The Problem of Positive Thinking

Paul writes: I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want to do; instead, I do the things that I hate.  Romans 7:15

Have you ever found yourself thinking the same thing?  You make a decision, you say “I’m going to change my life for the better”, you say “that’s it’, I’m going to take charge; I’m going to start exercising, I’m going to watch what I’m putting into my body.  I’m going to take control of my attitude, I’m going to let go of the anger over things I can’t control, I’m going to stop reacting to those around me and start making my own decisions”.

…Or maybe it’s much more basic than that: we repent from our sins, we ask for forgiveness and decide to follow Jesus – no turning back, no turning back.  But then, a little ways down the road, we find ourselves right back where we were.

This is exactly what St. Paul is speaking about in his letter to the Romans.  Much like ourselves, the citizens of Rome considered themselves to be educated, sophisticated people.  When Paul was writing, there were a number of very popular philosophies, particularly among those who viewed themselves as up-and-coming, enlightened people.

Some taught and believed that true happiness could only be found in gaining control over your emotions, in learning to overcome your gut reactions and your own desires, and instead being guided by pure reason and rationality.[1]  Others taught that it wasn’t our actions towards others, it wasn’t right or wrong that mattered, but whether we had gathered up the right knowledge: knowledge is power, so the goal of life is to find the right teacher and gather up as much knowledge as possible, and then you’ll be in control of your destiny.[2]

And, honestly, we find ourselves in much the same situation today.  Those claiming to be the spiritual guides, teachers, and counsellors of our own day offer much the same as Paul found in his day.  Some live by “the power of positive thinking”, or what mental health workers now call “toxic positivity”: the idea that we should repress our actual feelings and our real-life situations, and just be positive instead of calling it like it is.  (Thankfully, the health care community is now speaking out about just how dangerous this positive thinking can be!).

On the other hand, plenty today would choose to reject their emotions altogether and instead live by knowledge, science, and reason alone – and it only takes a visit to the bedside of a dying person to show that, yes, knowledge indeed looks like power when you’re strong, when life is going your way, and when you seem to be in control.  But when faced with things that you can’t change, when faced with situations that you didn’t choose, and circumstances beyond your control – when faced with the harsh realities of real life – all the knowledge in the world only serves to remind you how very powerless you are to change anything that really matters.

There are all sorts of would-be spiritual guides or teachers of the right knowledge all competing for our attention, all competing to gather us as followers.  But, as attractive as an idea might be on the surface, anything that’s lasting, anything that’s good, true, or beautiful shouldn’t just sound nice in our ears today – it should bear fruit.

…and at the end of the day, how many of those resolutions, those decisions to take charge and change your life have actually stuck?

A Sin-Sick Soul

Paul’s message is an unpopular one, precisely because it’s true – uncomfortably true for each and every one of us.  At the end of the day, I cannot carry out the decisions I make.  I know what is right, I know what I want to do, I decide how I want to live, but time and time again, I look back and I see myself doing the very things I hate, the very things I detest in other people, the very things I declared I would give up.

Paul’s message – and the message of the Gospel – is that there’s more to us than just our mind.  As one theologian famously put it, humans are not just a brain on a stick.[3]  It’s not like we can just jam our minds full of the “right stuff” and then be set for life, in spite of all the self-help books or YouTube documentaries we might turn to for knowledge.

We’re more complex than that: we are spiritual beings.  Alongside our knowledge of right and wrong, of good and bad, of what is healthy and what leads to destruction, we find ourselves face to face with passions and desires and emotions that seem to run entirely against what we want for ourselves.  

The Christian faith confronts this head-on.  No, we don’t choose what we know is right – and it’s not because of a lack of knowledge or opportunity.  It’s because, deep down, my soul – that part of me that gives me emotions rather than instincts, that part of me that lets me love, and hope, and dream, that part of me that is made in the image of God – is sick.  My soul, your soul, is sick with sin.  Some of it is our own doing – like an upset stomach is our fault when we sit down and eat a family size bag of chips by ourselves, even though we know it’s not a great decision.  (Not that I’m speaking from experience…)

And some of that sin-sickness isn’t our fault, but inherited from our parents, like a family history of poor digestion; and some of it is caused by our environment, like allergies that crop up in response to the pollen in the air.

Some of this “sin-sickness” is our own doing, and some of it isn’t, but either way, it’s there.  And, we read in Romans, the reason I cannot carry out what I decide to do, the reason I keep on doing the things that I hate in others and the things I know are bad for me is because my passions, my emotions, my desires, the things my soul loves are working against me – and no amount of knowledge or positive thinking in my rational mind can change that fundamental problem.

Our problem isn’t a lack of knowledge.  We know it’s wrong.  We know smoking, or drinking that half case of beer, or going back for that second slice of cake, or taking that second or third glance at that person who caught your eye, or obsessing about your bank account, or holding that grudge, or pretending we know all that’s going on in another person’s life are all destructive behaviours.  But we persist against our own will precisely because it’s not our mind, but our soul that is sick.

