Friday, February 14, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: Positively Negative

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Karen Wolff at Christian Books for Women gives some tips for the Christian on maintaining an upbeat attitude that are almost generic enough pass for the musings of whatever secular positivity guru happens to trending on the shelves in Chapters this week. She says obeying Paul’s injunction to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” involved purposefully replacing any negative thoughts we have with positive ones.

Tom: Such a thing is not always easily done, and I’m not even sure we have a scriptural warrant to pursue it. Certainly Wolff provides none, simply assuming the validity of her own premise. But her thoughts on the subject are similar to other believers I’ve encountered over the years.

Still, “negative” and “positive” are not really scriptural terms at all. Immanuel Can, do we have a mandate as Christians to be “positive” all the time?

Happy Talk

Immanuel Can: I guess the most immediate question would be “Positive about what?”

Tom: I suspect the consensus of modern evangelicism might be something like “Positive about everything, at every moment.” After all, scripture does say it is the will of God that we give thanks “in all circumstances”.

IC: Yes, and it does say that we should always aim at building up the Body of Christ, not tearing it down. That much is true.

Tom: But I’m wondering what we do with things like “Blessed are those who mourn” or “Blessed are the poor in spirit”. Or even better, “in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” I know Paul says he rejoices in doing that, but do you think he did so with a cheese-eating grin plastered over his face?

“Rejoicing” and “Being Positive”

More specifically, is there a difference between “rejoicing” and “being positive”?

IC: Heh. Yes, yes, I think you’re right. We can, after all, rejoice in hope while even in the midst of sorrows or trials. But that’s not usually what the proponents of positivity are talking about. I’m afraid “being positive”, at least the way the expression is most often used, usually means, “There’s something not really right here, but we want you to be a team player and pretend there ain’t.”

Tom: I think being positive is frequently confused with being a good testimony. But for those of us with naturally melancholic dispositions, relentless cheeriness cannot be anything more than a put-on, and one that the world sees through easily. We don’t even fake it well.

But I think we can rejoice in the Lord without being cheerleaders 24/7.

Bring On the Cheerleaders

IC: Yes. Well, you know what a cheerleader is? When the score is 100-0 against you, the cheerleader is the person still leaping around, yelling “We’re number one!” That may be positive, but the unreality involved in that it pretty obvious. When we get to a point where positivity is being treated as a complete value in itself, we’ve surely lost all discernment. And how important is discernment, Tom?

Tom: Oh, I would say very important indeed.

The Karen Wolff post I linked to earlier is one of those happy talk pieces that seems to me completely disconnected from reality. I mean, she says, “Have you ever noticed how refreshingly fun it is to be around positive thinking people?”

Refreshingly Fun

Refreshingly fun? Really? Is this the standard by which Christians choose how we are to behave? I hope not. I honestly doubt that “refreshingly fun” was at the top of the mental lists people made about the qualities they appreciated in the apostle Paul. Do we really entertain the notion that the Lord Jesus was “refreshingly fun” to be around? If you were paying attention, he was a challenge at every moment. And what do with do with the “man of sorrows” referenced in Isaiah? Where was his “positivity”?

IC: I guess in her defense (if I might undertake to offer such) there’s something definitely positive about “Whatever things are true, whatever things are honorable, whatever things are pure”, and so on. And we are to focus on these things, it’s true. But whether we’re refreshed or have fun thereby, well, that we’re not promised. In fact, is it not the case that often when we focus on that which is true, honorable or pure, it’s then that we can catch flak for being “negative”?

Tom: Absolutely. Advocate for purity and I assure you nobody will characterize dealing with you as “fun”.

Rethinking the Conventional Definitions

IC: Agreed. Okay, then ... I think it’s not so much a problem of people being too negative as that there’s something wrong with conventional definitions of “negative” and “positive”. When a person campaigns for values like honesty, truth or purity and then is accused for being too negative, I think it’s time for us to ask what being a positive Christian really means.

Tom: You can be upbeat because it’s been drilled into you that’s how you’re supposed to behave. If the deep sorrows of the world fail to affect you, it may not be because you are looking beyond or through them to an eternity of joy in the presence of Christ, but because you’re so unempathetic or inattentive that you haven’t yet seen sin or this world as they actually are.

I think people are confusing the ideal character qualities of the Christian as laid out by the apostles with something that is far less significant or moral: something no more profound than a cheery disposition. Now that impulse is coming from somewhere, but I’m not sure it’s the Bible.

IC: I’m thinking it’s not there at all. I’m thinking to be very positive about values like truth, justice, holiness and wisdom means also to be equally negative about their opposites — about things like lies, unfairness, corruption and folly. But to entertain these latter qualities in the name of “team spirit” or not “rocking the boat” of those less discerning is no act of godliness.

We follow the One who taught us to see precious value in the simplicity of little children; but also one who beat the living daylights out of the self-serving temple traders. The positivity and negativity there are two sides of the same coin: to value faith in all its forms, and to despise hypocrisy with unrelenting fervor.

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