Can Positive Thinking Save Your Soul?
In 2006, Rhonda Byrne released a New York Times Bestseller entitled The Secret. This book dominated bookstore shelves, online blogs, and book discussion groups everywhere. The book’s message proclaimed the power of positive thinking. Essentially, if you think positive thoughts, positive things will come your way. You can be healthy, wealthy and wise—just be more positive about your situation. Byrne’s own words are actually more direct: “You are the most powerful magnet in the Universe! You contain a magnetic power within you that is more powerful than anything in this world, and this unfathomable magnetic power is emitted through your thoughts” . Innocent sufferers around the world might beg to differ with Byrne.
To many believers and unbelievers alike, this ideology reeks of nonsense. Even so, positive thinking is a supreme power in the minds of many. This philosophy is not just an abstract idea in our world. People’s lives are actually shaped by it, and it has even affected the Church far more than most would like to think (or believe) . The real issue at stake is that Byrnes’ message undermines the gospel and empties the cross of its power. This essay seeks to reveal the powerlessness of positive thinking by examining man’s insufficiency and displaying Christ’s supremacy.
To say that man is insufficient seems strange in our modern world. The Sistine Chapel, the Great Pyramid, and even the iPad seem to say otherwise. The harsh reality is not that man is merely insufficient or incapable of accomplishing certain tasks. The harsh reality is that mankind is utterly sinful. If claiming that mankind is “insufficient” is strange in our society, asserting that he is utterly sinful may be considered blasphemous. While this truth may enrage our modern world, it is one of the central teachings of Scripture, and one of the major offenses of the gospel (Rom. 3:10).
Most people are deeply offended when they are told of their deficiency in some area. However, isn’t all of culture preaching this message of human inadequacy, really? Flip through a few pages of the newest gossip magazine in the local grocery store, and you’ll notice an echo of this message. Women and young girls everywhere are riddled with self-image problems. The cultural demands are far higher than they could ever meet. If positive thinking could change their appearance, it would be done in a moment.
Scripture takes it even a step further. Flip through a few pages of the Bible and it will be quite evident that biblical demands also exceed what humans are capable of. Consider these passages from the Sermon on the Mount as an example:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt 5:27–28 ESV).
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Mt. 5:38–42 ESV).
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. . . .You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:43–48 ESV).
Whereas culture’s call to perfection is implicit, Jesus says it directly. The Bible does not have to state directly, “You are evil,” for you to feel the weight of God’s holiness and to recognize your inability to meet His demands. Most people get to this point in their understanding of the gospel and feel hopeless. Jonathan Leeman puts it this way:
I dare say that we are like the homely girl who flips through the pages of a fashion magazine and feels despondent because she doesn’t look like the artificially implanted, airbrushed models on the pages before her. Therefore she feels she will never be loved and adored for her beauty, as she wants to be. It’s in this vein that we should behold the love of the Father for the Son .
While recognizing our own depravity seems to render us hopeless, it is actually the first step towards true hope. Fashion magazines say a new cosmetic will fix the problem. The Secret says positive thinking will change your outlook. The gospel says true hope is only to be found in the supremacy and beauty of Christ. It is to this subject that we now turn.
Paul’s letter to the Colossians opens with a magnificent description of Christ’s supremacy in creation, heaven, earth, and salvation. It would be conceivable if this Christ of which Paul writes were simply a supreme, heavenly being who ruled over the affairs of the world. However, it is another thing entirely when Paul explains that Jesus’ greatest supremacy was revealed when He became a man (Col. 1:22). It is one thing to say that God demands mankind’s holiness from a throne in the heavens. However, it is another thing entirely when God becomes a man, experiences human frailty, and lives without sin.
If Christ had not become a man, then some could possibly accuse God of demanding a holiness that cannot be attained. But in the incarnation God crushes such cries of injustice. This changes everything. It first changes things by revealing that God can sympathize with man in his weaknesses (Heb. 4:15). But it moves beyond sympathy to reconciliation. God became a man so that He could reconcile man to Himself (Col. 1:19-20) . This is the power of the cross. Where the ploy of the magazine is to move self-conscious consumers towards buying a product, the purpose of the gospel is to move sinners towards worshipping the true God.
The Scriptures rightly make one feel utterly sinful and inadequate. The demands are too high, and Jesus’ example of human living is superhuman. His passion, love, zeal, and perfection deal a deathly blow to human attempts at righteousness. When one reads the accounts of Jesus’ life it is soon clear that there is nothing else to do but fall at His feet in worship. But this is the intent: What man cannot do, Christ can. The truth is:
We will never look like Jesus, and the Father’s love for the Son indeed rushes forward like mighty waters on account of his beauty. Ah, but here is the good news of the gospel: such love will be given to you and me, ugly sinners—the rush of the mighty waters of the Father’s love upon us. Upon you. If only we repent and believe .
This is the good news.
Perhaps all who read this essay are already professing Christians. Even so, this is valuable in several ways. It is first valuable as a reminder when counseling believers and unbelievers alike. When giving people godly counsel it is easy to quickly dismiss their wickedness and assure them of their general goodness for the sake of comforting them. This is simply positive thinking. But it is a full recognition and acceptance of how evil the human heart is that makes the gospel so glorious. We are terribly wicked, and Christ is immeasurably righteous. God accepts us based upon the righteousness of Christ—not our own. This makes him alone worthy of praise.
The second way that this is valuable is that it makes the Christian life joyous. It is not always comfortable to be reminded of your own depravity, but it is both important and valuable. There is nothing more amazing than knowing that “you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him” (Col. 1:21-22). The love of God is lavishly poured upon us in the work of Christ. Reconciliation is not based upon our positive thinking. It is based up the power of the cross, the power of God’s scandalous grace.
 Rhonda Byrne, The Secret (Hillsboro, OR: Beyond Words Publishing, 2006), 7.
 The 20th Century Presbyterian minister Norman Peale was a strong proponent of positive thinking. In his most prominent work, The Power of Positive Thinking, he wrote, “If you read this book thoughtfully, carefully absorbing its teachings, and if you will sincerely and persistently practice the principles and formulas set forth herein, you can experience an amazing improvement within yourself.” (x)
 Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 106.
 This point is beautifully expounded by Anselm of Canterbury in his work: Cur Deus Homo? (Why Did God Become Man?) The entire work is worth reading, but he deals succinctly with this concept in Book II Chapter VI.
 Leeman, 106.
For Further Reading:
Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word.