A Spiritual Problem needs a Spiritual Remedy

That’s half the battle – you’ve got to know the illness before you can find the remedy.

If I break my leg, the remedy isn’t positive thinking: it’s a cast. 
If I have cancer in my body, none of the theories about the big bang and evolution are doing to fix it: I need to cut it out.

The truth of the Gospel is that Christ entered into that frustration shared by all humanity, that sin-sickness that wars against our mind and our body, not just so that we can calm ourselves by knowing he has shared our weakness.  The solution isn’t knowledge: it’s a transplant!  The truth of the Gospel is that Christ wants us to accept a transfusion, to allow God’s own Spirit to heal our sin-sick soul.  It’s a process.  Sure, it might seem faster if he could just swap our sick one for his own, but just as a doctor must carefully give us the right dosage of our medicine over time, God’s will is that the ongoing indwelling of the Holy Spirit would, over a lifetime, begin that process of healing our desires, our emotions, our passions, our longings, until that day when we share in Christ’s likeness, and are no longer torn between what we know is right and what our bodies desire; until that day that we are fully known, that the effects of our own sin, as well as the sin of the world around us are done away, and we can be as we were intended: fully alive, and united with one another in the presence of God himself.

So, the next time you find yourself kicking yourself because you just don’t understand why you did the thing you hate, first, remember you’re in good company.

Then, more importantly, acknowledge that you’re not a brain on a stick.  It’s not that you don’t know right from wrong; it’s that your soul, our souls, my soul is still sick.  And as we repent and return to Christ, as we resolve to follow Him, pray not just for more understanding, but pray for a transfusion of the Holy Spirit.  Positive thinking or all the knowledge in the world can only get us so far: a spiritual illness needs a spiritual remedy, and Christ the Great Physician offers it to all of us… We just need to follow the doctor’s orders.


[1] Yes, this is a gross over-simplification of Stoicism.

[2] A sloppy but apt description of the mindset behind gnostic movements.

[3] James K.A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom, and the popular adaptation You are what you love.

Endless, free power: flip the switch!

“Peace be with you; as the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

On this Day of Pentecost, we don’t just remember that strange and awesome day long ago when the Holy Spirit came upon the followers of Jesus.  No, today, as the followers of Jesus, we don’t just remember, but celebrate that Jesus has kept his promise; that Jesus has sent us the Holy Spirit of truth and power that we, ordinary people going about our business, could be used as part of God’s plan.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that talking about the Holy Spirit is unfamiliar, perhaps even uncomfortable ground for a lot of us.  We understand our loving Father, who created us and loved us so much that he would send his Son to save us.  We understand our Lord Jesus Christ, who shared our pains and struggles, who overcame the grave, and is preparing a place for us until he comes again in glory.  But my bet is that most of us have a much foggier view of the Holy Spirit.  And, if we’re being honest – and church is the perfect place for honesty – some of us probably know people who speak about the Spirit in such dramatic and, frankly, strange ways that our reaction is a lot like the crowd in our lesson from Acts: this sounds crazy!  Remember, Pentecost is the day our Lord’s apostles were acting so unexpectedly that they were accused of being drunk at nine in the morning, so let me tell you that it’s okay if it takes us, too, a bit of time to figure out what the Holy Spirit is doing.

The Power of God.

As people grounded in the scriptures, the first thing for us to remember is that, while God is definitely doing something new at Pentecost, this is not the first time we see the Holy Spirit at work: He is eternal, and has been active since the very beginning.

It was the Spirit of God that breathed as a rushing wind over the waters of creation, driving away chaos and bringing order to the created world.  The Holy Spirit is that breath of God that was breathed into humankind at creation, giving our souls the ability to think and to reason, empowering us to interact with the living God, and giving us the potential to share in his eternal life.[1]

And, when our disobedience and the effects of sin in our lives, when that messiness and disorder meant our bodies could no longer be temples of the Holy Spirit as we were driven from God’s presence, it was then that God sent his Spirit to his appointed prophets, priests, and kings to guide his people in the way they should go; it was the Holy Spirit at work in those leaders who urged people to repent, and who invited ordinary people to participate, to play a role in God’s great plan to save and restore our fallen world.

In short, the Holy Spirit is the Power and Presence of God at work in the world.  God works by the Holy Spirit; throughout the scriptures, the example used time and time again is the wind: we can’t see it, we can’t see where it comes from or where it goes, but we know it’s there – we see it’s effects, whether a gentle, cooling breeze or a mighty hurricane, and though we can’t see it, or capture it, or put it in a box, we can feel the Holy Spirit when it blows over us.

