In Praise of Negativity (Sort of)
Ok, not really. The word “negativity” used to mean basic, street level pessimism. No one really likes that. It doesn’t do anyone any good. The kind of negativity I want to praise is actually more in the center of the spectrum between pessimism and optimism. Let’s call it…realism.
The reason this conversation even needs to be had is because of a trend in the church for people to condemn realism and call it negativity. The prosperity gospel movement has made it a point to make positive thinking a central tenet of their teaching, to the extent that speaking anything “negative” (such as condemning sin as outlined in the Bible) is taboo. Some people make the bold claim that our actual words have power over our situation, and say things like “words have the power of life and death. Speak life over you situation.” Or “Get your mind going in the right direction, and your life will go in the right direction.” One example of the many applications of this is in overcoming addiction. I read about a person who wanted to stop smoking, and was told to claim his victory over addiction daily, by saying “I don’t like cigarrettes. I don’t like their taste or their smell.” According to the testimonial, several months later the person had quit!
There are a couple of problems with this spiritual teaching, the main problem being the Bible. While there IS scripture that supports maintaining something like a “positive mental attitude”, (Philippians 4.8, for example), the mechanism for our victory is not in our mental posture or our speech, but in the blood of Jesus. His victory is ours, and it is a victory over sin, not necessarily suffering. I wouldn’t be surprised if the testimonial about the smoker who quit was true, and positive affirmation can certainly have a powerful affect in anyone’s life. But we are called more often to obedience than to grand declarations or positive affirmations. We are called to persistence in prayer, not to “speak life” over our situations. To shift the focus of our hearts away from Christ and his completed work, and to reduce the wonderful, difficult discipline of prayer to a trite formula of speaking your desired outcome is a cheap substitute for New Testament discipleship and ultimately amounts to old fashioned animism: performing spiritual rituals in order to manipulate the spiritual realm to your own advantage.
Another difficulty with the “no negativity” crowd is a wrong definition of faith, which has the ultimate effect of leaving the faithful in a state of disillusionment.
“Faith is not believing that God can, it’s knowing that he will.” Are you familiar with this statement? It is wrong on a number of levels. First and foremost, it is a direct contradiction to Daniel 3.16 and 17. The context shows us the three Hebrew transplants, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego facing the anger of King Nebuchadnezzar for refusing to bow down to his golden image. Pay close attention to their response:
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, “Nebuchadnezzar, we don’t need to give you an answer to this question. If the God we serve exists, than He can rescue us from the furnace, and He can rescue us from the power of you, the king. But even if he does not rescue us, we want you as king to know that we will not serve your gods or worship the gold statue you set up.” (HCSB, emphasis mine.)
Ultimately, God rescued them, as we all remember. However, scripture is full of examples of God’s people who were doing all the right things and God still allowed them to “go through the fire”, so to speak. (For a great list of examples, see Hebrews 11, not to mention Jesus himself.) What happens to those who buy into the “positivity” message when things don’t go right? If you thought that faith meant “knowing that God will”, and He didn’t, what does that mean? Either you misunderstood God or you misunderstood faith. The family who prays for healing over cancer but doesn’t receive it…where are they after God takes away their loved one sooner than they wanted? Or the parent with estranged children who seem to keep building higher walls and running further away? The wife whose husband never stops cheating on her? Did they have misplaced faith in God? Doesn’t he care about their situation? In contrast, the concept of faith that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego demonstrate is radically different. Their object of faith (God) was good, powerful and worthy of their obedience no matter the outcome of their situation. They praised God for who He is, rather than what He does.
Finally, there is an idea that’s married to this redefinition of negativity. The idea is that we shouldn’t mention the concept of sin, since it is negative and might make us feel bad, which is the opposite of the desired outcome for this pseudo-gospel. Look at God’s diagnosis in Jeremiah 6.14
“They have treated my people’s brokenness superficially, claiming ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”
When we preach the gospel as though its sole purpose were to bring us comfort, instead of to address sin and grow Christ-like worshippers for the glory of God, of course we will want to avoid sin. Of course we will ask people not to discuss unpleasant, nasty circumstances. But that doesn’t square with the Bible, people’s real needs or their real lives. Avoiding negativity means that we misdiagnose the disease. Instead of a sinful heart that loves it’s sin, we are dealing with a negative heart that needs psychological coaching to overcome it’s bad feelings.
In medical terms, this type of treatment would lead to a malpractice case on day one. Doctors cannot avoid negative conversations, otherwise they decieve their patients. Mechanics cannot gloss over serious mechanical issues (although they sometimes exaggerate them!) and pastors cannot afford to sugarcoat the seriousness of sin. If that means we need to sound negative, so be it! Jeremiah preached doom and destruction over Jerusalem for decades. John the Baptist called his listeners a “brood of vipers.” Jesus said in John 7.7, “The world…hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil.”
Bring on the negativity. We can’t start the healing process until we know just how deep the wound goes.