voluntarily doing something for someone else has a surprisingly uplifting effect on your feelings. Not only does God comfort us so we will have comfort to share with others, He uses the comfort we share with others as a channel to provide fresh comfort to us.

You can join an organized volunteer program or just look for opportunities to offer a kind word to someone who needs it. (And if someone who’s told you to “Snap out of it and cheer up” hits a rough patch, I hope you’ll be more mature than I was as a graduate student, and treat them as you’d want to be treated.)

Remember the Source of All Comfort

You can also help others by praying for them. And keep praying daily for yourself, even when you can’t feel God’s presence or see any obvious change. Fill your mind with comforting truths from God’s Word. Be patient and trust He will yet bring you through to true joy.

And yes, accept that this is not likely to be quick and easy. Like Paul, you may even have to live with this “thorn in the flesh” indefinitely. Often, all that’s kept me going is inherent stubbornness and a lack of alternatives.

Whatever else happens, cling to this: God cares, He treasures a personal relationship with you, and He can use the most surprising tools to lead you into the most amazing blessings.


The Power of Prayer: Does It Have Limits?


At least since Norman Vincent Peale popularized “positive thinking” in the 1950s (and Houston pastor John Bisagno published The Power of Positive Praying in 1965), Christians and non-Christians alike have argued about what focused thinking–and, by extension, prayer–can and can’t do.

At one extreme are the Law of Attraction super-enthusiasts (commonly associated with fans of the 2006 bestseller The Secret and fans of pastor-author Joel Osteen) who seem to think God is powerless without our go-ahead. At the other extreme are the fatalists who figure it’s little use praying for anything, because our part is simply to accept God’s will–an attitude famously exemplified when pioneer missionary William Carey presented his first public argument for taking the gospel to the nations, and a fellow pastor barked, “When God pleases to convert the heathen, he’ll do it without consulting you or me.”

Obviously, either extreme ignores the truth that God is both the One in charge and the One Who prepares good works for His followers to do (cf. Ephesians 2:10). So what, exactly, should be our attitude toward praying for specific things to happen?

Don’t Be Afraid to Make “Outrageous” Requests

Many of us pray for petty frustrations to disappear, yet never bring great hopes and dreams to God. This trap is described in the famous quote from Marianne Williamson (sometimes wrongly attributed to Nelson Mandela): “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.”

Don’t pray that life will go easy on you. Pray for power to follow audacious dreams.

Beware of Letting Prayer Turn Into Procrastination

God’s greatest servants can fall into this trap. In Joshua 7, Joshua, shaken by a setback, cries to God, “Why didn’t You do something?” And God replies, in effect, “Because you didn’t do what you should have–so why aren’t you doing it now?”

I sympathize if you “never know how much prayer is enough”: I have the same problem. Try this approach:

  • Start and end each day with prayer, but don’t obsess over how long you “should” pray. Trust God to show you how much is best for you.
  • If you struggle, write out your prayers. Or pray through a Bible passage or hymn.
  • Whenever you feel fatigued or anxious, pray for awareness of God’s presence and support.
  • Whenever you like the way things go, say “Thank You” to God.
  • Remember, what God wants most is for you to stay aware of and take comfort in His presence.

Remember Who’s in Charge

No amount of prayer can earn us the right to full control of our worlds. God is still the One Who works everything together for His own purposes (cf. Romans 8:28). After we pray all we can and do all we can, our final power lies in following Jesus’s example from Gethsemane: surrendering the decision and outcome to our Father.

That’s when the greatest things are accomplished–for God and for us.

  • A blog for naturally melancholy Christians tired of being told to "snap out of it"; for Christians who struggle with mental-health issues and long for assurance God delights in them nonetheless; and for naturally optimistic Christians who want to understand their "gloomy" loved ones.

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  • About Me

    I am the go-to writer for people with tough stress issues and special emotional needs—and for those who love them, organizations that serve them, and anyone who just wants to better understand the world of mental/emotional struggles. Or who just wants to pick up some good stress-management tips! Visit my main website at www.PositiveContentFactory.com.

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    Bible quotes used in this blog are from the New Living Translation or the New International Version (1984). See http://www.biblegateway.com/ for copyright details.
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