And the good news of Pentecost, the wonder of Pentecost, is that, now that the problem of our sin has been fixed by the offering of Christ upon the Cross; now that the separation between us and God has been fixed by Christ’s ascension into Heaven, God the Holy Spirit is no longer reserved for God’s chosen leaders.  Now that those problems are fixed, the Holy Spirit can now dwell within every one of us who has been forgiven and made new in the work of Jesus on the Cross.  Pentecost is a first step towards putting things back as God intended.  Like the breath breathed into our nostrils at creation, Christ breathed that breath of God on his disciples, saying “Receive the Holy Spirit”.  And he did so with a reason: the work of God is no longer just for prophets, priests, and kings.  There’s work to be done; there are sins to be forgiven; there are deep, hurtful lies that must be confronted with truth; there are disciples to be made: and, “as the Father has sent me”, Jesus said, “now I send you”.[2]

…And, just like that, the temple of God is no longer a stone building on a mountain surrounded by guards and thick walls, waiting to be found by those who come in.

Just like that, the temple of God, the dwelling place of the Presence and Power of God is in you.  Not a temple waiting for people to come in, but millions of temples, temples with feet, and hands, and voices to bring that presence of God into every corner of the world.

Is the Holy Spirit in me?

Every one of us who calls Jesus our Lord has the opportunity to become the dwelling place of the Power of the Spirit of God.  In baptism – in that action of being included in Jesus’ work on the cross, and being made new – our God, who is faithful, wires us in to this ‘power grid’, this network, this invisible body joined together throughout the world.

But then the question remains: if we’re connected up, why do so many faithful members of the Church not feel this power of God, or at least see it’s effects like wind blowing through our lives?

Where is the power of God in our lives?  It’s a good question; but if we’re having a problem with power, then perhaps we should look to the Power Corporation for our answer…

An Analogy

Imagine: you move into a house, a house built to be a home.  A house that was well designed, where the architect and master builder have planned for there to be lights to light up every dark corner, all the comforts we crave – heat in winter and air conditioning in summer, and outlets exactly where we need them.

You’ve been given a perfectly designed house.  But all the light fixtures on the ceiling and all the outlets on the walls aren’t going to help you unless that house is connected to the power grid.

It’s in baptism that connection is made.  And, unlike the Power Corp., every time someone asks to be wired up, every time someone asks to be joined in, that work is done on time, and it’s done right.

But this is where even faithful church people get lost.  God wires us in.  Just like that, we have unlimited, endless power – more than we could ever need – right there, ready to flow in.  The Power Corporation connects you up; but it’s not their job to go it each room every evening and flick on the lights… that part’s on you.

We’re connected to – we have access to – endless power.  But whether or not we receive it is up to us.  Though the house was built to have this energy flowing through it, we’re free to leave it turned off.  If we want, in spite of unlimited, endless, and completely free power at our fingertips, we can say, “no thanks, it’s okay, I’ll manage on my own”, as we wander about in the shadows with an old flashlight, stubbing our toes and tripping over things instead of turning on the light.[3]

A lot of us live that way.  Though we’ve been wired up, though we were built to be empowered by God, for any number of reasons we say “I’ll manage”, and stay in the dark.

But God wants us to take advantage of the opportunity he’s given us.  And as he has always called and nudged his chosen people to follow his Will, God still gives us nudges to let the Spirit’s power work through us.

Now, some people claim great and miraculous things done through them by the Spirit.  I can say that I’ve never experienced something like the dramatic events of Pentecost.  But, I have felt the Breath of God; for me, sometimes it’s like the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, and that’s the nudge inviting me to ‘turn on the switch’ and let the Power of God work through me: sometimes it’s that urge out of the blue to pick up the phone and call someone, only to find that they’re in need of someone to talk to; sometimes it’s that desire to do something completely out of the ordinary that ends up giving a glimmer of hope to someone feeling lost.[4]

Yes, faith like a mustard seed could move a mountain; but our work isn’t to move mountains.  As the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends us to share in his work of seeking out, raising up, and drawing in those who are lost.

God’s Presence is not bound up in a stone temple; you are a temple of the Holy Spirit.

So this week – and I’m sure there will be an opportunity this week – when you feel that little nudge, that nudge, go out on a limb: this time, flip the switch.  Say, “okay, God”, and let him work through you.  You probably won’t move a mountain, there probably won’t be a flame like fire on your head, but I guarantee: even the smallest action led by the Holy Spirit can accomplish more than we could ever ask or imagine, and usually more than we’ll ever know.  To God be the glory.  Amen.


[1] I follow Cyril of Alexandria’s Commentary on John here.  A great summary is available here.

[2] John 20:19-23

[3] I remember this analogy being worked out by Fr. Darrell Critch and Richard Donnan when the youth of the parish (myself one of them) were hanging out casually discussing Baptismal Regeneration at the rector’s apartment one Sunday evening around 2005.  Yes, that happened.

[4] Compare “turning on the switch” to the various times the apostles and first deacons were “filled with the holy spirit” in the first 8 chapters of Acts.  The gift of the Holy Spirit is not a one-time occurrence, but the faithful are “filled” for the God-given task at hand.  I’m not suggesting we can control when God wills work through us, only that we must cooperate rather than being ‘possessed’ in any way.  Admittedly, this is where the analogy breaks down: we can turn on lights when we like, but we cannot say “the Holy Spirit will work through me Tuesday at 7, come and bring a friend.”